Today (November 6th, 2012) millions of Americans will be heading to the polls to cast their vote for president – but many will not know why. Evaluations of the voting system and the likelihood of one’s preferred candidate winning the election aside, many people will be simply be going through the motions without even the remotest idea of why voting – or politics at all for that matter – is relevant to their own lives. Many consciously believe that it doesn’t matter. Nothing is farther from the truth, and no attitude could be more dangerous to the future of our country and everyone in it.
Though I am neither interested in nor qualified to be discussing why voting in itself matters and what each individual person’s impact is, I would like to demonstrate to students and Americans in general to bear in mind that politics matters, and impacts all of us whether we care to consider it or not. Politics is one of the rare areas of thought that enjoys a status of such universal magnitude, but unfortunately it is also an object of apathy.
Politics is defined by Wikipedia as “a term generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments”. Such a vague definition reflects the apathy with which most people regard politics. To those who do not grasp that politics is a consequence of ideas and culture and will reflect those of a given population, and to those who fail to grasp the general principles of the politics that rules their own lives, it is merely trivia important only to political science majors and politicians. As such their conception of politics is even vaguer than the definition above, which becomes obvious every time they refer to politics and politicians with a tone of derision and passivity or dismiss discussion of it as dry and useless. Politics becomes a tedious act of memorizing how many senators and representatives there are, the process of a bill becoming a law, the order in which the original thirteen colonies ratified the Constitution, and what clichéd platforms the major parties endorse. These data are related to politics, but most people treat them as a disintegrated, jumbled mess of trivia disconnected from our lives. Politics becomes a sport, the elections games, the parties teams, and the people spectators. When a team wins, fans celebrate. When it loses, they get disillusioned and grow out of their favorite sport. With either outcome, politics is reduced to being “just a game” with no long term practical or moral implications, so people forego consideration of the consequences of a given candidate’s policies and evade moral judgment of the parties and their platforms.
This apathetic and sloppy attitude towards politics gives momentum to its worst elements, which the apathetic or disillusioned have conceptualized as the essential nature of politics. When people regard a candidate’s policies as morally or practically relative, they sanction the worst policies of the worst candidate and fail to differentiate the best policies and ideas of the best candidate from the sum being discussed. They implicitly support the system they claim to either hate or not care about.
To challenge this inadequate and dangerous approach to politics, I offer another segment of Wikipedia’s definition, which regards politics as consisting of “social relations involving authority or power”. While this evaluation is also somewhat vague, it addresses something more essential to politics than its varying structures: the effects it has on people. The politics of a country and the people that run it affect the social and economic relations of its citizens; the authority or power sanctioned by the country largely determines the extent to which such relations are reflected. While some elements of our “relations” with others would remain the same regardless of which party has the most power in a given year, the freedom with which we can form and enjoy them can vary greatly, and our ability to control them may change gradually as the reigning policies slowly march towards or away from social and economic freedom. Concrete examples of the effect of politics on our lives abound – the amount of money one sees deducted from paychecks, the price per gallon at the gas pump, the amount of paperwork one has to fill to start a business or cut down a tree, and the range of options one finds for healthcare providers are among the many concrete, every-day parts of our lives that are affected by politics, and thereby by all of us who choose whether to support or challenge the ideas and policies of our leaders. The fact that most people fail to identify the connection between the soaring rhetoric and the specific policy goals and methods that it endorses does not in any way detract from the fact that there is a connection. Granted, such a monumentally important subject deserves more thorough treatment than one can give with limited space, but the problem itself is easily identifiable: to those for whom politics is a list of facts, a sport, or a game disconnected from the rest of their lives, it is an inconvenience and a bore, not to be touched by anyone who has no time for trivialities. One can hardly blame them for such an attitude given what politics has been reduced to, but even so, the effects of it are with us every day. It is for this reason that, on Election Day and every day of our lives, all of us would do well to bear in mind the words of Pericles: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”