Columns

Esemplare ’19: Civic duty and cowardice

By
Opinons Columnist
Thursday, September 8, 2016

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a historic election season. There is, of course, the unorthodox candidacy of Donald Trump and the similarly groundbreaking story of Hillary Clinton as the first woman nominated by a major party. But beyond these talking points, the upcoming election is an interesting one because it features two historically unpopular candidates. Many will point to this fact in dismay, seeing it as a symptom of a deeply flawed political system, and they may be correct. I am not interested in discussing this election’s candidates, nor in adding another voice to the tired conversation about the current state of American democracy. But I do think that trying times often reveal characteristics in ourselves that may otherwise go unnoticed, and this election is no different. Commentators argue over how and why we arrived at this unusual point in our electoral history, but I am more interested in what the absurdity of the current election reveals about the American people. Namely, this political climate has revealed a counterintuitive level of selectivity that compels people to stay home in November despite the dramatic differences between the two candidates.

These voters doubtless existed before this election, but I would posit that the current political landscape has brought more people into this disillusioned camp than ever before. The argument is quite simple, and equally foolish: Why vote for a candidate you don’t want to be president?

The counterargument to this sentiment is obvious: because representative democracy wasn’t designed for you to cast only votes you feel strongly about. Voting is and always has been about preferences. It is counterproductive to be opposed to voting for the “lesser of two evils” when, in reality, this is all an election ever is; regardless of how strongly you support a candidate, you are always picking the person you agree with more. Expecting candidates to align perfectly with your own viewpoints is unrealistic, and only voting for candidates you support absolutely, as opposed to relatively, is foolish and even dangerous in a representative democracy. This election in particular represents the clash of two drastically different visions for America, and if you are a politically informed American citizen, it is virtually impossible not to prefer one candidate over the other.

To be clear, I am not passionately opposed to eligible voters staying home in November on all grounds. Voter turnout in American presidential elections is on the lower end of established democracies, but while some decry low voter turnout as an affront to civic duty, I can understand the rationale. In a country where 129.1 million votes were cast in the last election, it is hard to feel as if a single vote can make a difference, especially for residents in non-swing states. While I plan on voting this November, I feel the futility of my own ballot. It is also unfair to criticize those who will not vote because they are politically uninformed. Some see the maintenance of a political sensibility to be a part of one’s civic duty. But while I agree that a more informed citizenry would benefit the nation as a whole, it will never be in the country’s best interest to increase turnout of uninformed voters, and I have no real qualm with this bloc of the American electorate staying home this November.

But to informed voters, who under normal circumstances would vote in a presidential election, I am less forgiving. For all the talk of civic duty in this country, it is this group’s actions that most thoroughly disrespect our nation’s political system. To avoid voting simply because of a lack of strong support for a candidate is self-defeating, and citizens who do so bear a particularly snobbish relationship with American democracy. These are the citizens who take democracy for granted — those who expect democracy to produce for them a candidate of their liking, who refrain from voting if they aren’t excited enough about it. To say that America stands at a crossroads sounds a bit dramatic, but in a sense this is true of every election. If you are a politically informed citizen, staying home in November because you aren’t excited about either candidate is a cowardly evasion of your civic duty, a cop-out that threatens the strength of American democracy and the future of our nation. In a pivotal national election, I am disappointed that many of my fellow citizens and students would rather stay home to voice their dissatisfaction with the choices democracy has given us than play a role in the selection of the next president.

Nick Esemplare ’18 can be reached at nicholas_esemplare@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.