MASKO: Respect the right to apathy

With Election Day drawing close, Yale political activists are breaking out the clipboards and registration forms again. Walking past their tables, I always wonder how many times those clipboards have been foisted upon past Yale students who weren’t particularly interested in voting: “Don’t you want to make a difference?” The student’s eyes soften at the sight of a candy bar on the table and the enthused smile on the face of the activist handing over the clipboard. He grimaces, then takes it and starts to write.

The benefits of getting out the vote are clear and indisputable. Not only does it remind a voter to vote a certain way, but enthusiastic campaigning gives the supported candidate or cause a more abstract advantage. In a society that is always waiting to be inspired, such vigor and enthusiasm can create an air of inevitability as they did around Barack Obama in 2008. Once it is established, such an impression tends to be self-fulfilling. And that enthusiasm, whether around the banner of “Morning in America” or “Hope and Change,” forms the backdrop for our most rapturous political moments.

Voting is one of our most essential American privileges. But valuing the act of voting itself more than voting informed and based on one’s own motivation threatens to make it an empty ritual with potentially dangerous consequences. I do not mean to say that I have enough of a problem with campaigning for political ideas to stop me from doing it. However, these thoughts should give pause to anyone participating in voter registration drives.

We hear about voter ignorance after every election — this year, 68 percent of Americans can’t locate the nose on their own face (up from 64 last year). And yet political activists constantly tell us that America’s greatest political vice is apathy (usually among whatever constituency the activist happens to represent).

Apathy is indeed a major problem in American politics. But the way to fix it is not by convincing potentially uninformed voters that they have an opinion when they don’t. The fact is that the unfettered democratic process has an excellent mechanism for deciding whether people should be voting or not: if they feel strongly enough about the issues to motivate themselves to vote, they will. If they don’t, they won’t.

Of course, voter registration is not the only way that we convince other people to vote a certain way. But other methods of persuation, like the influence of political action committees, get abundant media coverage. Voter registration drives (unless they are committing fraud), don’t tend to, but they should. Short of Black Panthers waving nightsticks at Philadelphia voters, I don’t know of any barrier as great to accurately representing the will of the citizenry as overaggressive voter registration. No one, watching a political ad, is forced to switch off his critical faculties, buy the ad’s message and vote accordingly. However, especially for those who are politically apathetic, it is much more difficult to shove an earnest volunteer out of your face than it is to change the channel.

A democracy thrives on the exchange of ideas. It thrives on the slinging of political attack ads, opposing campaigns’ snide tweets reacting to them and leaves us free to make up our own minds — if we want to. Democracy gives us our sacred right to be involved in our own government. Much less respected these days is our right not to be involved.

To be sure, those of us who care deeply about political decisions may feel the need to persuade someone now and again. It is the act of persuading people to vote who are not self-motivated enough to do so alone that is damaging to our democracy. But it is time for us to stop lauding “voter turnout” for its own sake. Informed and motivated voter turnout is all that matters; uninformed high voter turnout is even worse than low turnout and apathy.

This issue matters so much at Yale not only because so many of our classmates are involved in registration, but because no one, as the 2008 election showcased, is more susceptible to political groupthink and peer pressure than our age group. While some of us have our political opinions, it is most important for our nation that we have a fundamental respect for our fellow citizens’ ability to make up their own minds. Hawking cheap Obama T-shirts while calling out at people to come register to vote is a perfect example of this disrespect. Instead, we need to find a medium that both celebrates our rich tradition of political activism and gives our fellow citizens the space they need to think for themselves.

John Masko is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at


  • The Anti-Yale

    My name is Paul Keane, (M. Div. ’80)—-and I approved this message.

    I also made it and circulated it for ZERO cents. My original ad on YouTube (pkvermonter) , got 2011 hits in five days also at ZERO cost, that’s half the voting electorate in my small town .

    Interesting article Mr. Masko.


    • RexMottram08

      Nice soft collared shirt, bro.

  • Jess

    Trying to convince people to do things your way is not disrespect; it’s politics.

    • River_Tam

      Sounds more like proselytizing to me.

  • joematcha

    Look, I totally get that registration drives are extremely shallow attempts to engage the public, but they are not the problem, just a symptom. The problem is twofold: an absurd amount of US citizens lack the ability to think critically in any meaningful way which makes them easy to persuade in ways that invite the type of exploitation you mention in your article, and, perhaps due to that first problem, they incorrectly believe that they do not have political opinions, which I would argue is literally an impossible state of being.

    So let’s focus on educating the people in our country to the point where most aren’t easily swayed one way or another by perfunctory attempts to engage them politically. One of many ways to do that would be not respecting apathy. Political apathy allows people to stop engaging with ideas because they can dismiss them as not important, eroding their ability to think critically in this area. We should all (as teachers, as friends, as parents, in every capacity) confront others in civil and open ways about their ideas and make them explain themselves. The more people engage with ideas the better off we will all be.

    • LtwLimulus90

      If they lack the ability to think critically, wouldn’t “educating” them really just be an act of partisan brainwashing in at least 90% of cases (probably more-the temptation is too powerful to resist!)? I liked your bit about ‘not having political opinions’ as an impossible state of being, it was a clever formulation, but I think that it’s slightly imprecise.

      It is probably impossible not to have a sense of morality, or principle, but I would argue otherwise for the case of having coherent “political opinions”. Politics are so difficult, confusing, and frustrating because there are so many interpretations of different principles, and dedications to these principles (or interpretations thereof) inevitably conflict with one another. Most people, given the minimum level of education that you would see fit for them to vote, still probably won’t have figured out what their true “political opinions” are. At the end of the day, engaging with people who just don’t care and trying to “educate” them is impossible. People need motivation, inspiration, and a certain level of ability to be impassioned enough to search for the truth with any kind of vigor, and to truly understand politics and the choices we face as voters. Either we have to make a seriously huge and unprecedented effort to make people care and make them smarter, or just call these “educational” efforts what they really are: brainwashing.

      • joematcha

        If it was unclear in my comment, let me clarify a bit. I was definitely not referring to voter registration drives as education; I was talking about what people do in school with their teachers and outside of school with their family and friends. I don’t think even the least exploitative voter registration drive can be educational in any meaningful sense, but I do think they can motivate otherwise unmotivated people to seek out information for themselves.

        As for your second point, this is probably a semantic difference driving the disagreement between us, but for what it’s worth, I don’t see how it’s possible for people to have a sense of morality or principle and then not have political opinions since politics is the practical application of those things in law and policy.