In the Kevin Costner movie Swing Vote, the outcome of a presidential election comes down to the vote of just one man. That man is Kevin Costner. What does this Kevin Costner movie tell us about the power of the vote, about how every vote counts, about how every voter makes a difference? I don’t know. It’s not 1992. I don’t watch Kevin Costner movies any more.
In real life, the outcome of a presidential election once came down to the votes of just 537 people. I forget who won, who invaded where, and how many people were tortured as a result, but the lesson here is even if you’re not a very talented actor you can still make movies by trading on the goodwill from that time you played Robin Hood and snogged Whitney Houston back when she was clean.
As you’ll recall from one of my many epiphanies, back in my hardcore cynicism days I didn’t bother voting, thinking I was sticking it to the man. I’m past that but I get why other people aren’t. Both sides of the for-and-against are pretty convincing. On the pro-vote side you’ve got “every vote counts” and “people fought for yer basic suffrage” and “people died for yer basic democracy”. On the anti-vote side you’ve got “I’m just one person” and “politics blows”. The problem here is both sides are right. Politics is corrupt and cynical and grubby and grasping but it’s also not. Politics has brought us scandal and outrage. It brought us Watergate and Iran-Contra and cash for questions and corporate lobbying and MPs’ expenses and Donald Fucking Trump. But it’s also brought us great things that have helped millions of people. It brought free healthcare to most thinking countries. It brought marriage equality to most of the west. It emancipated some proclamations. Politics has done some great and terrible things. Much like Kevin Costner.
If both sides are right, how do you vote without cynicism about the whole process, the promises, the candidates, the parties, the electoral colleges and the grubbiness of the whole thing? How do you take part in a lousy system without feeling like you’re propping it up, like you’re rewarding it for being how it is? The unfortunate answer is… you don’t. But you should vote anyway, and take a shower afterwards. Because Donald Trump taught us the cost of not voting is higher than we can bear.
That can be sore for people who want only to do unambiguous, uncompromising good. But for me, now, voting isn’t only about idealism or the perversion of idealism. It’s not a search for the perfect candidate or the party that will solve all our problems in one go. What it can be, if we do it right, is a solid bit of activism. In one act we can move a bunch of stuff forward, even if other stuff stalls. We put a cross in a box and one day a country gets invaded or not. One day gay people can get married or not. One day we cut CO2 emissions or not. Get what you want on those issues, that’s a whole bunch of petitions you won’t have to sign, a whole load of marches you won’t have to set out on. And that frees us up to campaign on whatever else got left behind. So we vote for healthcare, we march for the minimum wage.
Voting works. At its most basic the maths works. Every corrupt politician, every lousy and lazy representative was voted in because not enough people voted for a better one. Every assault on LGBT people, every backtrack on reproductive rights, every human-hurting bit of corporate deregulation, every planet-hurting environmental rollback happened because more people voted for the baddies than the goodies. And without us the baddies will keep winning.
Voting is the ultimate Butterfly. It’s the ultimate example of individual action adding up to global change. These massive changes that shape generations just take a little bit of box ticking, a little bit of optimism and belief, a little bit of cynicism and vigilance. And you. Get on it.
Some stuff will get better
And we won't stop there!
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