A pop-tart-making president, please

By Elizabeth Bryning

I was talking to an American friend today about the upcoming presidential elections in his country and I asked him if he had voted yet. His reply left me speechless. “I’m not going to vote,” he said. I goggled at him, my lower jaw somewhere near my knees. When I finally recovered the capacity to speak, I could only utter grunts of one-syllable: “Huh? Um? Eh?”
What I was thinking was “But you’re an AMERICAN!” What America stands for, apart from the freedom to buy until you’re smothered by consumption goods and the freedom to sell your grandmother to pay this month’s credit card bill, is DEMOCRACY. An American telling me he’s not going to vote is a bit like a Mongolian saying he hates horses. There’s something very wrong with this picture.
“You have the right to vote and you’re not going to?” I finally spluttered.
“I have the right NOT to vote!” he replied proudly.
Not wanting to be impolite, I let that slide but what I wanted to say was “Er, no. Rights are not free rides, they come with a catch: responsibilities. If you are fortunate enough to be a citizen of a free and democratic society, your first responsibility is to be informed of how society functions, your second responsibility is to participate (uphold your right to question the status quo, your freedom of expression, your right to petition…) and your third responsibility is to vote in a way that benefits society”. But instead of saying all that, I asked, mildly, “Why aren’t you voting?”
His reply was another stunner. I don’t remember the exact words, my head was in a whirl, but it was something along the lines of “The system sucks, it’s run by corporate money and I don’t want to be part of it, so I’m just going to wait until it collapses and we can start again”.
I repressed the urge to scream. Women and minorities in the USA fought and died for the right to vote and he’s throwing it away? People struggled to build a free and open society in the USA, one that was once the envy of the world, and he’s happy to let all that go to waste? He’s just going to “wait until it collapses”? Um, newsflash: That won’t happen anytime soon, at least not in the way he expects. There won’t be some great Armageddon that lets him play out all his survivalist fantasies. All people get by not voting is more of the same: increasing corruption, the rich getting more powerful, and those powerful people controlling our lives even more than they currently do. Trying to stay calm, I said, “But if you don’t vote, then the people who do vote get to decide your future for you!”
His reply was something like, “Well, there’s no one to vote for. The president did some things I didn’t like and didn’t do the things I wanted, and the other guy, well, forget it”.
I stared at him again, not wanting to say what I was thinking: “The president did some stuff you didn’t like? Hello! He’s running a country not campaigning to be crowned Miss America. That’s democracy for you, there’s always going to be some stuff you don’t like and some compromises. And anyway, his job isn’t like making pop-tarts, there are no instant results. Change takes time!”
I was bewildered as to how someone can be an American and not vote. Surely the government takes away the citizenship or non-voters? Alas, there seems to be no penalty in the USA for being apathetic and irresponsible. In Australia, where I’m from, we at least impose fines on such people, charging them significant sums of money if they don’t vote. This serves as an incentive to vote when the motivating thought of “doing something useful instead of whingeing like a drongo” doesn’t have any effect.
The discussion with my American friend reminded me of the complaints of the Americans I knew back in 2010 when it was time to vote for congress, two years after Obama became president. “He still hasn’t changed the system! We’ll punish him by voting for the Republicans,” they said.
I was amazed at their naivety and began to think that they were not entirely sane, but tried to reason with them. “You expected Obama to change the entire system in two years? It took several decades for the system to get the way it is and you wanted Obama to fix it in half a term? Talk about wanting instant gratification!”
But, dissatisfied at not having a pop-tart-making president, they voted for the other guys (or didn’t vote – which is the same thing), and the Republicans then gained control of congress and blocked every attempt Obama’s administration made to make the changes my American friends wanted to see. And now? They complain that Obama didn’t do the things they wanted. The words “spoilt brats”, along with some choice expletives, have crossed my mind more than once.
It is incredible to me that the USA invades other countries in the name of freedom and DEMOCRACY when a significant proportion of its own people doesn’t vote and doesn’t even participate in civil society in any meaningful way.
In Mongolia, the people who were born before the collapse of the Soviet Union should understand the value of democracy. They’ve seen what society is like when the right to vote doesn’t exist (pre 1990): corruption and zero freedom; and they’ve also seen what happens when members of society don’t uphold their right to be involved in decisions affecting civil society and then vote in their direct individual interests instead of voting for what’s best for society (post 1990): even worse corruption and a huge divide between the rich and the poor.
I couldn’t help but get angry when I thought that while my American friend is throwing away his right to vote, many people in the world still don’t have that right and are struggling to get it. Or if they do have the right, they are not allowed to uphold that right. In Afghanistan, for example, women have the right to vote, but often can’t vote because their husbands, fathers and brothers forbid them to. And, at the same time, many men in Afghanistan are themselves intimidated by the Taliban into not voting. In the general election in 2009, Afghan voters were mutilated and killed by the Taliban for upholding their right to vote, and the Taliban threatened to bomb the polling booths. This was somewhat off-putting for the potential voter. Amazingly, tens of thousands of brave people still turned up at the booths, determined to participate in deciding the future of their country (in a non-violent way).
Meanwhile, in America, some people who have the right to vote, don’t. And why? Because they think the system isn’t perfect. That’s a bit sickening.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the dilemma that Americans face. On the one hand they have a slightly imperfect incumbent president (his flaws must be appalling in a country that worships perfection). On the other hand they have a man who likes to bend the truth and who is supported by all the rednecks, racists, homophobes, Islamophobes and the Wall Street gamblers who bankrupted millions of people, not to mention all the slime-bag billionaires who want to have tax cuts so they can afford to buy an extra house in the Cayman Islands to stay in when they visit their offshore bank accounts — and one doesn’t want to be associated with them. It must be a tough choice. I can see why they might want to opt out of making a decision. My message to them: Be brave. You can do it. Tick a box.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=1666

Posted by on Oct 29 2012. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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