Opt-In Democracy

I want to be upfront about this post: some of the opinions I express here are going to be unpopular. You might not like them. Some of the opinions I express here are not fully formed. Some of them are based on false assumptions, biased information, or incomplete logical thought processes. I am also completely aware that these opinions stem from my privilege. Because of my social and economic standing, I am able to have these opinions and make assumptions that don’t hold true for many people in the United States. I am not going to apologize for my opinions. However, my opinions are not immutable.  After reading this, if you would like to engage – to share your experiences or knowledge – I am incredibly willing to listen and start a dialogue with you. That’s the whole point of this, we need to engage more, and more productively.

On my 18th birthday, there were two things more important to me than anything else: making sure I had a Library of Congress Reader Registration Card and making sure I was registered to vote. In the United States, democracy is an opt-in affair. It is your privilege, and your responsibility to ensure that, once you are eligible, you are registered to vote. There is no mandatory participation in elections. Society is a different story. Society is not something we opt-in to. Whether we like it or not, there is no way to be a passive bystander. We are bound together in smaller and larger ways – by values, beliefs, interests, geography. That’s not to say we all have to like each other or get along – more that we are all collectively responsible for what happens in the United States today.

That’s right. We are all collectively responsible. 

There is no passing the buck to politicians or the wealthy elite. Yes, they have more power. Yes, they have more influence. Yes, they have resources at their disposal to keep the status quo stable. But that does not mean we are powerless to make change. I have faith in our democratic system. I have faith in the values America is said to hold: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that all men are created equal. Our system is far from perfect – but the only effective way to start addressing these problems is to opt-in.

Vote. This is the easiest one – it doesn’t even take that much effort. If you think filling out a voter registration card or remembering the date of an election is challenging, I have many suggestions for you. There are endless organizations trying to make voting easier. If you’re in Virginia, I have an incredible friend working her ass off to ensure people are registered and informed. I will personally email you and remind you to vote if that’s what it takes (I can be very persistent).

Vote Anyway. But Anna, you might say, it’s not like my vote matters; a single vote isn’t going to sway the entire election. To this I would like to present several arguments. (1) Brexit. I have many friends in the UK who were very surprised when the British withdrawal from the EU passed. People my age just assumed that there would be enough young voters participating to make the opposite a foregone conclusion. But if each of my friends had rallied a few additional friends to actually vote, the result could have been much different. Millennial in the U.S. could learn a lot from our British counterparts. (2) The presidential election is NOT THE ONLY ELECTION in November. I personally will be voting for a governor, a House seat, and Senate seat (who will be in office LONGER than whoever is elected President). The President is not an all-powerful monarch who controls the United States. As much as we bemoan Congress and their seeming inability to get things done, THAT’S WHAT THEY ARE THERE FOR. Congress exists to represent US citizens in the federal legislative process and to provide checks and balances to the Executive and Judiciary. If a candidate you are not keen on is elected president, my Senator, House Representative, and Governor are the next best line of defense to make sure my views are heard at a national level. Outside of that, there are numerous local government positions up for election this cycle. These representatives work just as hard to ensure my interests are represented throughout our multi-tier democracy. Clinton or Trump are not the be-all, end-all of American democracy, as much as the media and the rest of society seems to think they are. Voting is not an either-or choice between two people – it is an expression of your interests at many levels for many different candidates looking to fill many positions and focused on many different issues.

In Washington State, voting is so easy I did it in my pajamas.

Baby Steps. There are a lot of problems with our electoral system. I don’t think anyone would deny that. But one thing I know for certain, we are not going to be overthrowing our government in a violent revolution any time soon. If that happens, I’ll eat my hat (and I like my hat!). The other thing I know is that the American democratic system was designed by the founders to be slow and contemplative. It was not designed to revolutionize society overnight. That doesn’t make us helpless, and it DOES NOT give our power to our representatives. There are endless ways that we can influence our political system. Call your representatives. Email them. Protest. Make them understand what issues are important to you. They cannot represent us if they don’t know what we want or need. It’s not a perfect system, of course there will be special interest groups and lobbyists and big money and blah blah blah. That does not give us an excuse to opt-out. If you don’t feel like you are being represented by an elected official then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Vote for the other guy. Join the campaign. Volunteer for voter registration drives. Engage in meaningful conversations about the issues, where you keep an open-mind. Heck, run for office! Just because you’re not old enough (or natural-born enough) to be president doesn’t mean you can’t be a state senator, or a city council member, or at least participate in an election to make sure candidates answer the questions YOU want answered. Our political system is not something we can fix in one election – but we should always be trying to improve it, baby step by baby step.

Participate. Democracy, and society, is about more than elections. We get swept up in this circus and forget that non-election years exist, and those years are just as important to the wellbeing of society. The news these days is full of horrific stories about the ills our society is facing. Black Americans are facing discrimination, prejudice and violence. Women continue to struggle for equal footing. Countless other minorities are ignored altogether. Terror influences our decisions everyday – whether we know it or not. Education systems are strained. Health systems are strained. Housing is a pressing issue in Seattle and elsewhere around the country. Yes, these are issues we expect our elected officials to act on – but they are everyone’s responsibility. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington paired up as co-presidents with the most amenable Congress known to mankind would not be able to solve all of these problems. The seemingly insurmountable odds is not an excuse to opt-out. The social contract says it all – we take more than our fair share from society. We have a responsibility to contribute something back to it. If you can’t be bothered to vote in November, find something productive to do. Volunteer, donate, just be f-ing nice to people – think beyond yourself. When we opt-in, the possibilities are endless.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I’m not sure anyone really enjoys self-righteous political rants. Before I end (with promises of more fluffy, lightweight blog posts in the future), I wanted to emphasis one last time: VOTE. It’s how our democracy works.

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