Since I was a little boy, I have been taught that it is a sacred duty to vote. That if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain—that true patriots care enough to vote, even if for a lesser evil. But how is it that the same system that dishes out the same unworthy candidates also dishes out sanctimonious platitudes about our civic duty?
In college I had a friend who took an unseemly pride in coming from a long line of nonvoters. More distressing, as he explained it to me, he avoided voting, or even registering to vote, to evade various civic duties such as serving on a jury. He, and his father and grandfather before him, felt no responsibility for, or pride in, our civic culture. We did not remain friends for long. I have another friend, this one from high school, who always and invariably votes, believing—like many other civic-minded and decent people—that voting is “one of the most important jobs we have as citizens.” We are still friends, even if I think her mistaken. Sometimes, refusing to vote, refusing to legitimize candidates who lack integrity and a system that lacks credibility, is the more civic act of a patriot.
I confess to a certain irritation with many friends who somehow equate a refusal to go along with this charade as unpatriotic and irresponsible. Perhaps they are right, if you don’t vote because you are too distracted by the latest Kardashian gossip or too ignorant to understand the issues or just too lazy to get off the couch and drive down to the voting center. But what about those who simply cannot find candidates who are deserving of their vote? Are we to vote for the “lesser of evils” over and over ad infinitum? Doesn’t there come a time when Nancy Reagan’s infamous advice to drug users become applicable: “Just say no!”
According to nearly every pundit, this was the most important midterm election of the last hundred years, perhaps even the most crucial since the founding of the Republic. I am in no position to disagree with such august and insightful men and women, but that does not mean that the options we were afforded, the candidates we were proffered, and the results we have gotten, will make any difference at all. On all the issues that matter most for our future as a country and society, neither party has offered a way forward that will ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren.
The Credibility Deficit on the Deficit
The most serious issue confronting the United States for the past half century has been our burgeoning budget deficits. This being so it is truly remarkable that there has been virtually no discussion at all this campaign season on how to redress this problem. The Republicans have always done a good job talking about fiscal discipline whenever they are not in power, but then seem to lose their commitment to austerity whenever they attain power. The closest we ever came in modern times to controlling the budget was in the waning years of the Clinton administration when a Republican Congress forced greater discipline, but once the White House was theirs, the first item of business was a huge tax cut that was never offset by funding reductions. Indeed, following in the footsteps of former President Johnson, George W. Bush undertook massive (and useless) military adventures overseas without even considering raising taxes to pay for them. Then for eight years during the Obama administration the Republicans regained their sense of fiscal responsibility, only to forsake it once again when President Trump was elected. On the deficit issue, our choices are quite absurd: Vote for the “tax and spend” Democrats or the “don’t tax and still spend” Republicans.
The reason none of our craven leaders really wants to discuss the deficit issue is because resolving the deficit crisis would require both sides to compromise on programs and policies that go to the very core of their being, that is, they would need to kill the Golden Calves that both Parties worship and without which they would lose their constituencies. For the Democrats this means that entitlements for the poor and the aged will need to be limited and rationalized; for Republicans it means restraining military expenditures and limit tax cuts for corporations and wealthy donors. These requirements are nothing new or surprising; we read about them as often as our politicians ignore them. Do we really need a defense budget that is larger than the defense budgets of the next 20 largest militaries combined? Can we really afford to keep allowing runaway social security benefits without imposing some sort of means test on beneficiaries?
Immigration: Between Racism and Reason Falls the Shadow
As with the deficit, neither Party has covered itself with any glory regarding the immigration issue. Instead, both sides have fashioned caricatures of the other side, hoping to manipulate and control the electorate. As one small example, as I type this essay, somewhere in Mexico is a caravan of would-be immigrants wending their way slowly toward the Rio Grande. To hear Republicans talk about this meandering group of nomads, one might conjure up images of rampaging Visigoths on their way to plunder our country and ravish our womenfolk. To hear Democrats talk about this same group you would think they were all heroic adventurers akin to those that landed on Plymouth Rock, seeking merely a better life for themselves and their families. Both views are risible, although I am slightly more inclined to be outraged that not a single Democrat even dares to call illegal immigrants illegal, preferring instead to refer to them euphemistically as “undocumented.” As I have written elsewhere, immigration is a good thing and the United States should be applauded for its generous immigration policies, but a country that cannot control its borders is not a country at all. Yet no Democrat has said a single word against allowing that caravan of illegal immigrants to cross the border, while few Republicans have dared show any appreciation for the great benefits we derive from immigration.
International Relations: Of Wolves and Sheep
Republicans and Democrats are never so much alike than on issues where they think they disagree. This is no where more obvious than on their handling of foreign relations. Although Mr. Trump promised an “America First” foreign policy, we have really been given more of the same post-World War II nonsense that has squandered our blood and treasure from Vietnam to Iraq to soon Iran and elsewhere. President Trump has maintained a “hands-off’ foreign policy only when it comes to countries he deems friends, like Saudi Arabia Israel, but is as eager as any Democrat president to interfere and admonish those whom he doesn’t like, such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. The Democrats get us into trouble because they are generally more concerned about the welfare of other countries (sheep in wolf’s clothing), while generally speaking the Republicans get us into trouble because they wish to demonstrate that we are the toughest guys on the block (wolves in sheep’s clothing). But the end result is always the same: more blood, more ruin, more wasted treasure.
Wanted: Leaders We Can Follow
Since I was a little boy, I have been taught that it is a sacred duty to vote. That if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. That true patriots care enough to vote, even if for a lesser evil. But how is it that the same system that dishes out the same unworthy candidates also dishes out sanctimonious platitudes about our civic duty? Did they leave bloodstained footprints at Valley Forge so we would feel obliged to choose between the lesser of two evils? Do they really lie in neat rows at Arlington Cemetery to compel us to choose between two candidates, neither of whom can be trusted? Isn’t it, perhaps, more patriotic to refuse to go along? To refuse to legitimize the illegitimate? To care enough and be patriotic enough to just say “enough” and walk away? The words of the American poet Robinson Jeffers come to mind:
“Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy
And the dogs that talk revolution,
Drunk with talk, liars and believers. …
Long live freedom and damn the ideologies.”
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Which One? (Undecided; Man in Voting Booth),” by Normal Rockwell (1944).