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
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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.