Remembering what voting felt like

(Reflections on election day, cross-posted on Facebook)

I voted this morning. As I waited online, I had a fleeting feeling, an emotion, I almost didn’t recognize at first. It took me a moment to realize what it was: the feeling of participating in a sacred, profoundly important ritual. For me, voting was always the moment when we all came together to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. E pluribus unum: out of many, one.

I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

Even when my candidates lost — and believe me, they often have — it mattered to participate in that ritual. As the old saying goes (and it’s 100% true): people died to give me that right. But they also died to give me the responsibility to use my vote as thoughtfully and as well as I could. Not to vote out of anger, or fear, or pure self-interest, but to vote to build something better. To build on what our ancestors gave us, and leave our children — everyone’s — something a little better than we found it.

Today, people say voting doesn’t matter. They don’t care, won’t bother. We’re being taught to hate and fear each other. We are deeply cynical, increasingly isolated from each other. We’re looking for ways to detest rather than understand each other. Even when we’re among those who share our values, we jump to interpret any disagreement or failure as betrayal. We expect perfection of others and very little of ourselves. We see the deep flaws in our history either as something to be ignored, or as proof we can never improve.

But even when you find the individual candidates unimpressive, your vote matters. One will win, another will lose, and the winner will do very different things than the loser would have. Those differences will affect your life, your future, your family, other families. You just have to look at Washington, DC to see that. It’s just a fact.

People say: my vote doesn’t matter because the whole system is rigged around big money.

True, it is. What are you doing about it? The same was true in the late 19th century, and Americans did something about it. They voted for politicians who reformed the system to give ordinary people a fair shot again.

Do you believe Americans in 1900 or 1910 or 1920 were better than we are? Perhaps they were, but if so, the problem isn’t the politicians: it’s us. We can vote for people who promise to take the money out of politics, and then hold them accountable for doing so. We can demand to know who’s paying for the slanderous ads we see on Facebook or cable news.

Citizenship is about voting, but it’s about much more. It’s about really understanding the issues, and trying to figure out the best way forward. It’s about working together in good faith with our fellow citizens. It’s about realizing things aren’t always as simple as people on TV or the Internet say they are. It’s about checking whether the people you believe are telling you the truth, or just what you want to hear.

It’s about carefully watching your politicians between elections and ads, and rewarding those who enter the system and actually behave well. There are some. (If you don’t think so, run for office yourself.)

As soon as you say “they’re all alike” you abandon your responsibility as a citizen. It’s just plain lazy. It also eliminates any incentive for any politician to behave well. Why would they? Someone else will reward them for corruption and demagoguery, and you won’t reward them for the hard work of actually trying to govern well. What do you expect to happen?

No society has ever thrived with the level of cynicism and isolation we’re creating. And very few individuals have ever been happy and fulfilled when they’re told not to trust anyone, and the only value is “looking out for #1.”

This is the world we’re choosing to build. It’s as if we don’t care about our kids, or anyone else’s.

That can’t be true, can it?

So, vote. But whoever you vote for — school board candidate, town council, state legislator, governor, someday president — make that just the beginning of a renewal of citizenship.

“Citizenship.” Sounds old-fashioned. It is: the word goes back to ancient Rome. But it’s the glue that holds countries and societies together, keeps them from collapsing in fear and violence.

Societies don’t hold together by themselves: that only happens if we each pull our weight. So: Do we care enough? Do I? Do you?

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