I almost didn’t vote yesterday. I didn’t want the hassle of the forty minute train ride. I didn’t know anything about the candidates or the issues allegedly defining the election. I didn’t think it would make a difference. But I got off my butt, went into the city and voted anyway. The after affect wasn’t empowering or inspiring. I just had the same feeling I get when I finish running an errand.
So why did I bother? There are probably a lot of reasons. The fact that no one is going to lynch me or bomb the polling place has a lot to do with it. The persistent encouragement (or shaming depending on how you look at it), of social media plays a role. Expressing my disapproval of politicians who side with FOX News also helped me get to the polls. But the biggest reason can be boiled down to the luxury of expression.
As a writer, I have the luxury of being able to express myself in words. When my friends perform at a show or have an event, I enjoy the luxury of expressing my support by showing up to cheer them on. When things I find online resonate with me, I have the luxury to express my perspective by sharing them. When I vote, I take advantage of the luxury to express my preference for the particular personality or perspective presented to me at the time.
As a student of the realpolitik school of political science, I do not see individual votes or even individual elections as the ultimate measure of political success. Politics isn’t about candidates or issues. Politics is about power. Power is measured by what you can and cannot do to affect change. The power to change or not change the lives of individuals comes from actions not votes. Whether you’re talking about ending slavery or LGBT rights or ending Prohibition, the pattern is the same. The decisions and actions come first. When the votes come later, it is an expression of acceptance for a fait accompli.
Is voting a decision or an action on its own? Maybe, but if it is, it represents a minimal act of power. It will not create change by itself. The party in power may or may not change, but the sight of a police officer will continue to make me just as apprehensive as the sight of a potential criminal. Temporary political shifts in Washington or Albany will not change my struggle to manage my relationship with money, time or the people who are important to me. If I’m going to change anything substantial in my life, it will be determined by what I do during the 364 days when I’m not voting.
I don’t vote to exercise power. I vote to express my opinion. My opinion in this case is symbolic because it is limited to a handful of pre-selected, carefully screened artificial personas. But most luxuries are symbolic. The real power in my life comes from my choices and my actions.
Maybe it’s the same for you too.