The Case Against Civic Temper Tantrums

There are some people who probably shouldn’t be teaching high schoolers; I would argue that Technology, Commerce and Society Daily’s columnist, and volunteer teacher Arnold Kling might be one of them. I certainly don’t want kids being taught his juvenile new theory about why people shouldn’t vote.

The case, as Kling makes it, is that since he is not satisfied with the candidates from either party, he will just stay home on election day. Worse, he encourages everyone else to stay home too. He apparently envisions that his Couch-Potato Protest will trigger some political epiphany, in which politicians from both sides of the aisle will then court him.

Now, Dr. Kling is a smart man – he earned a Ph.D. from MIT. He is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. But as is often the case with very smart people, he apparently hasn’t a lick of common sense. If we’ve learned anything from the past thirty years of American elections, it’s that nobody seriously courts the non-voters unless there is a single red-hot issue to unite them, like ‘I hate gays’. Nobody seriously courts non-voters, because statistically speaking, they are unlikely to vote. There is no point spending time, money, or policy time wooing unlikely voters, because there are too many factors that explain their absence from the polls. Not least of which is the impression that some large portion of these people can never be pleased, and that you court them at the peril of losing your base.

So, let us return to the real world. The world where the people who show up to vote are the people who make the decisions. And when that pool of voters becomes smaller, the decisions become more polarized. The people who show up are the people who care the most. Those people tend to be on the edges of political thought, and skew the parties and the campaigns accordingly. Anyone who wants to change this phenomenon – anyone who thinks that the candidates insufficiently reflect the desires of the vast squishy middle – should be urging people to get to the polls by the truckload.

But that would require an affirmative action or choice to take civic responsibility seriously, instead of sniping from the sidelines. Because make no mistake, when you don’t bother to show up to vote, you’re not only giving up all right to complain – you’re ceding your role in a government ruled by the people. Now, no one should be legally compelled to vote. It’s your right to stay home and bleat with the rest of the sheep, content to be shepherded by other people’s agendas without registering so much as a BAAAAA. But it’s also your right to jump into Lake Michigan in the dead of winter; that doesn’t mean you should. And it certainly doesn’t mean that other people aren’t going to point out how foolish you are to do it.

American soldiers are dying to bring Democracy to Iraq, or so they are told. American blood is being spilled in the name of the very right and responsibility that Dr. Kling intends to abandonsbecause he doesn’t like county educational spending priorities. But aren’t there more important considerations for a reasonable person to take into account? The world is a serious place right now, and our elections are no joke. No one can say with a straight face, that there are no differences between the candidates, the parties or their policies. Not even Ralph Nader has the nerve to say that anymore.

These November elections might make the difference between lives being lost, people being tortured, and children suffering. No matter which side of the political fence you’re on, surely you have an interest in promoting the policy that you think will minimize these evils. Surely, there are issues that Dr. Kling can point to where one choice or the other will make a difference, and insofar as there are, not weighing and balancing the choices is simply an abrogation of civic duty.

And I don’t want to hear about how people are sick of choosing the lesser of two evils. Get real. That’s life. Not every choice in life is vanilla/raspberry or chocolate/swirl. Almost every choice you make is a choice between one evil or another. Whether it’s choosing between having a job you’re sick of or starving to death, whether it’s between not getting enough sleep or letting the baby cry – life is all about trade-offs. Anyone who expects politics to be different is naive or throwing a civic temper tantrum.

Luckily, in a Democracy, if you decide not to choose – other people will make the hard choices for you. And maybe in some elections, that’s an educated decision in and of itself. Maybe the people in your district know the orphans court judges better than you do and would make a more informed choice. Maybe if you don’t have kids, you’d rather have the people who do have kids pick the local school board.

But there’s not an educated grown up alive – certainly not Dr. Kling – who doesn’t know enough about what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and right here at home, to weigh in on the difficult policy choices presented to us in this election. Stay home if you want to, Dr. Kling. But know that people like me will be making the decision for you, and spending your money anyway we please, without your input. And if that’s unsatisfactory, you have only yourself to blame.

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