Angry Americans clawed each other, vying to get to the front of the line in a desperate early morning race. Soccer moms became matrons of steel, bound and determined to do their part for little Jimmy — and for America. After all, this wasn’t just about getting one of the few new PlayStation systems and creating the perfect Christmas, this was about sacrificing your soul to consumerism. No PlayStation, no triumphant smile, no proof to the world that you are, in fact, a good mom.
Rewind a few years to the hot summer when the same scene repeated itself in sporting goods stores. The prize target this time around? An ugly, bright yellow silicone bracelet, with the word “livestrong” (what does that even mean?) printed in large block letters. Despite its dubious fashion merits, Americans of all ages frantically tried to get one of those precious bands and thereby prove their charitable nature, and lines snaked outside the doors of any store reputed to have received a new shipment. No bracelet, no triumphant smile, no proof to the world that you are, in fact, a good person.
Now picture Election Day 2006. Television crews filmed in horror as young Americans fought to be the first to vote, growing violent and crazed in their attempts to make their voice heard. Lines wrapped around the block with eager college students exercising their right to vote for the first time, triumphing in the spirit of democracy that breezed across the nation. No vote, no triumphant smile, no proof to the world that you are, in fact, a good citizen.
Don’t remember those scenes? As less than 25 percent of college-age students voted in the elections two months ago, it’s unlikely that you a) voted at all or b) witnessed such a scene. Let’s face it: PlayStations are cool. Livestrong bracelets are cool. Voting? Decidedly less so.
But what is it that the first two scenes have that the last doesn’t? Why do we routinely go berserk to the point of physical violence over a toy or a $1.99 bracelet, and yet we sit, mired in apathy, mutely watching our generation throw our power away? Our tragic failure to vote hurts us more than anyone else. We’re the ones who are going to be old and penniless when Uncle Sam’s Social Security checks get bounced, not our parents. We’re the ones whose homes are going to disappear when global warming floods the Florida coast, not our grandparents. We’re the ones who are going to fight and die in Afghanistan and Iraq, not our senators. And for all that, the media celebrated — yes, celebrated — our 24 percent turnout as a triumph of activism.
Voting just isn’t cool. If it were, we’d be racing to the polls as fast as our Uggs could carry us. P. Diddy had the right idea in his efforts to “rock the vote,” but star emulation doesn’t work if it can’t be seen. When we buy bling like P. Diddy, everyone knows; when we vote like P. Diddy, all we get is the satisfaction of doing the right thing. These days, “I Voted!” stickers just aren’t sexy enough.
Although we were the ones meant to be teaching the Iraqis about democracy, we have much to learn from their 60 percent voting rate. Why not make voters here dip their fingers in purple ink? Present identification, push lever, dip finger, and presto! An instant status badge and a return to the good old American way: peer pressure. No purple finger, no triumphant smile, no proof to the world that you are, in fact, a good citizen.
The fear of being “without” has warped our fashion senses and motivated mass crazes for things far more ugly (I swear, Crocs are comfortable), annoying (my parents wisely refused to give me a Furby), and just plain stupid (I still don’t know what we were supposed to do with Pogs) than voting; the thought of being that awkward kid without a purple finger might likewise flood the streets. The Livestrong bracelet trend channeled our desire to be trendy to charitable ends; the power of a purple finger could likewise bring civic participation out of the hippie era and onto our iCals.
As alpha girl Karen explains to the hapless but eager Cady in “Mean Girls,” “on Wednesdays, we wear pink.” The depressed turnout suggests it’s time to make the voters the cool kids and establish a new rule for American democracy: On the first Tuesday of November, we wear purple.
Austen Kassinger is a freshman in Davenport College.