Viewpoint: No clear choice


Published November 8, 2012

Philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell once said the “whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people are so full of doubts.” If I was wiser, or braver, maybe I wouldn’t have voted at all.

It was Election Day and I was staring down at my ballot in horror. I had to change who I would choose for president. In a moment of utter conflict, I debated what to do — to vote for Mitt Romney or for President Barack Obama. I seriously considered just finishing my ballot and inserting it in the machine as-is. I rationalized, I argued with myself — either way I chose, I’d feel like an ass. I went back to the woman behind the computer at the entrance.

“I accidentally filled in the wrong bubble,” I said, smiling sheepishly.

The woman nodded curtly, re-swiped my driver’s license and corrected my registration card.

She instructed me to write the word “spoiled” in large letters across my ballot. Given my growing disgust with the whole business, this was indescribably fitting. I walk back to the booths still feeling like an ass, but at least armed with the knowledge I’d finally picked my poison.

A 1940 Columbia University study published in a book called “The People’s Choice” is often cited as the sociological branch of the three main studies of voting behavior. Most people either align with the politics of their parents or drift to the middle instead. As the daughter of staunch, starched white-collar Republicans and the granddaughter of old-school, blue-collar Democrats, I’m part of the latter. But even if my hesitation at the polls can be attributed to a mere identity crisis, many of our peers are conscientious objectors rather than politically bipolar.

Jessica Jary, a pre-med student at Michigan State University, expressed frustration with the process of voting for president, citing dissatisfaction with both candidates as the reason. Her choice: no one.

“I don’t know how people are so sure what the right (choice) is,” she said. “I feel like I could have a Ph.D in economics, foreign policy and health care and still not know.”

After becoming as informed as I could, I still wrestled with my basic political ideology. It’s not the federal government’s responsibility to force or impede social change. People should be able to generally do what they please, but only as long as others aren’t hurt in the process and religious groups aren’t forced to violate their principles. I wasn’t worried about my reproductive rights — Roe v. Wade isn’t going anywhere, people — but I was worried about finding a job as a humanities major and becoming an heir to a cool trillion-and-then-some national debt. But then again, since I’m never gonna be a Vanderbilt, I’m not going have to pay much in the way of taxes, anyway, right?

Such emotional biases were prevalent among voters in this election. Several articles, including this one from the Wall Street Journal, claim that President Obama was re-elected by Hispanics, African-Americans, young people and women — which suggests that each of these demographics felt the President would do more for them. So much for that Kennedy paraphrase Obama invoked during his acceptance speech. Ask not what your country can do for you, indeed.

But what’s wrong, exactly, with choosing a president based on a real or imagined personal connection? What’s wrong is that not everyone chooses their political identity based on their sex or race. Many people are searching for other commonalities in a presidential candidate, and aren't finding them: non-voters make up the largest voting bloc in the United States at a whopping 40 percent.

Barry Belmont, an Engineering graduate student, didn’t vote for president due to a disagreement with democracy.

“It binds people to decisions they had no part in making, and with which they may disagree with,” he said.

Paul Jackson, a senior studying political science at Northwestern University, called Obama’s re-election “America ducking a bullet for a beating instead.”

“I had people hitting me up saying ‘If you don't vote, you're voting for Romney’ and a number of other moralistic and less pragmatic reasons for why I had to vote,” he said.

“Even though it didn't matter because Obama was going Democrat all or nothing from the start. The very fact that no one even thought about that … shows how much they were actually thinking about the mechanics and circumstances of electoral politics in our feeble ‘democracy.’ ”

“It is that our democracy is ultimately coercive that I have a problem with it,” Belmont pointed out.

“(There’s) no way to say, ‘No,’ to it. Where freedom and liberty truly begin is at a person's ability to say no. In being able to say, I have gone this far, but I will go no further, one actually has the freedom to control their life, (which is) the right of every person.”

Saying “no” isn't a viable form of democratic participation, and it points to a larger problem: The duality of our party system means that one man is always out. “Majority rule” is monopolistic — about half get their way at the expense of the rest. Like a true-or-false question on an elementary school test, when it comes to politics you’re either completely right, or completely wrong — the loser is automatically invalid, the winner beholden to no one but the side who elected him, and usually not even that. I look forward to the next election, in which hopefully I can choose compassionately, but also logically, for those of us in the middle that refuse to be hoodwinked — and sometimes refuse to choose at all.