Voting is like going to the dentist. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to look forward to it. But every so often you should probably do it.
Some people hate going to the dentist. You have awkward conversations with people’s hands in your mouth. You get moralizing lectures about how you should floss more. The sound of that drill will haunt your dreams. But a responsible adult should, if possible, go to the dentist for the sake of their dental health despite all this.
Likewise, some people don’t want to vote. You have to navigate government bureaucracy to register. You have to find your polling place and wait in line. In some states you need to obtain the right photo ID. And all this hassle for, well, what, exactly? A single vote probably won’t make a difference. And maybe you don’t like any of your choices.
But what if we thought of voting like going to the dentist, as something that isn’t exciting or pleasant or obviously immediately beneficial, but that responsible citizens should do for the health of their society?
Dentistry and Voting: What's Not to Like? A Lot!
In fact, voting is sometimes easier than going to the dentist. For convoluted historical reasons, dental insurance in America is separate from medical insurance, and for equally convoluted reasons healthcare and dentalcare are both more difficult to obtain than they ought to be for a lot of Americans. As a graduate student, I didn’t have dental insurance for many years. Of course, your right to vote can be difficult to obtain or exercise. In many states, voter suppression in the forms of ID requirements or closing polling places can make voting as hard as getting dental insurance. Both of these are things our society should address.
I don’t like going to the dentist, but I don’t hate it as much as some people. I do like the clean mouth feeling at the end of it.
On the other hand, I personally love voting. I know this sounds corny and old-fashioned, but I really do see voting as my civic duty. I’ve voted in almost every election I could since I turned 18 (I think I missed a couple odd year local elections). I’ll keep voting until I’m prevented from doing so. I love the feeling of participating in democracy, not to mention that cool “I voted” sticker. But this feeling is not why I vote.
Do I know that my vote makes a difference? Do I always 100% agree with people I vote for? Of course not. But I think those are the wrong questions. Voting isn’t like a consumer product that ought to fit the customer’s immediate preferences. We need a different framework for thinking about voting.
It's Not All About You
The self-interested consumerism that runs our economy has infected areas of modern life that used to be non-economic, from personal relationships to education. Sadly, civic responsibility has become economized and consumerized as well. We think about what voting can do for us personally rather than what it does for a democratic society.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t expect their elected officials to represent their interests or that we shouldn’t hold them accountable. I’m not saying other modes of political action like demonstrating or organizing aren’t also important.
Part of my point is that government officials are less likely to represent your interests if they know you don’t vote. Why do you think politicians listen to senior citizens? If you were a politician, who would you listen to: voters or non-voters? As voters, we sometimes have to make the first move, and change is not going to happen quickly. (I’m not letting politicians off the hook, either. They ought to reach out to their constituents. But my point is that voters can’t sit and wait for that to happen. If you start voting, politicians might come to you.)
"That is Life"
Some people lament that their individual vote doesn’t make a difference, but that’s not how voting works. It’s a collective action. It’s something we do rather than something I do. By analogy, whether I personally recycle my glass and cans doesn’t really matter, but whether lots of people do it and whether politicians regulate polluting industries might make a difference (maybe not enough, but still).
Other people complain about the lack of good choices or that the whole system is rigged. But once again, it’s not about you. One of the lessons of adulthood is that you often have to make the least bad choice in a given situation. As Star Trek’s Captain Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” Voting is no different.
And I don’t understand how not voting is supposed to fix a rigged system. You can’t wait for the system to fix itself. You might have to get down in the mud and help make it better. In our current political system, voting is the groundwork upon which change happens, from your local school board and county comptroller to president and the supreme court. Not voting might make you feel better about yourself for being pure of heart in a land of shit, but I personally prefer to do what I can, knowing full well that it may not be enough. As Captain Picard would say, “That is life.”
(For more on why I think people should vote, see here.)
Dentistry and Voting: Habits for Personal and Societal Health
Voting is, like going to the dentist, not necessarily going to solve all your problems. You can brush and floss and get your six-month check-ups and still get cavities or gingivitis. Likewise, you can register, stay up to date on local, state, and national politics, volunteer, donate, and vote and still not get your way. You never fully know what results your actions are going to have, which is as true with voting as it is going to the dentist.
So maybe it’s better, like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā, to focus on your duty and do what you can with what you’ve got. Or maybe it’s about cultivating the habits of a good citizen, as Aristotelian or Confucian virtue ethicists might say.
Whether you vote might not make much difference, but that’s not the point. We never really know what our actions are going to accomplish. When it comes to voting, dental health, and life in general, sometimes you have to figure out the right thing to do and just do it. And maybe, just maybe, if we were to cultivate good civic and dental habits, we’d all be healthier in the long run.
Lastly, if you are eligible to vote in the United States in this year's midterm election on Tues. Nov. 6, check out this site, which contains voting information for all 50 states. If you live in my home state of Tennessee, the deadline to register for the Nov. 6 election is Tues. Oct. 9. Check out the Secretary of State's website to see if you're registered or to register online.