The Magazine

Apathetics Anonymous

The joy of deciding not to decide who should be the next president of the United States.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A strange thing happened to me this election cycle. After examining my conscience, determining that I did indeed have one, I decided not to cast a vote for president. I informed my inner circle, who immediately attacked. I was called an idiot, an irresponsible citizen, and less than a man. Even worse, I was accused of being that dimmest of characters: an undecided voter, possibly from Ohio. This is the kind of slander that could cause me to slug someone. But I cut my mother slack since she's become more opinionated with age (and accounts will soon be squared when she is prematurely checked into a home).

As someone who holds the heretical belief that presidential elections matter less than we give them credit for, I've always thought it would be useful to start an apathy support group. Of course, I probably wouldn't care enough to show up and lead the group, if anyone else cared enough to join. The "a" word has become a dirty one in our society, though the Stoics saw it merely as "the extinction of the passions by the ascendancy of reason." Medical literature suggests that apathy can in fact be caused by seeing something horrific, such as wartime conditions, health traumas, or watching Tito the Builder campaign for John McCain.

But of course, apathy is not always what causes people to become nonvoters. I was not unengaged or undecided, but, rather, made a very conscious decision that I wasn't buying what either candidate was selling. I could've perhaps supported Barack Obama's call to serve a cause larger than myself, if after two years of discharging gassy effluvia, he'd successfully named a cause larger than himself. As a lifelong conservative, I bristle at all the talk of hope and change, which dashes my hopes that this change they speak of won't require more of my tax dollars than they'd hoped.

My disillusionment with Republicans is even more complete. Out of disgust, I'd refrained from voting for George W. Bush in 2004, instead writing in my former brother-in-law, who was running a doomed campaign for county commissioner at the time. It seemed like he could use a fallback position.

Four years later, it felt even less advisable to reward Republicans after any number of crimes against ethics and judgment. While I like McCain the person, much as I do Obama, I couldn't shake the feeling that he was making it up as he went along, from his advocacy of nationalizing bad mortgages to picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. If I thought the qualities that recommended a vice-presidential candidate were lack of experience, an addiction to relentlessly cloying populist rhetoric, and a slim girlish figure, I'd have just voted for Kerry-Edwards in 2004.

In this age, however, making up your mind to not make up your mind can leave you feeling like a moral pygmy, what with all the voteaholic self-righteousness that is peddled ad nauseam. These voting-advocacy groups descend like swarms of locusts every four years, insisting on how important voting for the sake of voting is. You know the ones. They Rock the Vote, Rush the Vote, Promote the Vote, Whisper Sweet Nothings in the Vote's Ear, Tell the Vote She Looks Pretty, and Ask the Vote if She'd Like To Go Out for One Strawberry Malt with Two Straws.

Being for the process of voting, of course, allows celebrity spokes-tools to offer us all the self-congratulatory harangues they so enjoy delivering, without their having to delve into the knotty complexities of, say, Saving Darfur or Freeing Tibet. The simple act of shuffling off to your local middle school to hit a touchscreen for your candidate, in their telling, becomes a feat of civic heroism. When in fact it requires about as much sacrifice and good citizenship as returning library books on time.

The apex of such vacuity came last cycle during the "Vote or Die" campaign. It left me hopeful that the voteaholic community would suffer a permanent setback when it was revealed that P. Diddy, the campaign's brain if that's not too strong a word, had himself failed to both vote and die. But no such luck.

This cycle saw a new low when I was sent an email by the Hip Hop Caucus shortly before the election. They encouraged me to watch streaming video of the rapper T.I. voting as part of their "Respect My Vote" campaign. This was a notable accomplishment for T.I., it turns out, since, though he'd been lecturing all the young people to vote, he couldn't himself on account of being a convicted felon.

Resourceful citizen that he is, T.I. found a loophole in Georgia law. As he tells it, "As long as you registered, you ain't servin' no sentence, you are awaiting sentencing, as of right now, you can vote." And so he did. "I'm actually leading by example," he proclaimed afterwards. A grateful nation thanks him. But perhaps, while T.I. is giving himself a gold star for voting, he might consider that he'd have more usefully checked off his good citizenship block by not getting busted for possessing unregistered machine guns with silencers, by not selling crack, and by not getting into public beefs with fellow citizens Lil' Flip, Chaka Zulu, and Shawty Lo.

It's not just felonious rappers, however, who are infantilizing the act of voting. Corporations, too, are getting in on the action. As MSNBC.com reported, voting has become so sacrosanct that businesses are actually giving away free stuff just for your having done so.

If you showed up with your "I voted" sticker this election day--a boast that has the ring of a 6-year-old crowing that he successfully tied his shoes--it was possible to get free ice cream from Ben & Jerry's, free donuts from Krispy Kreme, and free marital aids--a "Maverick sleeve" for men ("he's always there to lend a hand, he works for every man, and he bucks the status quo") or a Silver Bullet mini-vibrator for women ("a great stress reliever during these economic times")--from the sex-toys emporium Babeland.

I hate to rain on the voteaholic's good-feelings parade, but as an engaged citizen, I must. First, there's the illogic of encouraging people to vote who might not believe in what you do. When I think a particular presidential candidate really matters, as I often have, the last thing in the world I want to do is to encourage someone who opposes that candidate to vote. I'm happy for you if your voice has found expression. But there's only one voice I want to count: my own. The last thing I need is your cancelling it out. Suggesting that the latter is more important than the former is suggesting that the act of voting is more important than what you're voting for, which puts a question mark on the seriousness of the entire enterprise.

But we kid ourselves that our individual votes matter more than they do. As author Steven Landsburg wrote in Slate, even assuming you lived in Florida during a tight election, one in which 51 percent of fellow voters had a likelihood of voting for a particular candidate, your chance of casting the tiebreaker would be one in 10 to the 1,046th power, "approximately the same chance you have of winning the Powerball jackpot 128 times in a row." Shooting down the voteaholic's standard objection--what if everyone thought like that?--Landsburg wrote, "So what? Everyone doesn't think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions."

And the large groups of people who do think like that would have had a negligible effect on the election if they'd chosen otherwise. After the 2000 election--the tightest in modern history--Northwestern University researchers, along with the Campaign Study Group, set about studying nonvoters and found that if they had gone ahead and voted, 37 percent would have voted for Bush, and 37 percent would have voted for Al Gore, leaving us right where we finished anyway.

Voteaholics also eternally assume that high voter turnout is a sign of the good health of our system, when in fact, the opposite could be argued. Do more people vote because they're satisfied or because they're dissatisfied? A look at figures kept by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) might cause you to question this article of faith.

IDEA, it turns out, keeps statistics on voter turnout for all countries that have had elections since 1945. America, which most would agree is the prime exemplar of democracy, the envy of the world, averages a meager 48.3 percent voter turnout, enough to get us ranked 139th. Who's ahead of us? Such shiny happy beacons of freedom as Cambodia, Indonesia, Angola, and Somalia (all ranked in the top ten with more than 85 percent turnout), as well as Rwanda, Iran, Zimbabwe, Syria, Russia, and Uganda in descending order, to name just a few. We beat Sierra Leone at least, if only by a point-and-a-half.

I'm not disparaging voting, just saying that it's grossly overrated. I voted this year, just not for president. On Election Day, I woke up early for a journalist (9 A.M.), made my way down to the polling place in the rain like all the other heroes, and said hello to my friends in the Republican tent in the parking lot, who were passing out donuts and literature. I caught the eye of a high school buddy's mother, who seemed happy enough to see me, until I informed her of my vote for president: none of the above.

"Go home," she commanded.

"That's okay," interrupted a freshly scrubbed baby-faced stranger in a suit, named Matt Swanson, who was running for the Board of Education. "Just as long as you vote for me," he said, handing me a flyer.

At the Democratic table (more literature, more donuts), a stubbled union member shook his head in disgust when I broke the same news. "If you don't vote, you can't complain," he said sternly, repeating the common sophism that makes about as much sense as saying that you can't stay sober if you won't get drunk. "Don't worry," I tell him, "it didn't stop me last time." When it comes to dispensing blame, I'm a committed redistributionist.

Inside, I stood in front of the touchscreen and voted my conscience. "Yes" for Matt Swanson, since we've got history. "Yes" for Slots for Tots, a Maryland ballot measure which will fill state coffers with gambling money from newly installed slot machines, money which will pay for teachers and schools and, more important, be a hedge against my state taxes' getting hiked further to hell.

As for president, I left my ballot beautifully, gloriously blank. No vote is a vote too, as the libertarian kids like to say. In my case, a vote of no-confidence in the available candidates is simultaneously a vote of confidence in the stability of our system to withstand the whims of any individual. I felt so good about my nondecision that, wearing my "I Voted" sticker at Starbucks afterwards, where I'd come to get my free tall Pike Place Roast, I tried to cadge a piece of blueberry crumb cake as well. "You're on your own in 2012," my shotgun-riding wife said.

So no need for me to congratulate you on voting. As you sit there with your free Krispy Kremes, Starbucks Thanksgiving Blends, and Silver Bullet vibrators, everyone from T.I. to Diddy already has. Instead, I'd like to leave you with a thought, something voteaholics don't treasure as much as a free cup of Ben & Jerry's. They are the words of the 17th-century English politician Lord Falkland: "When it is not necessary to make a decision, it is necessary not to make a decision."

Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.