The election is just a few days away. Many people I know will be voting in the presidential contest for the first time. This post is for you.
There's always a lot of hype surrounding a presidential race. The media do their best to make it seem like the outcome will have a profound impact on the future- and you better be part of it! Get out there and vote! It's your duty as a citizen, so stand up and be counted! But these things aren't what they seem.
On the one hand, it's easy to believe that the election is very important. Politically speaking, the winner will be the most powerful man in the world. He will have the nuclear codes, the authority to unilaterally wage war, and the legal power to kill/imprison whomever he wants. He will have command over the media and, together with his friends in other high-ranking government posts, command over the economy. Indeed, whoever wins the next election will have the power to change the world.
On the other hand, you have almost no say in these matters. Please do not mistake your vote for some kind of degree of control over what happens after (or, I would argue, even before) the election. You do not control the government. You might have the ability to check a box in favor of a candidate, but that's about as far as your influence goes.
The political figures you vote for do not have to answer to you. They answer to the special interest groups that can organize campaigns and keep them elected. They answer to their friends in big business, to unions, and to other pressure groups that are large enough to collectively organize in their favor. In short, the government responds only to people with the most political pull. And that will never be you or I. It's a tough pill to swallow, particularly before your first time voting, which comes after a lifetime of being told how we have a government by the people, for the people, and one whose principle aims are justice and peace. But the evidence is everywhere.
Notice how the election only features candidates from two parties. If the government worked for the people, there would be closer to a dozen candidates on the national stage, all with a chance to have their voice heard, all with the opportunity to make their case to the public. If government worked for the people, it would allow Americans to choose among an actual spectrum of messages, instead of pre-screening our options down to two choices most which people find distasteful.
That all of politics is dominated by only two factions is a testament to its illegitimacy. It doesn't function the way it does because that's how Americans want it. It does so because it's how the political class wants it. It dramatically lowers the bar for the kinds of candidates we get to choose from, because they know that instead of having to attack and defend against a variety of other candidates and viewpoints, they only have to convince people that they're no worse than the other guy. How many times have you heard people voice their dissatisfaction with candidate A, but will still vote for him because they're afraid B is worse? I've lost count. Every vote so cast is a tacit declaration of acceptance of the way things are, and an abdication of what constitutes real civic duty (if such a thing exists).
It's no wonder why some 40% of eligible Americans don't even bother showing up at the polls in November. It's not because everybody is just so apathetic- it's because they're realistic. Voting takes very little effort. If people thought voting made a significant positive difference in their lives, they would do it. Don't think so? Suppose that people who normally don't vote had the option of showing up at the polling stations and trading their chance to vote in the election for, say, a free $10 gift card. We would likely have the highest "voter turnout" in decades.
Again, there is an enormous amount of hype surrounding elections and voting. Many people get so caught up cheerleading for a candidate or a political party that they accept voting as a legitimate substitute for doing things themselves. Unless you have political pull, the government is not a shortcut to achieving any particular end you might desire. Don't expect it to deliver what it promises any more than it delivers us fair elections. The truth is that you will never get the changes you want unless you personally are willing to take steps to make them happen. Letting your vote do the heavy lifting for you is a cop out.
Until Americans realize that the candidates they support are the very ones who are disenfranchising them; until there are nationally televised debates where the established parties are forced to debate someone other than each other; until incumbent reelection rates are substantially less than 90%, it will not matter which main party candidate wins the election. It took years for me to come to that realization and it certainly doesn't win me any friends, but I wouldn't have written this if I didn't believe it sincerely. Consequently, I always vote 3rd party whenever possible. I do so not because I believe they have any chance of winning, but because I want them to win. If I didn't think there were better options, I wouldn't vote.
I don't expect anyone to agree with me, and I'm not telling anybody whom to vote for. You make up your own mind. But I hope you're prepared to be disappointed if your candidate wins and doesn't come through with what he promised. I hope you don't accept his excuse at face value when he blames the failures on someone else. I also hope that the lesson you take away from the experience is an understanding of how little control you actually have over the government.
The bottom line is: don't depend on voting as a means of effecting change. If you really want to make a difference, look up a charitable cause and start donating to it. Be the example of what you want others to be. If you want something to happen, go and make it happen. It is the only way. Because if you and people like you are not willing to do it yourselves, it aint getting done.