Can Voters and Nonvoters Battling Against Despair Respect Each Other?

There is a faction of Americans who believe that it is their civic duty to vote, and there is another faction who believe it is their civic duty to reject the pseudo-democratic voting ritual, and these two groups routinely engage in mutual mocking of one another. However, I have found that within both groups there are “warriors against despair,” and it is my hope that all warriors against despair — voters and nonvoters alike — gain respect for each other.

My general view toward politicians is best described as cynical, defined as “scornful of the motives, virtue, or integrity of another.” I have abstained from participating in a couple of presidential elections rather than simply voting for the “lesser of two evils.” The lesser-of-two-evils philosophy, I have come to believe, ultimately contributes to despair. And widespread despair, I believe, is one reason the United States has turned into a nation of sheep. In contrast, voting for a candidate whom one respects is an antidote to despair.

It’s difficult not to respect Barack Obama’s intelligence and equanimity, but comedian Sarah Silverman’s respect for Obama goes beyond that. I had to chuckle at Silverman’s video pitch “The Great Schlep,” aimed at inspiring Jews to get their Florida grandparents to vote for her candidate. Obama, according to Sarah Silverman, is “the goodest person we’ve ever had as a presidential candidate,” and she proclaims that he is “our last hope of ending this country’s reputation as the asshole of the universe.” Her video is so clever, adorable, and so silly that it energized me.

On a recent visit with my 90-year-old father who continues to live independently in West Palm Beach, Florida, I asked him if he thought that the upcoming presidential election was worth his voting in. My dad, a retired postal clerk and former union activist, responded, “Yes. I like Obama. He is well-educated but he speaks in a way that the common man can understand — and I believe he is sincere.” He said that he wanted to vote for Obama, but there was a problem.

My dad has been living in Florida full time for the last few years but hadn’t yet registered to vote, and we only had two days left to beat the October 6 Florida voter registration deadline. With my wife at the wheel of the rental car and my dad in the backseat, the three of us drove to the Palm Beach County Board of Elections. My dad filled out a simple form, and I showed it to the clerk who assured me that it was properly completed. I thought that we had succeeded, but my double-checking wife, following up a week later, telephoned the Board of Elections and discovered that because of a bureaucratic snafu his registration had been “suspended.”

Owing to my wife’s tenacity, the problem was corrected and my dad is now registered to vote, and he is looking forward to helping Obama take Florida. Registering my father to vote was not only an antidote against despair for my wife, my dad, and me, but also for our blue-team friends.

While Sarah Silverman and other voters are, in their way, battling against despair, many fundamentalist voters may be surprised to discover that there are nonvoting cynics who also battle against despair. One warrior nonvoting cynic is writer Gore Vidal, who happens to be the cousin of Al Gore and the grandson of deceased former U.S. Senator Thomas Gore as well as the stepbrother of the late Jackie Kennedy-Onassis. With Vidal’s inside information, he has more reasons than most to be cynical of politicians. In an essay entitled “The Real Two Party System,” Vidal wrote:

“In the United States there are two political parties of equal size. One is the party that votes in presidential elections. The other is the party that does not vote in presidential elections. . . .The presidential elections are a bit like the Grammy Awards, where an industry of real interest to very few people honors itself fulsomely. . . on prime-time television.”

Vidal’s audacious hope was that a massive passive aggression of nonvoting — a sort of civil disobedience — would show the current illegitimacy of our government and promote meaningful change:

“If I may speak. . . as a member of the party that does not vote, I would suggest that those of you who are accustomed to vote, join us in the most highly charged political act of all: not voting. When two-thirds–instead of the present half–refuse to acknowledge the presidential candidates, the election will lack all legitimacy. Then we shall be in a position to invoke Article Five of the Constitution and call a new constitutional convention.”

Perhaps the audacity of Gore Vidal’s hope is too audacious.

I respect cynics such as Vidal who are cynical not because of a lack of courage but because of a love of truth. Helen Keller was another such courageous cynic and lover of truth. Keller, discussing women’s suffrage in 1911 (nine years before it became law), wrote:

“Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

I agree with Vidal and Keller that in true democracy one is not forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, each of whom receives millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy individuals. It is my experience that voting for Tweedledee simply because you loathe Tweedledum more is ultimately dispiriting and bad for democracy. I believe that one reason why many Americans have come to be docile in the face of governmental insanity is their allegiance to the lesser-of-two-evils philosophy, a doctrine which promotes despair.

While I will be voting for Obama, my wife, who is primarily responsible for winning the battle to gain my father’s voter registration in Florida, is remaining in the Gore Vidal-Helen Keller party for the 2008 election. Her decision causes absolutely no tension in our family.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).