I Vote. Therefore I Think. Therefore I Am.

by Eli Beckerman

November 18, 2002

If you don't vote, I mean you no disrespect. Frankly, I can probably brainstorm more arguments against voting than in favor of it. However, and this is a big "however," you simply do not get counted in today's world. That is, not unless you vote.

Unfortunately, on an individual basis, even our votes don't mean much. Our $1,000 political contributions mean a lot more, but I haven't mustered many of those in my voting career.

Collectively, on the other hand, our votes determine who gets elected to office, who gets to decide policy, and in certain cases, they even determine whether or not a specific policy should get enacted as law.

What, then, of our lonely vote?

Data mining and statistics from local elections offices, exit polling, and surveys of likely voters, all form a strategic basis for policy and politics alike. If polls show overwhelming voter sentiment in a particular direction, it's a sure bet that will make its way into strategy. Witness the Republicans backing off the now-unpopular Social Security privatization schemes they once pushed for, backing off until it is once again safe political terrain.

Entire constituencies are constructed from all of these statistics, and if a discernible opinion can be gleaned, that opinion will count for something. Ideally, that opinion would help shape legislation to match that constituency's values. More realistically, that opinion will help guide politicians and their wealthy sponsors in circumventing those values. Cynical, you say? Wake up, I respond. If the electronic constituency -- some mathematical representation of actual flesh and blood citizens -- is found to be non-voting, then assuredly their voice is being ignored. The second you become a non-likely voter, you fall off the radar screen.

Some of the most dependable voting blocs, however, continue to be ignored by today's politicians. Minority voters, in particular, have given tremendous support to state and national Democratic candidates. In the 2002 midterm elections, sweeping Republican victories are now being blamed on low minority-voter turnout. The Democrats, as the pundits say, failed to "fire up their bases." Despite visits to black southern churches by Bill Clinton -- deemed "our first black President" by Toni Morrison -- African-American voters in the south only turned out in slightly higher numbers than the 1998 midterm elections. In California and Maryland, black voter turnout actually dropped compared to the 1998 midterms.

What's stunning about all this is the state of turmoil our nation is currently facing, the absolute importance of these races, and the disapproval for war among people of color. According to a survey conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies between September 17 and October 21, 2002, 45.3 percent of blacks oppose the Bush Administration's position on Iraq, whereas 25.1 percent of the general population opposes Bush on Iraq. Without being offered any compelling (visible) alternatives, many black and Latino voters elected to sit out the November 5th elections. Typically voting roughly 8-to-1 in favor of Democrats, it is nearly certain that many blacks are not happy with the right-turn our nation has taken. It is clear that those minority voters who stayed home did not see the Democrats -- or at least voting for them -- as the solution. As African-American Louisiana State Senator Cleo Fields said this month, "if you don't respect us, don't expect us." Obviously, he didn't take showing up in black churches in late October as a sign of respect.

Is tokenism -- represented brilliantly by the lone black schoolmate on South Park, named Token -- to blame for the 2002 election results? Not even. For the Democrats haven't even resorted to their usual transparent games of "wooing," "courting," and "mobilizing." Instead, they approached this election year with a cowardice so amazing that they were too timid to offend their opponents with ANY gestures aimed at their loyal bases. Disapproval for the Democratic Party has manifested itself recently in numerous ways, including most visibly the steady rise of the Green Party. Taking the votes of millions of progressives for granted in 2000, Al Gore failed to distinguish himself from George W. Bush -- mangling a task so trivial I could scream. Taking the votes of millions of minority voters for granted in 2002, the Democrats lost what little grip on power they had.

The arguments presented above focus too much on two things: 1) party loyalty and 2) political institutions representing our only two viable options. Politics is not strict adherence to rules set forth by the media. Politics is what you make it. As Paul Wellstone put it in his 2001 book The Conscience of a Liberal, "politics is not about observations or predictions. Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine."

By accepting the accepted logic of our two-party system, we narrow our options considerably. By silently sending messages to the political machine by not voting, we confuse what could be a clear expression of our despair and disgust. By sitting home on election day, you accomplish one thing, and only one thing. You let those powerful, arrogant, and visionless thugs shut you out. Alternatives to the two corporate parties do exist, and if they didn't, that still shouldn't have made you sit out an election as pivotal as this one. Political choice defined from above is meaningless. If it's not there, build it. No matter what, your political choices should be defined by your issues and your values. Similarly, your political options are not confined to the voting booth. Round-the-year local political organizing is the singular most effective way of influencing your immediate circumstances. Even when failing to accomplish certain goals, the sense of personal impact and control cannot be taken away. Overwhelming feelings of powerlessness simply vanish.

So many overlooked constituencies -- from the GLBT community (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) to people of color, from labor organizers to environmental activists -- allow themselves to be locked into a system where they are continually taken for granted. But instead of waiting for Bill Clinton to ride in on his high, white horse, you can empower yourself by wielding whatever political power you can.

The lie perpetrated by so many pundits and so much of the media is that your vote counts more so than other tools of civic engagement you have been endowed with. Collectively, our votes determine who wins office. Moreover, collectively, our minds and our voices, through our march, our song, our pens, AND our votes, can shape the world.

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Eli Beckerman was born and raised in Queens, NY. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and Wesleyan University, with degrees in Physics and Astronomy. He is currently an astrophysicist and computer specialist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (since June, 1999). Beckerman is a member of The Mystic River Greens (MRG) in Somerville, MA, a group that focuses on Green issues and is affiliated with the Massachusetts Green Party.

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Published November 18, 2002
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