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 john.masko@yale.edu.

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