My junior year of high school read like something out of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Now is not the time nor place for me divulge the nuts and bolts of that story, but suffice to say, I was not in a good space. So many things were going wrong at once that it didn’t feel like anything could possibly go right.
At exam time of that school year, I was in the thick of emotional upheaval. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a honor student, didn’t drink or mess around with psycho-active substances. I liked to dance. But I somehow missed a crucial day in chorus class in which the teacher informed the class that in order to get an “A” on the chorus exam, all we had to do was show up on the scheduled exam day.
Since I didn’t hear the announcement and there was no reason to stay at school on exam days if you weren’t taking an exam, I missed chorus that day, and failed the exam. My no-brainer “A” in chorus turned into a “D”. Yet another Unfortunate Event.
I am grateful to be finished with high school and college, but this memory comes back to me now, in election season, because exams don’t really end. They just change.
Election season is past-paced and rabid in its intensity. The sentiments get pretty ugly and immature (maybe that’s what jogged my high school memory). It can be exhausting and frustrating to watch. BUT, voting is one of the really important “exams” that we face as bona fide grown-ups in the U.S. Of A. We live in a participatory democracy. It’s a great thing. But in order to keep it, we have to do what is required of us, which is to participate. It may be that every one of you is a voter, but when I hear that only 20-something percent of the voting-eligible population of our county turned out for the primary, I feel a need to speak my peace (or is it piece?).
Our democracy is imperfect. As far as I’m concerned no form of larger civilization since we left off the 150 member tribe has been without flaw. Our system, with its noble beginnings (as long as you weren’t a Native American or African), has been corrupted with greed, fear, and money, but it at it’s root, it is basically a good system. And it is up to us to use it or lose it.
Here are some of my basic ideas for good use of a democracy:
First, show up. Vote. Every chance we get. But it’s no good to vote if we don’t know who or what we are voting for. It’s like showing up for an exam and drawing christmas trees in the multiple choice boxes.
So, second, we have to study. We all have our sticking points, which is natural and good. I am partial to environmental issues and certain positions regarding small farmers, of course, but I know that there are a lot of other issues at stake, too. If a candidate didn’t meet ALL of my requirements, but I felt good about their moral fiber and leadership capability, then great. Likewise, if a candidate supported small organic agriculture but insisted in holding my Muslim friends in concentration camps, there’s no way in creation s/he would get my vote.
Third, don’t give up. If our side doesn’t win this round, just keep voting. Politics isn’t about winning ALL. It’s about threshing it all out, hearing differing opinions, and working out a compromise. No one should come away with EVERYTHING s/he wants. We’re a complex country of over 320 million people. Unified consensus will be hard to come by.
I have heard commentary from some this election season that they are voting “with their middle fingers.” If we used our middle fingers back in high school when taking our exams, we failed. I’m not exactly a child of “the establishment”, so I get the frustration, but this is not an attitude that leads to success. Understandable sometimes? Yes. Powerful commentary? Maybe. A way to participate in a democracy? Nope.
It’s also important, in my opinion, to think outside of ourselves. Besides being a melting pot of many beliefs and cultures, we are also a major world power. The leadership we present to the world really matters. The middle finger theory critique applies here, too. We have international responsibilities, like it or not, and our approach to our foreign neighbors (yes, neighbors – all over the world) is no small deal. Not only does a leader have to work with differences of opinion within the country, s/he has to be able to do good work with people who may not look, speak, or think like s/he.
Fourth, but not least – we can vote with our dollars, every day. There’s no denying that we have definitely become a global economy. Money is like water – it flows through all of us, everywhere – and it collects in some low places. I am glad that the amount of money in the political race is getting a little more attention in this cycle, because it is absurd. Politicians should not be bought. Politicians need to be public servants, not corporate servants. It is telling, and disturbing, to “follow the money” flowing through our educational, medical, scientific, religious, and political systems. Why would a corporation give lots and lots of money to a congressman, or a school, if they didn’t want something in return? If someone makes money from war, what will be their deepest consideration when our children are the most available cannon fodder? And if it isn’t our children, it is any better that it is someone else’s children?
Ultimately, the game of “Follow the Money” starts at home, and if you are skeptical of how much your vote matters, you shouldn’t be skeptical at all that how you use your dollar has great influence on the national and international stage. It’s not easy to know where our money goes anymore, but it’s worth trying, and it matters. If We The People are able and willing to spend lots and lots of money on plastic toys, electronics, clothes from sweatshops, and cheap processed food, then we collectively send the message to the corporate and political leadership that the agricultural and economic systems that make empty food and sweatshops work are OK with us.
I have been to a place where you could consider who to vote for while a representative of the leading party held a gun, or maybe a machete, to your head. If you have an opinion that might be considered unpopular to the regime, you had best not express it near an open window or anyone who might have anything to gain, or lose, by hearing you out. Meanwhile, the developed world pats itself on the back and celebrates the “birth” of a new democracy.
I have also been to place where there is no voting. Bureaucrats two thousand miles away in a different climate tell farmers when to plant and harvest. There is only one time zone. Each morning, loudspeaker blare out “Good Morning – It is time to go do your patriotic calesthenics program now! Aren’t you grateful to live in this great Nation?” And gentlemen in long dark coats sit alone listening to the conversation of foreigners and NGO workers in the restaurants. You always ditch your email account when you leave because it is probably being read, or at least collected.
High school isn’t a democracy either – it’s perhaps more of a socialized foray into a free-enterprise system, with some a few opportunities for team work. In chorus class, we really just had to show up and that was it. Also, those of use who “failed” the “exam”, didn’t influence the GPA of anyone else in the class. That isn’t the case with the grown up voting exam. We are all in this together. If we engage, we will succeed as a democratic nation. Not necessarily just in terms of the economic bottom line, but as a people willing to govern ourselves, live, and thrive, together. The alternative is much less pleasant than a few sour notes.
Thanks for hearing me out. Please, vote. Peace.