It’s Not a Competition

When I went to vote on November 4th, I brought my 3 year old daughter with me.  As 3 year olds are likely to do, she asked a lot of questions, “What is voting?  Why do you have to vote?  Can I vote?  Are you voting no?  What’s that marker for?  Can I draw on the paper?”  I really try to answer her questions.  And, I don’t know if this is good or bad, when it is a complex topic or something that I can’t think of a 3 year old way of saying, I just explain it as if I’m talking to an adult.  So, “Voting is how we choose the people who make up our governments.  I don’t have to vote, but I feel it is important to have a say in my government.  You’re not old enough.  You need to be 18.  There’s only one yes/no question, but I’m going to vote yes.  The marker is so I can fill in the bubbles on my ballot.  No, you can’t draw on the paper.”  As we were leaving, she asked, “Did we win?”  That one caught me off guard.  I said, “They have to let everyone vote before we know,” but I didn’t like the answer.

I was having trouble putting my finger on why I didn’t like my answer.  My daughter is going through a phase where everything is a race.  If she gets to the door before I do, she wins.  If she finishes her breakfast before I do, she wins.  I wanted to explain to her that elections are not the same.  It’s not about winning or losing the vote.  It is about what the people do once in office.  We rely on the wisdom of crowds to get us the best representatives, and hope they succeed, whether we voted for them or not.  But, watching the coverage that evening helped me realize why I didn’t like my answer.  As more and more candidates proclaimed “victory” or conceded “defeat” I kept thinking of my daughter’s little competitions.  I realized that for most of the candidates, press, and people on social media, elections are exactly the same as a 3 year old running to get to the door first so she can “win.”

I don’t want to get into a critique of the language used in politics.  It is the language of sports and the language of warfare.  Everything is presented competitively.  I’m OK with that because I have always understood it metaphorically.  I always imagined that the politically aware also understood it metaphorically.  That’s why I find Mitch McConnell so distasteful.  His claim that the most important thing is to defeat Obama is so cynical that anyone who understands the metaphor in political language ought to be insulted.  The most important thing is the good of the people.  It is to get people jobs and health care and education.  It is to make sure people live together in safe communities.  Ensuring Obama’s (or anyone else’s) defeat or victory is among the most unimportant things imaginable.  I know there are people who are not politically aware, who root for their party like they root for a sports team, who don’t realize that the language is metaphorical.  But, for the Senate Minority Leader (who will now be the Senate Majority Leader – excuse me while I go vomit) to play to the politically unaware because he wants to win shows that he also doesn’t understand the metaphor.

As I just said, the point of politics, of government, is the good of the people.  Lincoln called it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  That is why this talk of winning and losing has to be metaphorical.  We are all on the same team.  We are all “the people.”  It would be ridiculous to say that Michael Jordan won and Scottie Pippin lost because they were on the same team.  They won or lost together.  It is impossible for Mitch McConnell to win and Harry Reid to lose.  They either both win or both lose because they are on the same team.  I vote for the candidates and policies that I believe will create the most good for the people.  If the candidate I voted for “loses,” however, I sincerely hope I was wrong and the “winner” creates the most good for the people.  Given that we all win or lose together, there is no other justified way to look at it.

The election coverage makes me think I am in the minority in understanding that the language of winning and losing is metaphorical.  None of the talk is about how the new Senate will benefit the country.  It is all about how this “victory” (or “defeat” depending on your view) sets up the next race.  I read more about Hilary Clinton than about what the new Senate will do about immigration or Iraq.  The thing that I can’t figure is whether the politicians, reporters and pundits don’t understand or if they do understand but are being selfish and using the inherent drama of competition to make money.  Unfortunately, that means I’m wondering if they are honest, but stupid or smart, but evil.  I’m not comfortable with either.

If my daughter asks who won again, I’m not sure what I’m going to tell her.  3 year olds aren’t very good with metaphors.  I want to be honest, but I also want to shield her from cynicism.  I’ll probably tell her what I really believe, that there’s no way to judge until at least 20 years have passed.  I’m sure she’ll complain that 20 years is a really long time, but that’s OK.  When she’s 23, I’m sure I’ll be able to explain it to her.  Mostly, though, I’m hoping she forgets all about it until next November when I take her to vote again.




A friend of mine posted a piece recently called “Don’t Vote or Die“.  When I saw it, I posted some comments disagreeing with a few of his points.  Since then, a lot of my friends have been making comments about not voting in the upcoming election.  Every time I hear them, I think of this piece and I feel like I need to write a response.

The gist of the piece is that our whole system is so screwed up and the political spectrum so narrow that voting doesn’t really do any good.  He thinks that a non-vote should be taken as a protest against this system.  He’s not telling anyone not to vote, but he is saying that a non-vote deserves respect.  I actually agree with many, if not most, of his points, but I arrive at the opposite conclusion.

There are two reasons for voting that I want to state without arguing for them.  They are personal beliefs.  I would like it if people shared them, but I see no good reasons for others to believe as I do.  One is that I believe very strongly in the importance of ritual, be they religious, secular, public, or private.  I believe that the act of voting is a ritual.  It is a ritual that connects communities and makes the individual more than an individual.  The other reason is that I, and most Americans, did literally nothing to become American.  I am an American simply because of the accident of my birthplace.  Voting, going to jury duty, etc. are, to me, the only way that I make my citizenship more than just an accident.

Having gotten those out of the way, I want to respond more directly with the piece and other things my friends have been saying.  And these are things I will argue for.

First of all, a protest doesn’t do any good if it is not heard.  Not voting is not a real protest because it is not heard.  Everyone knows that only 40-60% of Americans bother voting.  The people in power mostly don’t care.  They just focus on the people who actually do vote.  So, it’s not a good protest if these non-voters are not noticed.

Next is the idea that all politicians are the same.  This is simply not true.  There are many significant differences between any two politicians.  Paul Ryan doesn’t believe in man made climate change and Hilary Clinton does.  Mike Huckabee doesn’t think women should be able to make their own reproductive decisions and Deval Patrick does.  I think there are two main reasons why people miss or downplay the differences.  The first is that there are also many similarities between any two politicians.  Most American politicians believe that capitalism is a good economic system and most believe that security is important.  It is easy to say, “They’re all a bunch of capitalists,” and miss the very real differences.  The other reason is that people tend to notice the higher offices and ignore the undercard.  The higher the office, the more centrist the politician is likely to be.  This is just common sense.  When a person needs to appeal to a larger audience, that person needs to move towards the center.  So, it is true that presidential contenders have a lot in common.  But their differences are still important, just ask any gay couple.  And, in local elections, the politicians can be wildly different.

Speaking of local elections, when people don’t vote as a protest, they are normally protesting the higher offices like president or governor.  In virtually every election, however, there are other races being decided.  Those races will often matter to voters directly.  They will affect the school system, whether the roads get repaved, the mill rate, and a host of other things that matter in our day to day lives.  Even if a person doesn’t want to vote for the president because it doesn’t make a difference, she should vote for the local people because it really does make a difference.

This is a perfect segue into the next reason people give for not voting.  They think that their votes don’t make a difference.  Watching sports convinced me of the problem with this view a long time ago.  I got sick of announcers saying, “Ortiz scored the game winning run,” when the score was 5-4.  All five of those runs were equally important.  It’s not like Pedroia ought to be saying he shouldn’t have bothered scoring his run because it didn’t make a difference.  And it doesn’t matter if it is a blowout.  If the final score had been 10-4, which runners should have stayed at third rather than score because their run didn’t make a difference?  It doesn’t matter if an election is decided by 1 vote or 10,000,000 votes.  Each person who votes, whether for the winner or the loser, makes a difference in the outcome.  And, if 40% of the voters don’t vote, that just amplifies the power of those who do vote.

Another reason people give for not voting is that they hate both of the candidates.  This reason comes in a variety of flavors.  One is that they find the candidates’ personalities distasteful.  Another is that they have a pet issue which neither candidate is strong on.  And another is that neither candidate is perfect.  In all three, I can only say that we need to look at the bigger picture.  There is literally not one person on the planet that I agree with on everything – not my wife or my parents or my brothers or my daughter.  Why on Earth would I expect to agree with a politician on everything?  And I don’t like many people, but that has nothing to do with whether they are good at their jobs or not.  Of course I would like to find a politician whom I like and agree with, but that isn’t necessary or expected.  I vote for the person who best represents me.  That usually means the one who I agree with more often.  And failing that, it means the one that I think is more intelligent and flexible.  I have yet to vote in an election where that more modest criteria failed to give me an easy decision.

One of the more absurd reasons I’ve heard for not voting is that with the political gridlock it doesn’t matter who gets elected because they won’t be able to do anything anyway.  This is just misunderstanding our political system.  There are tons of things that the government does every day that are not affected by gridlock but do affect everyone’s lives.  There are spending decisions, executive orders, emergency preparedness decisions, criminal and civil court proceedings, and many, many other things that happen despite gridlock.  It stands to reason that if the government will continue to operate, we should try to see that the most competent people are controlling those operations.

Another absurd reason I heard for not voting is that it would be good if the bad guy gets elected because that would motivate the good guys to get involved.  Even if it worked, it wouldn’t benefit anyone.  Things can be ruined much more easily than they can be fixed.  If electing someone bad worked to get someone good, then the someone good would spend her whole time in office fixing things rather than running things.

Finally, real change happens from the bottom up.  It is easy to look at the president and congress and complain, but they are in the worst position to enact real change.  If you want education reform, focus on your board of ed.  If you want cheaper housing, focus on your mayor.  If you want better public works, focus on your town council.  Luckily, these are the races where each and every vote makes the biggest difference.  So, please vote.