One of the first things I did when I moved to the States was register to vote. You may think it’s a small thing, but it was one of those things I wanted to do to truly feel American. I would make my voting debut just a little less than a year later, on the Florida primaries (I registered as a Democrat) for the midterm elections on November 6. And then, last week, out of sheer coincidence, I voted early.
I don’t need to tell you this is a major election. The 2016 Presidentials started changing the political scene in this country at a breathtaking speed, and a way all too familiar for someone who comes from a place where democracy is dying a slow death (I never believe it dies, but more on that later). I see, concerned, things happening in my new country and all around the world that I have seen before. And I see young people react with indifference, making up hundreds of excuses. Or express disappointment, believing that there’s no point.
I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what most people in power want you to think, guys. Although it is certainly telling that, considering how everything is going on in the world, people continue going to the less democratic of leaders (oh hello, Brazil). But please, if you really think that you still will get nowhere voting, the only way to overcome that is, precisely, voting.
I Google the question “Is democracy dying?” and I get some 30,000 results. This very good package from The Atlantic. This interview in Vox. This piece in Foreign Affairs. This NPR interview with journalist Anne Applebaum (whose piece about Poland is in The Atlantic package). Every where I turn, that question is on intellectuals’ minds, because it is shocking how many countries around the world seem to keep leaning into autocracy or outright dictatorship. Poland. Russia. Hungary. Turkey. Increasingly, the U.S. And in the not shocking at all camp, Nicaragua, Venezuela. The question is posed either in shock or as a preview of explaining “not really”. And how did we let this happen?
One of the most eye-opening reads I’ve had in recent years was this extract I read in kottke.org from the book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, by Milton Mayer, published in 1955, ten years after World War II. It consisted of interviews with ordinary people in Germany that had been members of the Nazi party, and as Cass Sunstein reviews in the New York Review Of Books, they remember those years very differently than the rest of the world.
When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”
Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we — you and I — saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.
The Holocaust? What Holocaust?
Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”
I read that thinking of so many people back home getting their first (small, not really their property and not always in the best conditions, but nonetheless their first) apartments under the government’s “Misión Vivienda” program. Their furst washer and dryer uner “Mi Casa Bien Equipada”. Their kids getting free education, free reading classes, cheaper groceries. When you don’t need that much, it’s easy for a government to just… give.
And then there’s the anger. During former governments, the general feeling was that the poor were completely disenfranchised. Corruption in power, the rich living larger and larger –all Hugo Chávez had to do was make the anger grow. One of his most famous phrases? “Being rich is bad”. Never mind that most of the people who support him are now among the richest in the country, including, allegedly, his own daughter. But he emphasized that the only you could get forward was if the others had less (or nothing). Let them suffer, let them be without, let them get screwed like we are. Anger is never to be underestimated, especially if you see someone attacking whoever you consider you enemy.
That anger, that resentment, was present in every aspect of government in Venezuela. Every base instinct came out, and it was seething through the TV set every time Chávez and then Nicolás Maduro came on. They made an already divided country almost crack in half. They knew that a divided country would be easy to control. They made sure the majority would believe that the only you could get ahead was with the government’s support. Add to that the fact that our institutions weren’t that solid to begin with –true democracy had only been in Venezuela since 1958, when the last dictator who came by force to power was overthrown– and the ever more brutal crackdowns on opposition, and there was almost no incentive to either try to vote because you simply thought it was useless.
I still chose to vote every time I could, no matter how futile it might be. Until I moved out of Caracas, I only missed that chance in 2005, when the majority of opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary elections because they believed the conditions were the worst and thought it would remove legitimacy to the Government. That was the worst idea they ever had in a long string of bad ideas they’ve had since: of course the government went and held the National Assembly for five very long years where they did whatever they wanted, including a very last-minute change of the Supreme Court that put almost pure cronies on those seats, including one who served time for murder, thank you.
This is what happens when you let others decide for you: the ones in power decide whatever they want, especially if they’re different ideologically than the majority of the country. Right now, in the USA, I see white men in their late 60s making the rules in a country that is more diverse than ever before. Yes, whites still make up over 60% of the population –but do you see the other 40% in Congress?
And that’s the way they want it –the old folks in power , the gerontocracy, do not want younger people, people who don’t identify with them, mobilizing during an election. Heck even David Foster Wallace noted this when he covered John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone:
If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.
You have every right to stay home if none of the candidates strike your fancy, for whatever reason. But if you don’t vote, someone will vote for you. Apathy is still a voting tool, and it’s one that works against you. If you want change in your country, and democracy is still strong or strongish, by all means vote. Because then, you’re going to have to make your voice heard in other ways –and the Government will do whatever it can to shut you up. Trust me, I know.