Against Apathy

First of all, I wanted to link to this Bloomberg op-ed which looks at politics through the lens of language, something I’m obviously interested in myself. Professor Glickman, to his credit, employs a historical angle as well. It’s a fascinating look at what happens when you define a concept only in the rosiest, soft-focus terms, and then claim it’s going to be stolen away from you.

It’s an odd segue, but Glickman’s observations – especially about the lack of a “positive definition” and the “language of fear and loss” – dovetail surprisingly well with one of the biggest concerns of this year’s election: not polarization, but exhaustion.

In the United Kingdom, politicians on both sides of a debate have a higher figure they can turn to. Since the prime minister and his party act as head of government but not head of state, there is always a symbolic figure that rises above politics and works equally with whatever government is in power for the good of the nation: the monarch. That is, at least, the ideal, and if monarchs throughout history have not lived up to that best-case scenario, then it is good that the role of the monarch today is largely that of a figurehead who is supposed to represent the nation at its best.

Here in the US, we have no such figurehead. Instead, our ideals are abstract and not easily defined. Freedom, equality, justice – they are all good things, but it’s difficult for us to define precisely where these ideals begin and end, and which should be upheld as a primary focus should they conflict with one another. This makes it easy for politicians to cloak their positions and policies in the rhetoric of patriotism even if those policies are not in themselves representative of American values. We’ve all seen it: the restriction of civil liberties passed off as the Patriot Act, the constriction of aid to the poor and hungry called an expansion of freedom, the destruction of families paradoxically called a defense of the family unit.

The upshot of this linguistic confabulation is that people who hold principled, ethical positions will find themselves tarred as traitors, idiots, anti-American collaborators, and worse. There are vast swaths of the American public who do not know the difference between fascism, socialism, and communism, but are convinced that they are all bad. Morally evil, even. When pushed, the most strident among them may not even be able to tell you why. But, as Prof. Glickman notes, political rhetoric makes it sound like our nation is one reform away from Stalinism.

From this morass has risen a dangerous group – the apathetic nonvoter. Even the most politically engaged among us know one or two of these lonely souls: they have tried to learn a little about politics and have been blasted as ignorant and uninformed and now refuse to even try. Some of them claim that both parties are exactly the same and our votes literally, existentially, do not matter. Others say they are uninterested, or are happy that they know nothing about politics.

This is not merely an attitude of some kind of internal failing. These people do not lack the capability to make an informed choice. They are, by and large, exhausted with the process, the pettiness and the name-calling. It doesn’t make any sense to be completely unconcerned with future leaders – at our jobs, we care about who our new bosses will be. Often the ‘apathetic’ person isn’t apathetic at all, but simply afraid of how his or her beliefs will be dissected or ridiculed. They are unsure of reception and skeptical of the way that the system is constructed.

I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that, left in power for too long, any party will forget what it stood for and soon settle into a comfortably autocratic routine. That’s why voters matter. We need people who are paying attention, who will force the parties to be diligent and stand up for their constituents. Nations do not shift dramatically under a new president (short of civil war, which I hope we never need to face). Instead, the body politic moves incrementally, toward policies that make sense in the context of the world we live in today. We need to decide, every few years, which direction we want to move. This applies equally to people who have not had the time and inclination to deeply investigate every aspect of policy, and people who are afraid that their beliefs will not be seen as “consistent” because they don’t exactly match up to one of the candidate’s.

No politician is perfect, seen through our own beliefs. But neither can we voters afford to be so pure, or so uncertain, that we can’t bear to dirty our hands through contact with any politician. Every few years, we need to get involved and cast our vote for the person we believe will run our country best, or at least the one who won’t run it worst. If we don’t vote because neither candidate exactly matches up with our politics, we’ve made it that much easier for the worse leader to take power.

Believe in something. Work for something. And when the time to vote comes, vote for the person who best embodies your ideals. Don’t hold out for one who matches them exactly. It’ll be worth it in the end.



  1. This is beautifully written and makes an excellent point. Especially that last paragraph, tucking that away for future reference.

  2. As my old Dad used to say, “Apathy is not good, but it will probably go away.”

  3. great post! democracy truly works if everyone votes. I have also heard a lot of people agreeing with a particular party on one aspect but not voting for it because they do not align on other issues. Like you said, it is important to vote, even if no candidate matches you perfectly. Get the closest match.
    Also, I feel that one should vote for the candidate who’s policies are better for the country in general, especially those policies that have an economic impact. In times of economic strain, the candidate that can get the country back on the employment track should be preferred. Questions regarding faith, social beliefs etc. should be second to financial health. I know many will disagree with this but I would rather have a President that improves the financial position of the country than one that spends all his time debating questions on religion, abortion rights etc.

    1. Well said, Raunak. One of the candidates running in a Kitchener-Waterloo Byelection that I’ve been following in Ontario, Canada has mentioned that a combination of Catholic school and public school could save $1.5 billion. Of course this could cause issues related to faith/social beliefs, but a big issue is Ontario’s economy and ensuring that the deficit is on track to be reduced/eliminated in the coming years.

      1. glad you see it that way too!

  4. “From this morass has risen a dangerous group – the apathetic nonvoter.”
    I’m always astounded at the low voter turnout numbers. You have pointed out some reasons for this. It sometimes feels as though there are large numbers of voters who will not vote until they perceive the woes of the Nation to reach or approach critical mass.
    “No politician is perfect, seen through our own beliefs.” This concept is so true, and can be enlarged to show that as we don’t let the lack of perfection in a: spouse, friend, university, church, synagogue, job, home etc., paralyze our decisions, we should not allow human imperfection to impede our voting, since it shapes the very environment of our daily lives.
    Thanks for a thoughtful post. ~Beth

  5. You make a very good point. I am not an american citizen, so I don’t have any voting experience here, But, in India, back when I was a kid, I remember my grandfather telling me he used to nullify his vote every time by making a multiple-vote. And this, he used to tell me with such conviction that I used to wonder if politics was indeed some infliction people need to stay away from. Now, of course, I am a lot wiser, and I know we need to be behind the slow, gradual change we wish to see, but a part of me is still cynical and apathetic.
    Congrats on being freshly pressed! It’s a well deserved one.

  6. “Almost thou hast convinced me to vote”, but not quite.

  7. Great post, b-ape. I especially enjoyed your insight into voter apathy based on ‘being burnt’, not just laziness per-se.

    Raunak, I’m afraid I disagree with you somewhat more. When you say “democracy truly works if everyone votes’, I think I’d add the caveat (suggested by the author’s support of “informed choice”) that the voter has sufficient knowledge of what they’re voting for and about. As b-ape points out, rhetoric cloaks most of modern politics and ‘buzz words’ (e.g. Stalinism) are used to trigger strong emotions without much analytical thought, meaning it takes significant effort to understand the policies, reasons and motives prospective candidates set out. Without knowledge of these, I would argue that votes are indeed irrational, and not only useless, but potentially harmful.
    Your emphasis on economics somewhat highlights this issue. Economics is a massively complex topic, with no academic or political consensus (e.g. neo-Keynsianism vs. Hayek vs. QE). Choosing the candidate who will ‘get the economy back on track’ is no simple task – especially given the divergent ideas of what ‘on track’ might mean – higher GDP, higher GDP per capita, lower underemployment, fiscal surplus, favourable export/import ratio? Moreover, economic decisions in the real world are almost always intrinsically linked to other issues – as Magnus’ example demonstrates, the choice to enforce efficiencies or cut public funding (or other economic measures, e.g tax increases/cuts, stimuli etc.) will all specifically affect individuals’ lives.
    It’s for reasons like this, therefore, that I could never vote Republican. Whilst I am, at the moment, quite impressed by Ryan’s economic plans, and think they have a fair chance of improving the overall American economy, I feel that is Hugely outweighed by the poverty and health deficiencies that millions would be forced into.

  8. Very well written and right on point. My only caveat would be to flog an old saying…Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. When will we have the chance to choose a “good” candidate, or better yet when will an actual “good” candidate have the chance to be chosen? I’m not saying this two party system we have is impossible to change…but maybe I am. Sorry if my cynicism is showing. I would love to get your opinion. Respectfully.

  9. Isn’t it pathetic that half or more of the electorate are too apathetic to vote for a President, but much of that same group can tell you with great passion who their favorite basketball team is or who should win this season of American idol? There is no excuse for apathy, and most of the ones offered boil down to intellectual laziness or sheer narcissism.

  10. william wallace · · Reply

    The British brainwashing media is equal to the american
    brainwashing media (almost) the american media / they
    address the audience as if the are aged 7 yrs of age ….the
    British media addresses their audience as if 5 yrs of age.

    In the United Kingdom the maonarchy having the House
    of Lords / representing their wishes and in parliament a
    Conservative Party which but representing their wishes.

    The monarchy which reality but a gathering of nations
    wealthiest whom always protecting their own interests
    but unlike american politicians / they having learnt not
    to push the people’s too far in doing so then it bringing
    mob rule & acts of violence that the people well capable
    in taking a part where many heads from all sides be lost

    Yet (reality) at present all bow at USA administration
    as the USA still the worlds military ruling power ( how
    long it remain such is limited) // as for every enemy it
    removing it creates another 20 enemies thus continues
    to squander away the nations resources /in lost causes.

    Present the USA continue seeking the illusion of world
    military as political domination / which one looking at
    history one realizes such a goal can’t be achieved / any
    nation having tried it but then are brought unto ruin.

    Many nations wiser politicians have warned US govts
    for decades that if continue on such course then t’will
    but surely bring nations decline / unto its destruction
    american politicians failed ever listen / as the military
    failed to listen / even the hard lesson of Vietnam t’was
    not learnt / they but simply carried on in an policy of
    of aggresssion setting up puppet govts of whom then
    expected but bow before USA / threats of destruction.

    The problem being we have American Administrations
    whom having taken the material illusion to an extreme
    we having other nation as Afghanistan / pakistan / as
    many other nation whom having taken their spiritual
    aspect of life to the extreme / thus its a lost cause for
    its a no win situation for all / as both oppossing sides
    are right as they be wrong / it like somebody fighting
    themseves they are beating up & harming themselves.

    At present we have in the USA politicians & military
    whom put a false case that IRAN a threat thus IRAN
    need be bombed invaded another puppet govt put in
    place. The reality / the biggest threat to humanity is
    “Climate Change” bringing exteme conditions where
    needs of basics to survive increase in a price beyond
    the reach of millions of the worlds poorest in paying.

    American politicians & military need a mind change
    away from destruction as injustice / unto that they
    are a force of good in the world / a beacon of light &
    example to all nations of the finer of human actions.

  11. I agree with fortunecookieteller: It was inevitable that Romney would be the Republican nominee; anyone that seemed to have 1/2 a chance was either shot down by the media or ignored to death. Then there’s the electoral college system. I live in a Democratic state. If I wanted to vote for the republican candidate (I don’t), I may as well stay home, because I’m in the minority. Voting in a general election would have greater impact if you live in a swing state.

  12. One person does not equal one vote. And when corporations “are people too” and can contribute accordingly, when you have PACS and SuperPACS raising money for “their” candidates, and when the Supreme Court can decide the outcome of an election, is it any wonder that American voters are apathetic?

  13. Really, you think the apathetic non-voter is more dangerous than, say, a junk-bond trader or a hedge fund manager? The distinctions between the two parties are insignificant, ideologically they are capitalists, anything else is tarred-and-feathered un-American. Washington has no moral ground, and it isn’t just Kissinger and post-Vietnam era genocides and nation-building intrigues. Or, have you not read Zinn and Wasserman and Chomsky?

    1. I have read them, and honestly? I’m not convinced. Try reading something by Michael Berube – preferably “The Left at War”. My post on “Why I’m a Liberal” gets into a little of Berube’s discussion of what he calls the “Manichean Left” and the false choice theory you’re suggesting.

      In order to accept Chomsky’s conclusions, you have to accept that SIGNIFICANTLY more of your own thought process is controlled by moneyed interests than you’re aware of. You have to accept that everyone else suffers from Marx’s false consciousness, but that you, miraculously, do not. You apparently also have to conclude that issues like societal acceptance of homosexuals (the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) and the extension of healthcare to millions (in Obamacare) are literally insignificant in the face of the continued existence of an upper class in the United States.

      I know Zizek and his contention that we are literally unable to imagine anything except capitalism (that we are more able to accept the end of the world than the emergence of a true socialism). I just don’t see it. I fear that you may be making the point that I did in my post – that some voters are too pure for any cause that doesn’t exactly align with their beliefs.

  14. …that somehow I’m proving your argument. That’s rich! Chomsky’s conclusions, no, Chomsky’s observations. His systematic, painstaking scrutiny of American foreign policy over the past sixty years. Chomsky isn’t just theorizing like you. He has the real goods, and the American media treat him like a pariah.

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