A Time to Vote
What Shall the Perplexed Voter Do?
by Caroline Arnold
This title headed a pair of essays by William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Mott Osborne in The Ethical Record 2 (Oct-Nov 1900 issue) during the campaign of William Jennings Bryan against William McKinley.
A century later we voters are no less perplexed. The word �perplexed� is compounded of per- (thoroughly, utterly) and plex (from plicare: fold, bend; or plectare: braid, twist). Thoroughly folded, crinkled, bent and mashed; utterly twisted, snarled and tangled – that�s us.
We�re aware that our lives have become immeasurably more complex, dense, and intense, and that information about our nation and the world is not only being spawned faster than ever, but is expanding fractal-like into realms we could scarcely imagine 20 years ago.
I have previously observed that voters aren�t Supercitizens. We aren�t even professionals. Technically we�re amateurs: lovers, presumably, of democracy, self-government and liberty – and we�re not paid. We are amateurs, too, in the popular sense of �not being especially good at� being citizens and voters.
So for the perplexed amateur voter, here are some suggestions for doing this voting thing better:
- Recognize that elections are about government. Elections are how voters make choices about the priorities by which they consent to be governed. Powerful interests have persuaded many citizens that government is evil. But blaming an evil government is not a strategy for improving it.
- What are your priorities for government? What would you like to see government do? Pave roads? Attack other nations? Provide sewers? Control environmental pollution? Regulate your sex life? Regulate everyone�s sex lives? What are you willing to be taxed to provide? Fire and police services? Libraries? Safe drinking water? National defense? Public schools? Affordable healthcare?
- Don�t vote on the basis of hot-button single issues like abortion, gay marriage, gun control, Ten Commandments, or �Who-Did-What-in-Vietnam.� The people who are in office now haven�t resolved them, and those who get elected won�t. These issues are unresolvable by science, law, or consensus, and they primarily serve as counters to push back and forth across the table, or paint-guns to stain opponents. They attract cash from corporate moguls, rouse invective from pundits, invite flights of fancy from the news and entertainment industries, feed rancorous blogs, and provide endless distractions to keep perplexed citizens from attending to substantive issues.
- Take very seriously the largest issues: war, foreign policy, and the United States� standing in the world. There is only one planet Earth, and Americans share it with about five and three-quarter billion other people who can�t vote in this election. Yet when it is no particular challenge for the U.S. military and its arsenal of WMD to kill all or any of them we deem threatening or merely superfluous, we U.S. citizens bear a heavy responsibility to make good choices for the rest of humanity.
- Worry about economics – not just your personal pocketbook, but how some giant corporations (who certainly don�t pledge allegiance to any "one nation, under God") are exploiting poor people and the non-renewable resources of our planet for profit, while passing off the costs to the world's children.
- Invest time and thought in Congressional races. Domestic policies are largely determined by legislation passed and money appropriated.
- Don�t put much stock in what candidates say they will do. Practical people recognize that saying what one intends to do limits future action. Candidates are tempted to promise things that are impossible in the real world, or to promise to do things they will have no power to do. Especially beware the candidate who promises to make your life simpler, safer, or sweeter by making choices for you.
- Be skeptical of what you learn from TV and radio. Remember that newscasters, talk-show hosts, and broadcasting magnates are professionals. Their stock-in-trade is surprise, shock, thrills, novelty, fear, mockery, and influencing consumers. They are biased, all right – toward making money.
- Don�t worry about not being comprehensively well-informed. Talk to your friends, and listen to them; share your doubts, and raise questions. Prepare the best you can, listen to your conscience, and vote with hope. Trust yourself and trust your neighbors as basically good moral people who want to do the right thing.
- If truly in doubt, vote for the challenger. If the incumbent is doing a good job, you won�t be in doubt.
- Among totally unknown candidates, choose women or minorities. Both are statistically underrepresented at every level of government.
In his 1900 essay Osborne advised the perplexed citizen not to vote "...if his heart is anguished by...a policy which includes the shooting down, by soldiers of the United States, of men fighting for liberty and self-government; if his mind is rendered uneasy by appeals to class prejudice, and his conscience revolts from a financial system of commercial dishonesty..."
But today, we must all vote. Not voting is not an option, particularly if one's feelings are affected by men being shot or by men "shooting down" others. When citizens don�t vote, our choices are overridden by money, and democracy languishes. We can and must do it better.
What shall the perplexed voter do? Get out there and vote. Vote your faith in government, not your cynicism. Vote your conscience, not an ideology, a soundbite, or a bandwagon. Vote on the basis of your best thinking and sense of responsibility to others, not on the basis of some professionally-crafted myths or mantras. Vote your allegiance to your neighbors and to the common good for the entire human family.
It�s our democracy, our election, our government, and our nation, and these things are only as good as we make them.
Caroline Arnold (firstname.lastname@example.org) served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn and is now active in civic and environmental affairs in Kent, Ohio.
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