Maybe election day is just a little too soon after Halloween.
We’ve discussed American fear, its prevalence and perniciousness, quite recently. We are afraid of terrorists, even though what they are supposed to wield as a most scary object is, well, fear. We are afraid of a disease that has killed fewer Americans than lightning. We are afraid of our own shadow, ourselves, our neighbors, our government, our absence of government, pretty much anything that humans can biologically generate cortisone in response to and a goodly number of things they can’t. And we react to this fear by lashing out, spreading the fear, voting for people to sequester the diseased, strip rights from everybody, kill the foreign others who we don’t understand and claim to be crazy. Human reactions to fear are responsible for just about all the destruction in human history and most of the worst things we’ve ever done can be explained by fear and pretty much fear alone.
But perhaps nowhere is fear more pervasive in the American culture than in the ballot box. Every couple of years, a march of recently scared voters trudge off to their local community polling center to cram the little slitted box just full of fear, loathing, and terror. Not just by voting for people who will perpetrate such ills on the rest of the planet, though there’s plenty of that. But primarily by casting votes motivated primarily by their own fear.
Despite your gut reaction or your political leanings, no one group, party, or candidate has a monopoly on this perpetration of fear. Most all advertising these days is negative, making voters terrified to vote for someone and instead allowing them to cast votes only against evil worst-case scenarios. Political ads rarely promise anything these days, certainly not even any improvements, opting instead for telling you how horrible things will get if the other option is elected. And if you don’t see the election as having only one other option, your friends and cohorts will berate you with the rhetoric of fear that voting is not some idealistic exercise in making a choice, but instead merely damage control in picking the second worst person imaginable so that the worst person imaginable stays out of office.
And then even more people will cite how your ancestors fought and killed the Vietnamese so that you could exercise this right to pick the second-most-evil person ever and if you fail to exercise such rights, you might as well be napalming those children for nothing. Because how could it possibly seem like picking between two parties completely beholden to corporate interests who donate more money to each party than you will ever earn in your life is not some sacred bond of trust, some exalted and wonderful act? We have been stuffed so full of vainglorious gusto for the act of voting that we’ve failed to notice how much of a tired act of resigned fear it has become.
I just moved to Louisiana, which is the main reason I’m not voting, since I completed my voter registration a few days after the deadline (Louisiana makes you wait a month, I guess to think about what you’ve done, which is fun because there is no waiting period in the state to buy a firearm… talk about putting fear into voting!). In Louisiana, like much of the nation, all of the Republican ads are about how Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Senator, is closely tied to President Obama. You should fear Obama and what he’s doing to America! Which, near as I can tell, mostly consists of legislation that was passed in 2010 (Obamacare).
Meanwhile, Democratic campaigners and rhetoric offer fear of the Republicans controlling the Senate! There will be – get this – gridlock in Washington! Heavens to betsy, the horror. And then the specter rises of things like Supreme Court appointments, as though a Supreme Court in America would ever repeal Roe v. Wade. Or as though nine justices appointed by Elizabeth Warren would overturn Citizens United. People like to talk a lot about how the Supreme Court is going to do scary conservative things, but fail to explain how the Supreme Courts of several notoriously conservative red states have struck down laws banning same-sex marriage.
Like the fear of ebola, the fear of voting for the other party or – worse! – a third party – is empty words. It seems to motivate people consistently as people begrudgingly tromp off to the polls and keep sending Democrats and Republicans back into places where they enjoy less popularity than Ford Pintos, though, admittedly, roughly the same propensity for causing explosions.
In trying to sum up my thoughts on this Election Day in the face of a torrential downpour of voting enthusiasm from my Facebook feed, heavily populated with first- and second-time voters in college or freshly out, I posted this:
“Most Americans (at least, among those who vote at all) vote *against* people in elections, not for people. I think that may have never been more true than in 2014. It’s easy to see why this process would become disheartening and unrewarding. Basically all of our electoral and societal norms have driven us to this point, especially advertising and a culture of fear that pervades everyone’s public life.
If you’re going to vote this year, try voting FOR someone you really believe in. If you can’t find that person, write them in. After all, it’s not supposed to be a country of the people, by the people, against the people.”
And maybe I should have just reposted that simpler, slightly more positive view on all this fear and opposition instead of going into detail as I have in this post. After all, 26 people “liked” that post and no one even wrote some snarky counter about how the Green Party and the Libertarians and everyone you could write in are all ISIS agents in disguise.
But I am continually baffled, every day, by how much palpable dripping fear is filling this country. And my best explanation harkens back to another previous examination of fear, this being one about institutions and individuals feeling they have more to lose from the future than they do to gain.
I suppose that this nation, quickly slipping from its brief stand atop the pedestal of human political affairs, is in such a fear mode because we feel that the future is spelling our doom. Despite the mandated rhetoric from all the politicians about America being the best country anyone will ever be able to imagine forever, we all seem to know that we’re not going to be the latest and greatest and biggest and baddest forever. That other nations have surpassed us in quality of life, in economic standing, in education, and nearly in power. And yes, in democratic openness as well. Voter turnout below 50% is not a sign of an engaged and thriving model democracy. And that shortfall isn’t because young millennials want to watch the world burn and would rather play video games than exercise their God-given rights. It’s because of what I posted in the quote above – it’s exhausting to feel like something that should be special and vital and important is simply an exercise in voicing support for the second-worst person in every position.
Frankly, it’s exhausting to go through life with this much fear. Fear of decline, fear of dropping standards as a society and as people within it. Fear of the other party, the people who will vote for them or vote for no one or vote for the third party and thus screw things up for your perspective. Fear of apathy, of ebola, of ISIS, of Fox News, of MSNBC.
There were people who had few choices besides fear. They lived in something roughly akin to the so-called state of nature. They ran from saber-toothed tigers and ice floes and had to subsist on giant mammoths with tusks the size of people or they would die. It was cold and they were hungry and they huddled in caves against the dark of the unknown.
These people had a reasonable right to live in fear, though they confronted it remarkably well or we wouldn’t be here.
So how is that fear governs most of our key decisions when we have, for the most part, a relatively infinite supply of food, clothing, shelter, comfort, distractions, and fulfillment? Why do we live each day like we’re wrestling mammoths and tigers and the Ice Age incarnate?
Why do we vote like that?
I would post my public ballot here as I’ve done in the past, but like I said, Louisiana law kept me out of the vote. You can look at the 2012 and 2008 editions if you want to get a sense of how I would be, more or less, casting my votes here today.
If you’re going to vote, do so fearlessly. And if you don’t feel like voting, do that fearlessly too. Yes, it’s a right. A defining characteristic of a right is the option to choose not to exercise it. And that choice beats the pants off of voting out of fear.