I get it. Believe me, I get it. Every day I talk to people -- especially progressives -- who are deeply disappointed with the leaders they worked so hard to elect. The litany of letdowns seems endless: Guantanamo. The public option. Don't ask, don't tell. Too big to fail. And, looming over all of it, the battered economy and a sense that the case for more government action wasn't made when it should have been.
Many of the hard-working activists I've met, people who can usually be counted on to encourage others to vote, aren't even sure they'll go to the polls themselves this year. They're saying that we've learned in the last two years just how corrupt the system has become. They're asking, what's the use? Even I, Mr. Glass Half-Empty, have been a little surprised at the level of pain and disillusionment.
The disaffection among core voters is there, and it's real.
Now, this is just you and me talkin' here, understand? I'm not a spokesman for anyone or anything when I say this, but here's what I think: If you're disaffected and disappointed, then as they say nowadays, I feel you. I get the anger, the frustration, the sense that the Corporate Party candidates will win no matter what we do. I understand the "plague on both your houses" reaction. So it's with that in mind that I say this:
Vote anyway. Please. And vote with enthusiasm, if such a thing is possible. I think it is possible.
I know, I know. Our political leaders aren't helping matters much. When the White House Press Secretary bitches about the "professional left," that's hardly an exercise in effective voter motivation. And in my opinion it's not much more useful when Get Out the Vote groups act like cheerleaders, waving their pom-pons while ignoring the disillusionment all around them.
I'm not going to do that. People aren't motivated by insults -- and that includes insults to their intelligence, which is what pep talks can feel like while we're fighting two wars and the economy's still in the tank. Times are still tough, and our leaders won't turn things around unless we act in a concerted way to make sure they do.
I'm hardly the guy to tell other people what to do, but I can tell you how I worked myself out of this psychic snake-pit. Lectures and insults don't work for me, but here's what does: Service. Service, not to a party or any individual, but to a set of ideals and goals. I'll feel better about voting if I do it to be of service. Maybe you're the same way.
Here's something you already know: Parties will let you down. Politicians will, too. But ideals have never let me down. The rewards that come from being of service have never let me down. So I intend to vote with my ideals in mind, rather than carrying an idealized picture of flawed human beings and their institutions. (And we're all flawed, aren't we?)
A lot political consultants think it's insane to ask people to vote by acknowledging that politicians and parties are flawed. You have to excite voters, they say. But my guess is that trust and honesty go a long way, especially during hard times.
As a card-carrying member of "the professional left," I've had my share of disappointments over the past two years. "Don't compare us to the Almighty," says the Vice President, "compare us to the alternative." I have a deep affection and high regard for Joe Biden, but with all due respect: That's setting the bar pretty low, isn't it? Come on, man! You can do better. Those who point out the weaknesses in current policies aren't "whining," to use Biden's ill-chosen word. They're not comparing our leaders' actions to those of the "Almighty," but to the actions they could have taken and chose not to take. They're looking at those leaders' promises, too.
They've got a legitimate beef. Like all politicians, our current leaders have been too eager at times to take the path of least resistance rather than the right path. Whenever a politician says "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," there's at least a 50/50 chance it's an excuse for letting the "good" -- or the mediocre -- be the enemy of the "better."
But here's the good news -- and damn it, it is good news! While we don't have too many politicians we can follow unquestioningly, there are plenty that we can influence. When I enter the voting booth next Tuesday, I won't ask myself if a candidate is a person who will always do the right thing. I'll ask myself if this is someone who can be influenced to do the right thing, if enough of us make the effort to exert that influence. We'll win some and we'll lose some that way, but we will win some.
Voting is not about them. It's about us. It's about laying the groundwork for effective action in the future by electing leaders who will respond to the right kind of pressure. That means electing leaders who share some common values with us, and who will consider us and our allies key constituencies.
The Social Security coalition in Congress is asking representatives to pledge that they won't support cuts in benefits. But activists' efforts to support them will be fruitless if we don't have representatives like the 200-plus who have already signed the pledge. They've been influenced by an organized citizenry promoting programs that are consistent with their own values as elected officials.
And, while financial reform didn't go nearly far enough, the process included many pleasant surprises. Organized public pressure successfully fought back several attempts to further dilute the bill, and led to a series of successes that included the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Franken Amendment regarding rating "agencies," restrictions on food and fuel derivatives, and an audit of the Federal Reserve. At several key moments we saw key Senators succumb to organized public influence and reverse themselves in order to do the right thing.
And when I say "influence" our politicians, I'm talking about simple behavioral modification. I mean straight-ahead stimulus/response stuff: Thank-you calls and generous donations when politicians do the right thing, criticism and other citizen actions when they don't. Of course, that means more work for the rest of us. It means keeping the pressure up. Those terse remarks from the White House are a sign that the pressure is having an impact, even at the highest levels. (Oh, and before we forget: Congratulations, Elizabeth Warren!)
Citizen pressure won't always work, of course, no matter who we elect. But sometimes it will, provided we're able to elect persuadable people. Because, let's face it: Some politicians won't do the right thing no matter what actions voters take. They've been bought and paid for - and not just with a little donor influence here and there, either. They've been purchased outright, lock, stock, and barrel. The banks may not know who holds the title to your house, but we all know who holds the title to them. So I'll be casting my vote on Tuesday for leaders who will sometimes do the right thing on their own, but who will do it more often if I do my job as a citizen and lean on them.
In other words, we don't have very many politicians who will do all the work themselves. But some of them can be our partners, working together with mobilized voters to achieve goals we all believe in. To some of them, that partnership may feel more like a shotgun wedding than a dream romance. But partners are partners.
Now, I've been partly talking to the dark side of my own spirit here. While I've emphasized the negative, a lot of genuinely positive things have happened in the last two years. There are some smart, dedicated, and passionate people in elected office today. We've seen some excellent policies implemented and some talented people appointed. This is a pep talk for myself, as much as anything, so forgive the occasional crack in my rose-colored glasses. But if it speaks to your disappointment too, so much the better.
Sure, the system is broken. The current political process suffers from the chronic disease of offering voters "the evil of two lessers," and that's got to stop. We need to keep pushing for a better crop of politicians. But next Tuesday there's a choice to be made: Vote, or don't vote. Me, I'm going to vote.
Things suck right now. Our leaders could be doing a better job in a lot of areas. Vote anyway. Come to think of it, that's why you should vote. And afterwards, when all the votes are counted and the candidates have been sworn in, the real work will begin - that is, if enough of us vote first.