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Confessions of a Proud Voter February 2, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy.

When cynicism takes over, and the culture is falling apart, Voltaire’s advice is to go cultivate one’s backyard. Josef’s backyard must look very pretty in this election season. I would like to add a different, personal perspective to this debate: I lived in this country for 22 years as a legal resident alien, without being able to vote. When you are a reasonably rational, caring adult living in a society that has, and wields, the power to change history, and you cannot vote, you realize exactly why voting is important: Not only because it gives you the illusion of participation, a mere feel-good means of keeping the people content, a modern version of “bread and circuses” (as Marcuse might say), but because it reveals the fundamental duty and privilege of a citizen: to participate, and one of the ways we participate is by voting. I’m reminded of the vehemence and passion with which intelligent women fought for the right to vote in the 19th century, simply because it ought to be a right, not because it necessarily yields immediate results, or automatically makes the world a more authentic place. If nothing else, then, vote to celebrate the principle of voting—because the alternative, losing the right to vote, is dismal.

So, when I became a US citizen in 2001, I proudly registered to vote, and I have been doing my best to be an informed voter ever since. The argument that if you choose not to choose, you let others choose for you, is indeed a good argument, because we can’t dismiss all ballots and elections as being manipulated, rigged, etc., as much as the hype and the ballot language excel in confusing and misleading the voters. Sometimes issues are important, and at face-value, and sometimes the people we elect are not corrupt. Sometimes we indeed find afterwards that we have been manipulated, and duped, or we find that the issue we voted in gets stuck in courts until it disappears, or we find that money has outweighed ideology, or ideology has outweighed common sense. The voice of the people isn’t absolute—but it isn’t nonexistent, either. Sometimes a simple majority can make an enormous difference.

            So should we feel bad about voting selfishly? That argument seems to me strangely disingenuous.  For one thing, what exactly is wrong with trying to create the best life possible for oneself and one’s group? You don’t find me defending egoism very often, but in this case it would be a blatant disdain for reality to think that we can engage enthusiastically in a process that consistently disregards our own interest. On the other hand, that doesn’t have to exclude a concern for others. I agree with Dwight that virtue ethics opens up the possibility to display and express care for one’s fellow human beings without being trapped by the impossible, cold ideal of impartiality. When we vote, we vote according to the interests of “our group,” but we can be a member of many “groups,” physically as well as emotionally, and we are capable of caring about issues across the board. Indeed, one of the problems with Rousseau’s social contract theory is his concept of the general will that can never be wrong if applied toward the interest of all, but is corrupted when tainted by personal interests—the quintessential impartiality ideal. It doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t weigh in, in a concerned way, about what, in our view, may benefit a large group to which we belong—such as our state and our nation.

            What may be more important than any of these arguments is the concept of hope—that we hope our vote can make a difference. In other words, we engage ourselves in the future, with responsibility, a forward-looking engagement. So I’m “looking forward” to voting, and believe me, around the world there are lots of good people who wish they were in the shoes of an American voter. I’ll post something about that later.




1. Moriae - February 4, 2008

I doubt few would deny that some people get the “placebo effect” from voting, and by all means if someone gets that effect, then it shouldn’t be surprising that many would defend the pleasure they get from doing it. Easily obtained pleasures is an American specialty.

No doubt the people of Cuba get that feeling too when they are solicited for their views, and that is also the likely reason for the higher participation rate and demonstrable unanimity in Cuba over the results obtained in the United States. You see the same phenomena in Russia, Syria, and Libya where voting participation greatly exceeds the United States. One must not forget either that the “Enabling Act” in 1934 Germany was democratically passed as well. Dostoevski had a point: citizens are not enamored with freedom, but for sake of peace of mind they’ll endure anything.

But the pleasure gained by an ‘act’ doesn’t make the act correct, or even particularly useful (sorry Bentham). It is what it is. It may be attended with ‘hope,’ or even resignation. I doubt also that many people around the world really want to ‘vote,’ but they would prefer that some current condition they have to endure would be ameliorated in some way, and for that they’ll give-up anything, even their neighbors.

The masses agree with Dostoevski even without reading him. That’s why so many people can be made sanguine if their conditions are addressed in some way (usually one of them is sufficient—bread and circuses is de trop), and they’ll happily refrain from desiring the vote if thrown just one bone (current China, Vietnam, and Cuba are good examples). Note how well Cuba persists by only providing free doctors for the malnutrition endemic there (being fat there is likely considered a sign that one is a ‘capitalist-roader’). You wouldn’t be able to recognize Michael Moore after six weeks there, but his doctor would happily raise his hand for him to draw your attention. Castro replaced ‘bread and circuses’ with ‘doctors and speeches’—it’s cheaper and so modern.

If current immigration signs indicate anything, it seems that people favor moving to countries where the ‘right to vote’ isn’t also an obligation. The simple existence of their ‘right’ suffices them, yet the urge to have this right exercised remains easily in check here, unless some issue touches their heart. Since few things touch many people’s heart outside of some petty personal issues, it seems that low participation rates of the voters of the United States must simply be chalked-up to a general, and persistent, petty contentment. Since this pleasure was defended in the posting, we shouldn’t trifle with their hard won illusions.

2. Nina Rosenstand - February 5, 2008

Let’s not forget that the placebo effect is precisely that, an effect–which means it can work! Sometimes believing in an illusion can make it happen. Let’s vote!

3. Go Do the Right Thing! « Philosophy On The Mesa - November 4, 2008

[…] Does that matter? I don’t know–but that’s how I like to teach!). But I’m always ready and willing to talk about the importance of voting, so I just want to wish everyone (who appreciates our right […]

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