Monday, November 5, 2012

Does Voter Apathy Expose the Fiction of a Polarized America?

In a recent post, I asked why Christians vote, and whether, as Christians, we are right to do so. Just now I am praying for the unity of our nation, the coherency of the Church, and the unexpected future of which our control is an illusion.

I am also wondering about popular voting rhetoric and conventional wisdom, trying to understand how it all adds up. For example:

  • We have all heard some version of "if you don't vote now, you can't complain later." This is a strange position for a Christian to hold because complaining is not a right most Christians would admit to wanting to preserve. Indeed, once upon a time, I gave up complaining for Lent. It was the single most edifying Lenten observance (next to the weekly walking of the Stations of the Cross) I have ever engaged. The position is also strange because it imagines a time or condition at which point conversation ends.
  • Another piece of bizarre conventional wisdom is that one does not ask someone else for whom they are voting. (Admittedly, Facebook is increasingly rendering this dilemma moot. You don't have to ask.) Even in a Facebook world, however, face to face discussions about why one votes (or doesn't) and for whom one votes are as rare as ever and to the detriment, I think, of honest, productive discourse. ('Cuz let's face it, we ain't getting that from the candidates. It's not happening.)

Part of the "don't ask, don't tell" nature of voting respects the individual freedom on which the voting process is predicated. The other part, says conventional wisdom, is that such a conversation would be too polarizing. You don't ask how old people are, if she's pregnant, how much your co-worker makes, or for whom your neighbor is voting.

And in truth, it does look like our nation is polarized. Twenty-four hours away from "the day", every national polling organization has Obama and Romney in a statistical dead-heat. And yet, those same polling organizations are predicting only a 41% voter turnout, a full 11% less than North Korea. The red/blue civil war we imagine appears to be comprised, in fact, of more than a little apathy, or - put another way - a 2 out of 3 likelihood that the person you ask about politics won't be nearly as fierce (or offended) as you imagine. One CNN op-ed contends that the deluge of political ads in recent days target, in part, the disenfranchising of potential voters so that only the most predictable voters (those on the far right and left) make it to the polls. Candidates aren't looking to win popularity contests, but to strategically energize known, friendly-to-them regions. This raises the question:

Does our current political system bank on our inability to speak face to face and charitably with our neighbors across the aisle? To what extent does the prevailing silence make possible the fiction of red-hot passion that, when you look at the numbers, simply is not true. This silence is why I admire those, like my friend Greg, who chose to break it, and who encouraged me to do the same. Like most things in life, political particulars are not as scary when you name them.

Let me be clear: I am not asking anyone who isn't voting to vote (or vice versa). I am asking you to share your thinking (even if undecided) so that your friends and neighbors can learn from your insights and your struggles. And to do so with charity. Be vulnerable. Where are you passionate? Where are you conflicted? What do you admire in the other side? What information do you wish you had for the conversation? Develop a healthy reluctance to tell others what responsible Americans/Christians/Others should do - that is, don't assume the war. Give an honest account of what you are doing. How is your voting a reflection of your life? If you are feeling especially courageous, include how questions of faith bear on your thinking. Where you wish your faith gave you more direction or clarity, name that, too. Even if you don't share it, write it out. But do share it.

The system would tell you that your vote makes the difference. But your vote is not your voice (neither are those insufferable memes, by the way), only one expression of it. Share your full voice with the rest of us. As the robo-calls come to a merciful end, most of us are dying for an interesting conversation.

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