Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wisdom of the soap: Vote and Feel Good -- Sept. 8, 2016 column


A couple of election seasons ago, I brought home an oversized bar of soap that read VOTE on one side and FEEL GOOD on the other.

I put it in my guest bath, mostly as a joke, and after the election it went into a drawer. I came across the soap the other day and realized it had outlasted my enthusiasm for voting.

Pulling the lever for president has never seemed so much a duty and so little a pleasure.

In less than two months, millions of Americans will stay home on Election Day. After the hoopla of the 2016 primary campaign and amid tightening polls, many Americans won’t cast ballots for any presidential candidate. We know this from experience.

Four years ago, about 58 percent of eligible voters – citizens 18 and older -- cast ballots in the presidential election, lower than in both 2008 and 2004, an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center found. And presidential races draw our biggest turnouts. 

Voting long has been promoted as the top item on good citizens’ to-do lists. Now, though, some commentators say we should stop shaming people who don’t want to vote into doing so anyway.

In his new book, “Writings on the Wall,” basketball legend and cultural critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes: “In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 37 percent of eligible voters showed up, which left 144 million votes taking a pass on democracy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Best to leave nonvoting slugs alone, he says.

“Voters who don’t want to cast a ballot because they’re too lazy or uninformed should stay home,” he writes.

In an interview on NPR, he went a step further: “Ignorance is not something that lends itself to a meaningful discussion. Some of these people really shouldn’t vote because they don’t know what the issues are, and I think people that are, you know, voting in the blind are doing a disservice to our country by not being better informed.”

Abdul-Jabbar spoke against Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention in July, and, while he didn’t mention Trump in his book or the radio interview, the clear implication is that ignorant Trump voters should just stay home.  

No matter how dangerous we think a Trump – or a Hillary Clinton – presidency would be, telling voters with whom we disagree to stay home is an arrogant stand on a slippery slope.

Anyone can look at another voter and think he or she lacks the brainpower to cast an informed ballot. It goes against the small-d democratic grain to discourage people from voting simply because we think their choice of candidate proves they’re not smart enough.

That brings us to the age-old question of how to get voters engaged so they educate themselves on the issues rather than falling for appeals based on anger and anxiety.

Abdul-Jabbar also says we should stop encouraging people to vote out of civic duty but rather “show them the wisdom of voting based on economic self-interest in order to give themselves, their families and their communities more opportunities.”

Poor people would have more clout if they voted in greater numbers, he says.

But many Trump voters think they are voting in their economic self-interest.

Trump’s unorthodox campaign brought voters into the system who felt ignored by Democrats and Republicans. They believe this GOP nominee speaks for them when he promises to bring back jobs and stop illegal immigration.

Whether he could deliver on those promises is another story, but Trump has struck an emotional chord.

To boost voters’ intelligence, Abdul-Jabbar proposes a federal initiative to teach more about critical thinking and logical fallacies in public schools. It’s an idea worth considering – and a nonstarter in the current climate.

Until voters demand more thoughtful, substantive discussions on issues, we’ll continue to have celebrity-driven campaigns punctuated by amateur personality analyses, name calling and fear mongering.

And we’re left with the choice – to vote or not. Once again, I’m putting out the soap to give my guests and myself a nudge.

VOTE? Yes, we should. FEEL GOOD? We’ll see.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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