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Civic Irresponsibility

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-11-06


I registered to vote for the 2008 election 18 months ago. The reason I did such an uncharacteristically timely and responsible thing had nothing to do with my precognition that 2008 would prove to be an epochal election year. The fact was, as an indigent sort with no bank account or credit cards, I needed a second form of identification to cash checks with, and instead of forking over the $25 needed for a Hunting and Fishing license, I decided it was more prudent to hustle over to Calhoun Street and get signed up to vote. I had no intention of ever fulfilling my civic responsibility to vote, and only signed up to avoid seeing the constipated looks of disapproval from Fort Wayne area bank tellers. Surprisingly, though, when Tuesday rolled around, armed with my new Voter Registration card, I decided "What the hell" and went down to my local precinct. When I cast my ballot, I reflected that, like many Americans, I, too, had voted with my pocketbook.

I have always had a highly cavalier attitude toward national elections and politics, so I guess it's not too surprising to disclose that, prior to this election, I haven't voted in 20 years. I am, by nature, that most reviled of American citizens, the unrepentant non-voter, and despite years of public shaming from friends, until 2008 I had no intention of ever changing. My reasoning was simple — I hated elections, I hated politicians, and I never believed that my vote mattered or that I should give a damn one way or another about any of the candidates. I didn't believe this made me a terrible citizen, this non-voting, and indeed, I could argue that I have always done my part for society — I served as a jury foreman once, I push cars out of snowbanks every winter, I never swore in public if offendable people were about. On the civic duty ledger, it's likely that I did more than the average citizen. I just didn't vote.

Not until this year. And I'm sure you're thinking that this is the point in the story where I admit the error of my ways, when I tell of the transformative moment in the 2008 election that convinced me to get in the game. But it's not so. After I voted this year I immediately felt remorseful, I felt guilty and embarrassed and I truly believed I had betrayed my better instincts. It reminded me of when I was a naive 14 year-old, watching the Jerry Lewis telethon, when I got all swept up with the cheeseball hokum that I actually pledged money to a cause that I neither knew nor cared about. An hour later I felt ashamed, like I had done something really wrong, and I knew (thankfully) that I'd never honor the pledge. I recognized, even then, as a relatively callow teenager, that I was being played, that my buttons were being pushed, and I knew that even if it was a good cause, there was something inherently wrong with the way they were going after me. It was lowest-common denominator pandering, the very same device that all strategists use in elections, and it inevitably turns all prospective participants into suckers.

If a campaign decided to aim a little higher than they do, I'm sure I'd be willing to give a listen. But 2008 was just like 2004 and 2004 was just like 2000 — simplistic political hectoring that insults the intelligence of anyone within hearing distance. It's too easy, after an election, with the excitement of a new administration coming in and the attendant questions and guesses, to forget how awful the past two years of campaigning have been. But I have images from this election season emblazoned on my mind, ones I can't erase — grown men and women shaking signs insanely at rallies, the chanting of idiotic catchphrases, crowds of people booing like infants in response to the mention of a rival candidate. I know this is somebody's idea of democracy in action, but to me it's just seems like moronic crowd activity and the enemy of intellectual discussion.

More to the point, though, I've never believed that any president has ever or will ever impact my life in any significant way. When Reagan was elected in 1980, all my liberal friends were convinced that the jack-booted Nazis were on the way, that nuclear war was imminent. Similarly, when Clinton got elected in 1992, all my conservative friends were certain that the anti-Christ was in office, and that the nation's economy would be decimated by such a notorious spendthrift. Personally, I don't remember that either of these scenarios touched my life. What I remember of the 80's was very similar to what I remember of the 90's — I would get up in the morning, make a pot of coffee, go to work. I dated X amount of girls. I wrote X amount of short stories. Whoever was in the White House made no difference to my specifics. I know this makes me shallow and self-absorbed, but can you honestly tell me that you're any different, that you didn't live your life irrespective of who was in office?

Knowing politicians personally has also reinforced my commitment to not voting. I've been acquainted with people who've run for office in Fort Wayne, and it's always shocking how quickly they transform themselves into political mannequins. One day they're regular folks, with a sense of humor and a bit of self-deprecation, then suddenly they decide to run for dogcatcher, and Boom, they become John Edwards, with the hair and the canned responses and the sound-bite moments. I've known about six candidates personally in my life, and I'm always relieved when they get beat and I can actually understand what they're talking about again.

I know I shouldn't do this, but I'll tell you who I voted for: Obama, mainly because I discovered I couldn't write-in a vote for Kiefer Sutherland. I went home, watched the results. I saw the crowds in Chicago on Tuesday night, I listened to the impassioned appraisals afterward, I heard the analysis and the historical perspective and the big questions of “What This All Means.” I listened as everyone told me that things were different, that a new era had begun and that nothing would ever be the same. Then I went to sleep. On Wednesday, I woke up, made a pot of coffee, went to work.

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