In a Season 3 episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a staffer at a political fundraising luncheon tells the crowd, “It’s really something that every two years we get to overthrow a government.” The crowd cheers. “We can make a difference,” the staffer continues. “Let’s get out the vote. Let’s get ourselves organized. Let’s get the Congress we deserve.”
Sure, our world is far from the idealistic portrait Sorkin paints. Our representatives are less brilliant and less moral, our discussions are rarely substantive and our rhetoric on complex issues is dumbed down to slogans and zingers. But even if Sorkin’s West Wing is truly a fantasy — a plea for what America should be and an escape from the cynicism of political reality — it still offers a few kernels of truth. The aforementioned quote is one of them.
Lawmakers have attempted to put in place obstacles to voting; the flood of campaign contributions has elevated the influence of one candidate above another; the media bias of Fox News and MSNBC has effects on a voter’s views of the issues. We can blame these aspects of our system forever. They are indeed problematic to civil discourse and, in the case of voter ID laws, arguably unconstitutional. But when all is said and done, the burden is ours.
When we stand in the voting booth and shut the curtain, we are alone. When we open the absentee ballot and take out a pen, we control which box we check. Sean Hannity doesn’t vote for us. Rachel Maddow doesn’t check every box with a (D) next to it on our ballot. We are responsible because the power to “overthrow” through democratic means is a right of the People. And those who don’t exercise this liberty out of political apathy have no reason for complaint. To borrow another quote from “The West Wing,” “Decisions are made by those who show up.” On Nov. 6, Americans across the country will be able to head to the polls and choose their representatives for a myriad of political offices. Those who show up will be the decision-makers, regardless of geography or financial contribution. Even the Democrat in California plays a role in deciding the election. If California Democrats stay home out of a thought that they cannot give Barack Obama a greater advantage than he already has, we’ll be inaugurating President Romney in January.
Yet, in 2008, one of the highest recorded turnouts ever, only 56.8 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot. Many others stayed home out of a hackneyed belief that their vote doesn’t matter. The Democrat in Texas. The Republican in New York. The Green Party candidate, well, everywhere. But this thought only serves to perpetuate a cycle of cynicism; such apathy does nothing more than ensure that the change you wish to affect will never come.
If a political candidate in today’s America only utters one true sentence in his or her entire campaign, it’s that every vote counts. Statistically or symbolically, it counts for something valuable. It could change an election or merely reaffirm the ideals of a nation we must always strive to perfect. Either way, it means something. Whoever you cast your ballot for, whether you write in a candidate or check one for every office, you will be exercising a right many before you have died to protect or to obtain.
If no candidate appeals to you, or if you’re so disillusioned by our political realities, then leave your boxes blank. That too is of equal importance. But make no mistake, going to the polls and handing in a blank ballot is very different from staying home and not voting at all.
Don’t let posterity remember your role in this election as a mere observer, too cynical to vote, too apathetic to care. On Nov. 6, you will be given the opportunity to play your part in a republic 236 years in the making, of a people united by common values and driven by the enduring quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A line in the Declaration of Independence reads, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Sorkin’s words may have been spoken by a fictional character in a fictional world, but they derive from the very real foundation upon which we’ve built this country. Show up and embrace it.
Cody Pomeranz is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .