“…be a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Joseph C. Cabell“
“Do something: Vote. Or better yet: Run.” – Harleen Gambhir, Julia Konrad, Victoria Wenger, “Politics Matters“
I’m sitting at a bar watching two hip Harvardians drink down neat whiskey cocktails and denounce each other as “traitors to the cause of the American Left.”
On one side, an Obama campaign volunteer is pounding his fists on the table. To the left of him, his girlfriend is waving her hands histrionically in the air.
Of all the politics in the world this brainy and beautiful couple could be discussing tonight, with a few short days till the 2012 elections, they have, apparently, chosen to spend their evening expostulating on a short editorial by The Crimson, published in September, titled “Don’t Waste Your Time.”
This author happens to be an aficionado of all things Harvardian and controversial (as well as, I should mention, a preternaturally talented eavesdropper, blessed with almost breathtaking stenographic abilities—which I add here only so you don’t dismiss this whole account as a cute meta-fictional ploy meant to dramatize this author’s own ambivalence towards the value of electoral politics), so I knew their subject well.
The Crimson alleged that “real” leaders at Harvard shouldn’t “waste their time” with the Undergraduate Council, because real change on campus won’t come from its “unwieldy bureaucracy” and “futile subcommittee meetings.”
Real change won’t depend, in other words, on the only representative student body this school has. Campus politics must mean something other than campaigning for campus elections, because elections, at least in this case, at least according to The Crimson, don’t matter.
But what could politics be without elections?
“That damn cynicism,” the Obama Volunteer pronounces, “is this place’s problem! No patience for process!”
He continues. “Of course the U.C. is stinking to the brim with it”–and note, he uses a racy word for “fecal matter” at the end of that clause that I am, natch, not allowed to print–“but in life, even here at Harvard, people’ve sometimes got to wade knee deep in it to get anywhere. The best people even bend down and clean it up!
“What I’m sayin’ is that we’re committed to the U.C. for the same reason we’re committed to every ‘failed institution’ that freights down the centralized state of this late-date American Republic.
“The reason is this: the laws these institutions pass matter; they affect change at a scale we couldn’t hope for by any other means; and more than that, the laws they yield are legitimated by the fairness of their processes and their accountability to the people.
“So listen, the people who are elected to vote for those laws that matter—they matter too. And the people who vote in the people who are elected to vote in the laws that matter—they matter most of all. That unsexy game of voting and of waiting is called ‘democracy’—whether it’s here on campus or in Washington, D.C.—and it’s quite something to have Harvardians declaring it dead just because they’re not having fun.”
Satisfied with his scatological preaching, he looks at his skeptical sweetheart.
“It appears to me” she replies, putting her hand atop his, “that you are the cynical one. And it appears to me, contra you, that The Crimson‘s message is the one that’s full of hope!”
She proceeds. “Their point is simply this: we can do more than vote. Indeed, we can do more than run.
“My dear, you must overcome your illusion that we are weak—that politics is the process of asking people’s permission, that sharing opinions (on Facebook or at the poll booth) is enough, or that the best we can hope for is to affect some binary change in some distant ‘bureaucratic borg’ that you admit is quite far from our daily lives.
“As you know my dear, Ezra Klein named the 112th Congress the ‘least productive’ since 1947. Is your great democratic dream that we might get one one-hundred-millionth of a say in the structure of this body every two years? And indeed, only if we live in the 25 percent of districts where the election is even competitive, or in one of those seven states that’ll actually determine our next president? Is this all we’ve got to show for our vaunted self-governance?
“If voting is the sine qua non of our democracy, then most of us simply can’t be democrats most of the time!
“The truth,” she intones with regal gravity, “is that politics is not the sharing of opinions. It’s not the running for office. It’s not even the voting in of laws. Politics is one thing, and one thing alone: politics is solving public problems.
“Congress, the U.C.—these are tools at our disposal in the process of helping people live better lives. But so is the media, the market, the streets, the clinic, the lab, the law, the freaking jazz club! By saying we ‘shouldn’t bother’ The Crimson is merely telling us to pick our tools. The article illuminates the fantastically exciting fact that there are dozens of entry-points into social change, a nearly infinite repertoire of possibilities for propelling forward our community. We don’t need to wait for any damn Tuesday….”
“But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote when we can!” her boyfriend interjects.
“You’re right,” she replies, “we should still vote.”
“Listen,” the Obama Volunteer concludes, looking into his girlfriend’s glimmering eyes with a warmth that makes you imagine how vitalizing their relationship must be, “just don’t demotivate my goddamn Obama Army before November 6th with your Social Entrepreneurial Dreams of Grandeur speech while I’m trudging through post-Hurricane Sandy swamps to get out the vote in order to do my small but real thing to make our country better even though it’s not the biggest thing possible and I sometimes too wonder whether I shouldn’t be trying to cure a disease or rebuild a neighborhood rather than call wealthy people to give a candidate money to run a campaign that admittedly sometimes devolves into caricatures and rarely invites my reading of the policy dilemmas so I can try to improve them creatively even if in the end I know my being there is something rather than nothing and that matters!”