As a U.S. citizen, I am fortunate to live in a country in which gargantuan ethical and civic questions can be decided by an election. According to the U.S. Census, 71% of eligible citizens are registered to vote, and only 57% of the voting-age population voted for president in the 2008 elections. Only about a quarter of eligible voters in the age range of most of my students vote, which means that each voter under 30 gets to make decisions for three other students.
In each election cycle in my 10+ years of teaching, I have urged my students to vote. Early on, I tried to cultivate a sense of civic responsibility, and they countered with arguments that the candidates were not substantially different, that all politicians lie, that they (the students) felt they were not informed enough about issues to give an opinion at the polls, that their votes wouldn’t matter to the outcome, and that no candidate’s point of view represented their own.
And, these days, in each election cycle I have argued that the simple act of voting – even if their candidates and initiatives lose – makes it more likely that politicians will pay attention to the needs of their demographic. About 70% of older voters cast ballots, which can’t possibly be unrelated to the way social supports (such as they are) play out. Why, I ask my students, do you think tuition is skyrocketing, childcare is basically unaffordable, and student loans enrich the bankers and impoverish underemployed college graduates? Why aren’t there more jobs for young people just entering the workforce? If you were a politician, I go on, why would you spend your time on legislation to help people your age when people four times your age are almost three times as likely to vote?
Usually, at this point, I can look up and see a room full of mildly shocked eyes. I like to tell myself that I have made a compelling argument, and I never see anyone sleeping or text messaging for this particular speech, but I have never once had a single student tell me that I convinced her to vote, either, so the shock must be that it’s the middle of the semester and they have only just realized their professor sometimes makes stuff up.
Complaining, on the other hand, is a truly participatory American process. I am not one of those people who goes around telling non-voters that they have no right to complain. First, I sincerely believe that everyone has a right to complain; but second – and more to the point – getting people to stop complaining is like getting DC cars to stop running through crosswalks: If you try to stop them, every absolutely-right molecule in your body is still going to get obliterated by the vehicle whose steering wheel drivers can feel in their hands.
I don’t know whether it’s a function of maturity (or was that a euphemism for cynicism?), the parting of the red sea from the blue sea in American politics, or exasperation with a political system that is far to the right of my own beliefs, but I have also stopped enjoying conversations about politics. All such conversations end exactly like my impassioned pleas to get my students to vote – that is to say, with a high probability that everyone’s minds will be just as unmoved as before I used up all that oxygen.
Political conversations have become a bore, because they have such limited possible outcomes:
- You express outrage to people who are outraged about the exact same things…and nobody’s mind changes. (1.a. is that you offer new facts to add to someone’s pre-existing outrage.)
- You express your fabulously well-thought-out opinion to someone with whom you disagree, you argue, and, if you’re particularly tactless or impassioned, you discover you can’t talk about politics…and nobody’s mind changes. (2.a. is that you decide you are so horrified by the other person’s politics that you will never speak to each other again, at least until the election is over. 2.b. is that you are secretly horrified that you know and like someone who would have opinions you think should have gone the way of bloodletting as a cure for illness.)
- You listen while someone passionately tells you to believe something you already believe, vote in a way you will already vote, or regard the other side as stupid and crazy.
- You listen while someone passionately tells you to believe something you are not going to believe anyway, and you realize the other side is stupid and crazy.
- The person who disagrees with you makes good points, but you still disagree.
- You express your not-so-well-thought-out opinion and refine it so that you gain a better understanding of what you believe. (In my opinion, this is the only good reason to make a political argument these days.)
- The dream that you might convince someone who disagrees with you makes you go on and on and on and on and on and on about what you believe.
I have several friends who are both political junkies and chain smokers. My unscientific estimate is that a political conversation results in changing someone’s mind about as often as a conversation about smoking convinces a smoker to quit. It’s not impossible, but you might see a unicorn first.
To me, the only realistic option is 8: You already know what you believe and accept that you can’t convince anyone, so you don’t bother talking about politics.
But, someone will argue, can’t you sway someone who is undecided to take your side?
Um, no. Not really. If someone has trouble choosing between Obama and a presidential candidate who believes that only some people deserve food and healthcare; that science and history should conform to one’s ideology; that some pigs are more equal than others; that Atlas Shrugged should replace the Bill of Rights; that 47% of Americans who are retired, raising kids, or going to college are freeloaders; that government control is bad except when it pertains to women’s bodies; and that it’s refreshingly resourceful to strap the family dog to the roof of the car so the luggage can ride inside, there’s not a whole lot to talk about.
In other words, shut up and vote.