I first became aware of politics and social issues, like many of you, through punk rock. The blistering sounds of bands like Subhumans, Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, and Stalag 13 pounded their way into my brain and infused it with ideas that I had never much considered until that time. It was the early ’80s. I was young, angry, fixated on skateboarding and punk music, and convinced the government was my enemy. That is how it felt as I embraced my outcast status, while automatically rejecting almost everything I considered establishment, popular, or authoritarian. Over time, the life lessons of firsthand experience and deeper thinking have led me to a few realizations and a more informed view of the world. Hopefully, that has happened to you. There are many who reflexively reject everything our government does and there are just as many of those people as there are those who robotically approve whatever the government does (when the political party of their choice is in power). Neither approach is a thinking position, because to blindly reject or accept is just a reflex devoid of facts or circumstances.
This is why I find it irritating when I hear clichés like, “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal,” “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” I’m just as bored with trite patriotic slogans such as “America is the worldwide defender of freedom” or “This is the greatest country in the world.” These kinds of statements sound good at first, but after a bit of thought, one comes to realize they are meaningless. The first two examples are usually used by those who are rationalizing lack of engagement in their own political system. The next two are generally spoken by people who mindlessly wave the flag no matter what the government does or does not do. Blanket negative or positive statements are lazy and dangerous approaches to reality; this world is much more complex and nuanced than that. Those who reject everything the government does, disengage themselves from the system and become powerless. Super-patriots may not be thinking much, but they continue to vote and are in the position to make the decisions for those who have abandoned that important right.
Academic research shows that low voter turnout generally favors the Republican Party (DeNardo, 1980). When large numbers of people choose to disenfranchise themselves from having a say in the issues that affect all of our lives, the politicians that usually work against social equality (i.e., anti-gay marriage, defunding and opposing women’s reproductive rights, cut or eliminate school lunch programs, etc.) get to make the decisions that affect everyone. According to UCLA political science professor James DeNardo, regular voters (core voters), have a strong tendency to vote Republican. He writes that democratic voters are “more likely to have characteristics that are associated with peripherality [less loyal]” while core voters generally display Republican traits such as “stronger partisan attachments, and a more robust sense of duty about voting” (DeNardo, 1980). He goes on in his essay Turnout and the Vote: The Joke’s on the Democrats to point out that high voter turnout does not always favor the Democrats, but sometimes it does. When voter turnout is low, the result usually favors Republicans, but when the turnout is high, the result can go either way; the converse is not necessarily true. (DeNardo, 1980.) (Click here to read the first page of his essay [the rest is on a proprietary library site]. See endnote at the bottom for further explanation of his findings.). Simply put, if you choose not to choose, other people will do that for you and you most likely will not like the result.
To those who staunchly maintain that voting makes no difference, consider the fact that we have come from a nation where the enslavement of human beings was legal until 1865 to now having a black family in the White House. Regardless of whether or not you like or dislike our mixed-race president, the fact that Barack Obama was elected to the highest office in the land shows that voting does make a significant difference. Voting in conjunction with social protest has brought about many other significant changes. It used to be that only wealthy, white males were allowed to vote, and now all American citizens have that right (unless one has a felony record, in some states). There was a time when segregated schools were the norm and interracial marriage was illegal. Today, segregation is illegal and most people are free to marry whomever they choose.
Of course there is still much work to do. Racism still exists and always will because ignorance is never in short supply. Some states have legalized same sex marriage, but most have not, and in twenty-nine states, it is still legal to fire someone from his or her job for being homosexual. People with dark skin are still more likely to be convicted of crimes than those with lighter skin. Our government spends way too much on the military and not enough on social improvement programs. Women, on average, earn less than men do for performing the same jobs. Giant corporations are too often not held accountable for violating the law or for polluting the environment. The list goes on and on. There will always be more work to do because there is no utopia. The reason why our country makes progress is because of people like you and me going out and doing whatever is necessary to bring about positive change. Our rights are not something that somebody earned for us a long time ago, and now we always have them. It requires vigilance and active participation in order to keep and improve things. There are always those who will happily take away our rights if we become complacent or apathetic.
The American voting system may be flawed, with the outdated electoral college system and electronic voting machines that could possibly be compromised by hackers, but this system of choosing our own political representatives is still generally reliable because a sufficient amount of people care enough to scrutinize the process. Some people choose to get involved and act as watchdogs and elections inspectors instead of copping out and doing nothing. When I was an elections inspector in the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and G.W. Bush, I caught on to an attempt by a local Republican campaign office to stack the vote in their favor by sending in proxies. I was able to stop it, but no charges were filed against those who tried. The Board of Registrars never answered me back and a local investigative newspaper reporter warned me not to pursue it or I was going to get hurt… or worse. I did my best to do my part. The point here is that if you do not think voting changes things, take a look at places where voting does not (genuinely) exist at all. Life in places such as Russia, Syria, and North Korea is significantly less safe and enjoyable than it is here in the United States.
If you ever get a chance to travel, do it and be sure to get off the beaten tourist path so you can see what is really going on. I have had the chance to travel a bit and it is a sure way to discover firsthand how some other countries do not have it nearly as good as we do and how some actually have it better. When I traveled to Guatemala in the mid ’80s, it was during the civil war and I wanted to discuss politics with some of the locals. I was immediately warned not to discuss such things or I would most likely have my tongue cut out by secret government agents who could be anywhere. I was also warned that if I saw anything I was not supposed to see, they would cut my eyes out.
One day, I found a propaganda flyer on the ground with a picture of a Guatemalan Indian woman who had her eyes gouged out. Many of the people walking by gave me a silent, but very clear message of “you should not be looking at that,” so I made a display of throwing it away. That experience really made me appreciate having free speech. Years later, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia as part of a cultural exchange program for the (now defunct) Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Skateboarding was an exhibition sport and I was part of the U.S. skateboard team. We were official guests of the Russian government and stayed with Russian host families in their homes. The families were strictly instructed not to let us go anywhere alone, and government minders kept a watchful eye on us whenever we traveled as a group. “Fuck that, I’m an American!” I said to myself each time I ditched my chaperones to explore and discover the real Russia.
It did not take long. In a field across the street from some characteristically drab apartment buildings, I stumbled upon the bloated, body of a dead man. Across the street, I saw dozens and dozens of people peeking through their curtains and I knew it was obvious to them I was an American because of my super-baggy American skater garb. I took off and soon found another dead body in a similar circumstance. I skated away and it did not take long to come across another corpse near some train tracks.
When I returned, our liaison explained to me those were almost certainly victims of the Russian police. I was informed that the Russian police operate with almost complete immunity and basically do whatever they want, which often involves stealing people’s money and then killing them if the whim strikes. The liaison also let me know that because I kept running off, the Russian government had sent an agent to follow me everywhere I went. That made me feel kind of important, but it was also unnerving. In fact, the whole time we were there, the tension on the street was thick with dread and we were told to stop smiling so much because it was making the locals angry.
The family I stayed with was a married couple with a fifteen-year-old boy. His parents were college educated, government-employed engineers. They were considered upper middle class, but their standard of living was still below our poverty level. The tap water was undrinkable, because there was a parasite in the St. Petersburg water system. The water was cold, because only the wealthy could afford water heaters. The parasite could enter through any body cavity, so we were instructed never to get it in our eyes, nose, mouth, or rectum unless the water was boiled. To wash clothes, the average Russian has a hand-cranked agitator that fits into the bathtub, and one cranks away with great effort to do the laundry. When I gave the mother a new set of sewing needles, she got misty-eyed and told me she had not had new sewing needles in about ten years. When returned home, I wanted to kiss the ground and had never been so glad to be an American.
We can still learn a lot from other societies. I took a train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Finland, and after a harrowing experience with the Russian border guard/pirates, I found that the Finns really have it better than we do in many ways. While discussing skateboarding injuries with some Finnish skaters, I asked how much it was for a knee surgery in Finland. They looked puzzled and one said, “Well, it’s free you know.” Oh, free national health care. That would be nice. It turns out that sales taxes are higher in Finland and that is how they fund their national health care system. I thought that was kind of a drag until they explained that there was no income tax in Finland either. No income tax? How can they afford to build roads, water treatment plants, schools and such? “Our country does not waste so much on weaponry like yours does. Finland may be small in comparison, but America wastes money by bullying the world,” one of them said to me.
Later that same day, I saw a row of infants in baby strollers outside of a grocery store with no parents in sight. “Who is watching these kids?” I asked shocked. “Nobody and everybody” said my sixteen-year-old Finnish skater companion. I told him that in the U.S., those kids would probably be kidnapped and killed. His calm reply: “Well, we are civilized. I have read about that. Why do Americans do that?” I was embarrassed to be an American at that moment. I watched in stunned silence as people dropped their backpacks and other bags on the ground outside of a store and just left them there while shopping. This was common practice and theft was almost unheard of. During my four-day visit to Helsinki, I learned that Finland had and still maintains a 100% literacy rate, some of the safest roads in the world, and extremely friendly and helpful police (at least in Helsinki). Were it not for the issue of six months of darkness and thirty below zero winters, I might have stayed.
I still listen to the angry anthems of my youth, but now I realize the government is not always my enemy. Life has taught me to appreciate things like freedom of speech, legal protections, clean water, public education, and the right to participate in the shaping of my homeland. Our country is not perfect, but it is not a complete disaster either. It is up to us, the American citizen to protect, maintain, and improve our quality of life. There are other nations that have better social policies that would benefit us all if they were instituted here. If you do not like the way things are, then do something about it. Vote, run for office, protest, write, teach, inspire, read, and be informed. Doing nothing while hiding behind empty slogans accomplishes nothing and actually empowers those who would prefer you bow silently to their will.
Like the Razorcake slogan says: “We do our part.” How about you?
Endnote: DeNardo’s text was retrieved from a college virtual library via JSTOR. DeNardo does not provide actual percentages. Rather, he uses complicated statistical analysis to what he describes as a “complicated answer to a simple question” in order to show the statistically significant changes in voter turnout and results. These changes may differ depending on the type of election (national vs. local, different issues) but the type of results can be charted over time. He uses point slope graphs, but the equations are very complicated.