Let’s call them Bob and Sue. The other day I was at their house and I was talking to them about various things. The upcoming election came up and they asked me if I was going to vote. “No,” I responded. They were in shock. It wasn’t that they thought this election had some great choices, because they were deeply torn about how they were going to vote. Nor was it that they simply thought everyone should vote and would be deeply surprised about any particular person not voting. Instead, they knew me and they knew how much I used to be invested in politics and so my lack of voting shocked them.
It’s not like this is the first election I haven’t voted in, I didn’t vote in the last Presidential election either. Nor is it that I am fundamentally opposed to voting: I voted for Ron Paul in the Illinois primaries last election. A few days after their shock, our church service honored veterans and during it we sung “I’m Proud to be an American.” After the song was over, Sue turned to me and jokingly said, “I hope you didn’t sing that song since you’re not voting.” “I didn’t,” I retorted. And the truth is, after the first verse I stopped singing and didn’t pick up the song later. My mind was focused on other things that might be the topic of a future post, but they need not detain us here.
So what happened? How did someone who used to watch political shows every night and read political books as a young teen end up as someone who will not be voting? There are a couple answers here, but the long story short is that I got burned out and became apathetic. See, half of the time I am a minimalist libertarian/nonviolent anarchist and the other half of the time I am deeply influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s view (see especially After Virtue). So whichever way you slice it, I don’t really fit into the modern political landscape. Couple that with the fact that pretty much all of us can agree that we have two terrible major party candidates and that becomes a strong reason for me to sit this election out.
But there’s one thing I keep coming back to that actually might lead me to vote, and it is this thing that gives rise to the image that accompanies this post. David Foster Wallace followed John McCain on the campaign trail when he ran in the Republican Primaries in 2000. He ended up writing a piece on the experience later entitled “Up, Simba” and can be found in his collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster. So I just want to provide some relevant quotes, reflect on them, and tie it all together at the end.
“In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about.” (187)
I talk about being apathetic above, but I think this quote probably captures things more clearly. Apathy is merely a term that we use to describe this feeling, I think. Of course, one immediately recognizes that apathy isn’t a particularly correct term to use, then, but the reason why we do so points to a large issue in society that we seldom talk about: we think it’s cool to not really care about things and that it’s uncool to care deeply about things.
“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that is is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t [BS] yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” (207; emphasis original)
Two things are worthy of comment here. First, one obviously needs to recognize the context in which this quote happens. Wallace is covering McCain’s primary candidacy and so he is talking about voting in primaries. Moreover, McCain at this time was the “anticandidate.” Given those two things, we naturally conclude that maybe his point doesn’t apply to this general election and so the force of it is alleviated. Maybe this is a good point, but I think if we don’t pause for a moment and sincerely consider that it applies today, then we are simply trying to deceive our own selves so we can watch tv on election day and laugh at the people who are clearly lesser than us because they are actually voting. Second, one might quibble with Wallace’s logic, but I think it would miss the point of what he is saying.
“It is all but impossible to talk about the really important stuff in politics without using terms that have become such awful cliches they make your eyes glaze over and are difficult to even hear.” (224)
My dad still watches a lot of politics so occasionally I will hear a particular segment and it does not take long for me to become frustrated with the worn out tropes, cliches, buzzwords, etc. But if our instant response to anyone using the necessary verbiage in order to communicate is to instantly write that person off, then maybe that says something more about us than it does about the person speaking.
“In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can ourselves to do on our own.”
Look: if your vision of the ideal candidate is someone who will fix the world’s problems so that you can sit in your reclining chair with a bag of chips and a soda to your side while you watch the latest episode of your favorite tv show instead of actually caring deeply about humanity and wanting to shape the world for the better, then, frankly, you are more interested in preserving your own self-entitled view of your regal standing than truly caring about voting for someone who will help make the world a better place.
In the course of the essay, Wallace tells the moving story involving Chris Duren. It recounts how a young boy answers the telephone and it’s a poll-pusher for the Bush campaign and how said person says all kinds of nasty things about McCain and how this terribly shakes Chris. Wallace then talks about how McCain responded to the situation. I won’t give you the details, go read the essay for yourself. But I recount this because it is relevant to the final few sentences of the piece with which I will end this post,
“Salesman or leader or neither or both, the final paradox–the really tiny central one, way down deep inside all the other campaign puzzles’ spinning boxes and squares that layer McCain–is that whether he’s truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours. Try to stay awake.”