I’m going to make my first blog post of substance be about something that’s as controversial as it gets. This is because I’m super “edgy” and “blunt” and “non-PC”.
Or not. It’s actually because this is an issue that matters right now, and it’s not something that we often talk about in serious terms.
The right to vote.
It’s the most fundamental right in a democracy, because a democracy, by definition, can’t exist without the active input of its citizens. When citizens of a democracy don’t value their right to vote, or don’t exercise their right to vote, the government ceases to be by the people, for the people, and of the people – in short, it ceases to be a democracy.
We’ve seen this happen in our own country. In the 2014 mid-term elections, only 42% of eligible voters actually turned out to vote. As a general rule, that number might get as high as 60% during a Presidential election year… but that’s still 40% shy of how many eligible voters should be voting.
This isn’t just a one-time fluke, like the other 40%-60% of people were sick with the flu that day. This is a growing trend, a steady decline of the practice of democracy. It’s indicative that we like the idea of a democracy far more than we actually like living in a democracy.
As someone who fought in an ill-conceived conflict in Iraq, where we fought for the safety of the Iraqi people to get to exercise that right for the first time ever, I take this personally. I mean, Iraqi people stood in line while suicide bombers killed them…. and then they got back in line.
So, I started to think about why it is that Iraqis will stay in line after someone kills half of them, while Americans won’t even drive 10 minutes to the nearest elementary school. And, the conclusion that I’ve arrived at is unpleasant, but I think it’s an easy fix.
First, Americans have lost the idea that the right to vote is a duty. I’ve used that term in jest before: “Time to go do my civic duty.” But, that’s really what it is. As much as we talk about soldiers as being “guardians of freedom”, it’s actually the exercising of that freedom that safeguards it. At this point in history, we don’t even need a diabolical tyrant to destroy our democracy – we’re doing it all by ourselves by taking our rights for granted.
We’ve really lost the idea of rights going hand in hand with responsibilities. It’s easy to use the right to free speech and expression to blast other people on the Internet; it’s a lot harder to use the right to speak at a city council meeting or protest an injustice. It’s easy to talk about the right to bear arms when you’re just talking about purchasing a .45 from the local gun store to fend off the barbarians who might come in the night to rob you; it’s a lot more difficult to join the state militia (National or State Guard).
We only want rights when they apply to us individually, rather than when they apply to our society at large.
This leads me to my second reason, that very few Americans have anything invested in their government or society. The military is the easiest example (though it’s definitely not the only one). In WWII, 12 percent of Americans served in the Armed Forces; today, less than .5 percent do. This is despite the fact that 72% of Americans, according to Pew Research, supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 80% supported the invasion of Afghanistan. So, between 70% and 80% of the population supported the idea of war, but only half a percent was actually willing to go to war.
In WWII, there was rationing. There were Americans of all stripes working in factories, supporting the war effort. In Iraq and Afghanistan… there were bumper stickers and yellow ribbons.
Now, the culture of militarism is the subject of another post. I’m only bringing it up now because it adds something to my point: Americans have only an intellectual investment in their government and society, rather than a tangible one. The same attitude applies to voting; it’s an academic exercise, not something that actually has the power to fundamentally change society.
Which leads me to my third point: Americans have lost confidence that their vote means anything.
Now, you could write a series of epic, academic-style papers on why this has happened. I’m not really that interested in discussing those reasons, because the practice that it has inspired is self-defeating. Americans don’t think their vote matters, so they don’t vote… which makes the entire concept of voting even more worthless. My comment about tyrants earlier? It totally applies here, because the more that we, as citizens, decide that voting is meaningless, the more that power-hungry politicians are going to seize upon the opportunity to do whatever the hell they want, will of the people be damned. I mean, what’s the point of representing the will of your constituents, if you don’t even have a constituency to speak of? 50% of 40% is only 20% of your population – what average politician is going to base decisions on 20% of the total “will of the people”? And, even if they do, is that to the betterment of the entire society, or are we subjecting ourselves to another kind of tyranny?
Okay, so now that we’ve discussed why people are not voting, here’s my unified solution to the entire problem – and the part that very few people are going to like.
Are you ready?
Are you sure you’re ready?
We make the right to vote conditional.
“HOLY SHIT! Did he just spend 800 words talking about how sacred the right to vote is, and then suggest taking the right away from people? What kind of crack is this guy on?!”
I did just do that, I did just suggest that, and I’m on the kind of crack that makes a guy tired of standing next to people in the polling station who have nothing invested, whose vote is just an intellectual exercise that is based partially on how much they like a candidate’s hair.
As I said a little while ago, I actually served the country. I may not like what I actually served in, and the reality of military service might have been way different than my ideal going in… I joined because I believed that I was serving the country. And, most of the people that joined post-9/11 believed the same thing. Even if they didn’t, even if they were just there for the GI-Bill or student loan repayment, they were willing to sacrifice something to get those benefits.
What if we tied the right to vote to National Service? This isn’t a new idea: Robert Heinlein suggested it decades ago. I’m sure that others have suggested it, too. But, what if we decided that the only people who get a say in how our country is run are the people who have something tangible invested in our society?
Now, before anybody gets up in arms for the wrong reasons (as opposed to getting up in arms over the entire concept, which is totally acceptable): I’m not suggesting that the right to vote be tied to military service. There are loads of reasons that people won’t or can’t serve in the military, and I respect many of them. Some people are conscientious objectors (which I would have been, if I’d taken another 2 years to think about it), some are just opposed to dying in foreign countries (a perfectly reasonable stance), others don’t take orders well… the list goes on and on. So, military service wouldn’t be the only way to gain full citizenship in my New and Improved United States. We could specify National Service as any number of things: filing papers in a clerk’s office somewhere could be national service, volunteering so many hours a week to take Medicare recipients to appointments, or feed and build houses for the homeless, or pave roads… the list of things is endless. Part of what we do when we tie the right to vote to National Service is that we make National Service accessible to anyone who wants to serve, so that we don’t become a meritocracy. We also don’t want to become a place where certain groups (minorities, the disabled, etc.) are disqualified from National Service, and the right to vote, because of shady and arbitrary bars to entry.
Obviously, this system would be ripe for corrupt people to take advantage of… but, we already live under a system that corrupt people take advantage of. It requires a fortune to run for national office right now, which means that the wealthiest people are the ones most likely to attain that office. So, we marry the right to vote with the right to run for public office. Hell, why not tie National Service into a load of societal benefits? You want subsidized health insurance? National Service. Public assistance? National Service. Free or extremely low cost higher education? National service.
Again, this National Service system would be available for anyone who wants it. Disabled folks would have a way to complete service. Single or working parents would have a way to access it. Non-citizens would have a way to access it as a pathway to full citizenship.
And, we wouldn’t make it retroactive: nobody would lose their current right to vote. We amend the Constitution so that anyone now under the age of 18 has to complete so many months of National Service to gain the right to vote.
And if it doesn’t work? If it doesn’t create a better class of citizen, a better class of public servant, we scrap it. That’s the purpose of amendments – they can be amended as necessary. But, if carefully considered and even more carefully implemented, I think it could go a long way towards ensuring that the people who have a say in how our government is run are, at the very least, minimally invested in service to our society. Hell, we might even get more people interested in running for public office. That would be a revolutionary idea – to have people running the government who are average, private citizens rather than a de facto noble class.
I just told my wife what I was writing, and her response was, “I’m not sure about that.” My neighbor responded, “That’s a pretty good idea.” So, I’m already aware of the division that this kind of idea can create. Some will accuse me of being a fascist, and it’s entirely possible that I am. And, if I ever decide to run for public office, I’m sure this blog will be plastered across newspapers. Maybe I’m just letting my well-earned cynicism towards the average American voter lead me down dangerous, Draconian paths. Or, maybe, I’m just interested to see what our democracy would look like if it was full of people who actually gave a shit in practice, instead of just in theory.
Feel free to tar and feather me in the comments.