With only six days to go until Election Day, this might be the perfect time to deliver what could be the most controversial commentary ever to run under the banner of Public Policy Limited.
As the first Tuesday of November in a leap year gets closer and closer, anyone who dares to express a disinterest in voting is barraged with a lot of talk about “performing their civic duty.” My advice to you is to ignore all of the noise about voting. In fact, you probably shouldn’t vote, at least not for president, and you certainly shouldn’t vote and then sit back for four years feeling as if you’ve done enough to justify your ongoing complaints about the system.
We may not like to admit it, but voting is the civic equivalent of liking a charity on Facebook. It is literally the least you can do for your community and your country.
People who tell you that you have no right to complain if you do not vote are also likely to tell you that they are “saved” because they go to church twice a year, once on Easter and another time somewhere around Christmas. These behaviors look good to some people and may ease their guilty feelings, but they are ultimately meaningless without any real action behind them.
Now to be clear, there are reasons to be involved and vote but very few of them are convincing on the national level. As the dearly departed George Carlin once said, “Politicians are put there to give you the illusion that you have freedom of choice. You don’t.”
For whatever reason, national politics — and not local politics — hold an inversely proportional amount of power over the daily life of the average person. Which is strange considering that it’s city governments that turn one-way streets into two-way streets, county school boards that decide that school systems should be run like businesses and that schools should compete for funding, and state governments that are actively attempting to disenfranchise you if you are poor or a minority and take away your privacy and reproductive rights if you are a woman. Yet most of us find it difficult to name more than a handful of local leaders, and even fewer understand how these local elected officials directly affect our lives on a daily basis.
If you would like to test yourself, simply open a blank page in your word processor of choice and list out your city council members. Next, your county board members. And then the auditor, coroner, solicitor, and sheriff (the last two are easy, because they are in the news every other week). If you live in the City of Charleston, try to list three people who sit on the Board of Architectural Review. For the Mt. Pleasant residents, just try to name two of the sitting boards or commissions.
Odds are most people will not get very far into these lists because an ever-growing political-industrial complex, whose existence depends on all of us believing in the illusion of choice, works overtime to convince us that national politics are the focal point of history. Turnout rates reflect this notion; local elections scarcely get voters while national elections get huge turnouts. Take for example last year’s Mt. Pleasant Town Council election. Only 15 percent of registered voters showed up, while national elections in 2008 shattered records in cities across the nation. Now ask yourself these questions: Was it President Obama or Mt. Pleasant Town Council that changed the zoning ordinances that will allow more Big Box stores to invade the city? Will it be Obama or Romney who decides whether or not I-526 is completed?
Since the national political system functions as a sieve that only produces the most appealing, centrist candidates, the best hope for real change and reform comes from the local level. The Tea Party understands this, and over the past four years municipalities across the nation have seen the damage that losing control of local elected boards can wreak. Will they cut Medicare spending or ban abortion? Not on the national level. But on the local level these elected officials can be dangerous.
Real civic involvement is much more than just showing up at the polls every year (or four). It takes being involved on some level to find out who your local representatives are in your town, city, or county and holding them accountable for each agenda item they look at every month. Sadly, the system is not set up to make that easy any more than it is set up to engender greater turnout at the polls.