I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point there was a directed effort towards the youth of the world to engage in the political process. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this position. I’d say being informed is important, no matter what age you are, but there is something rather “sinister” about some third party rhetoric surrounding your duty as an American to “get off your butt and take part in the system.”
The first campaign that comes to mind, concerning getting those still optimistic and idealistic youngsters to the voting booth, is probably the Rock the Vote campaign from the early nineties.
The non-profit organization, started by a myriad of politically progressive activist groups and a few owners of major corporations, found it’s home on MTV and aimed to increase voter registration amongst 18-24 year old people. They espoused “virtues” like participation, making sure “your voice( And totally not theirs…)” is heard, and standing up for what “you(Again, totally not them)” believe in. It became a moral imperative, rather than an option. I mean, you’re not a bad person, are you? You care about “the issues,” right? Are you a monster or something?
The concept is all well and good. You should make your voice heard, and you should stand up for what you believe in, but the reality of this program isn’t about your opinion on an individual level, it’s about uninformed capitulation. I know that sounds reductive and shitty. There are a lot of things that the initiative supports that I am all for, but I don’t feel that way because they told me so.
They appealed to fandoms to convince you of their positions. Celebrities and musicians were paraded out to basically star in commercials for their causes, speaking in the most vague, substance-less terms as possible. It was almost like watching the birth of punditry, wherein we are supposed to take the scripted words that were spoken by these endorsers seriously because we recognized their faces. That’s pretty much it, really. They weren’t really providing statistics, or facts, instead it was an appeal to your empathy, to your sense of person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that tact. Manipulative, for sure, but not “wrong.” That is, if they aren’t being disingenuous in their proselytizing.
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, a band and singer I’m very fond of, was interviewed by Caitlin Moran for Select magazine in July of 1997, and this is what he allegedly(I use the word “allegedly” because I got the quote from Wikipedia and they sourced themselves.) had to say about their involvement with the campaign: “We supported Rock the Vote, but – because of the way the whole political system works – it does seem rather odd to be choosing between one unworkable, outdated system and another. We need to go beyond that – because, at the moment, it’s just cowboys and Indians.” Now this is a statement I can get behind. So, I have to ask – if even only to myself – why did they take part in the campaign?
Historically, the ideology presented between the lines of their songs has generally been interested in questioning various forms of government, and not just the political kind, but that’s not really the point here. The point, just in case I’m being unclear, is that in general Thom Yorke didn’t see the campaign as an obvious good. He didn’t see the point, as it was just asking people to pick sides in something that, on the whole, is corrupt. I couldn’t find the entire interview on-line, so some context may be missing here, maybe they thought the advocacy aspect was worth being involved with, but it seems pretty clear that Yorke was not fully on board with the broader message. Yes, I understand that’s conjecture, so take it for what it is.
I brought up Thom Yorke not because of his celebrity status, but because it’s indicative of the way we are sold belief systems and things to “care” about. Sometimes we are sold opinions by people that don’t even believe in what they are saying. Familiarity doesn’t really mean much. Yeah, I like Radiohead as much as the next person, but just because I like their music doesn’t mean I should just implicitly trust everything that comes out of their mouths.
It would be different if most of the rhetoric went beyond empty platitudes and appeals to my feelings, at least then I could agree or disagree in some type of articulate manner, but to do so would require actual articulation on their part. I have no problem with people, no matter what their position in life, talking about things they genuinely care about. Sure, it helps if they are informed, but I’ll listen to anyone if they have even an inkling of coherence to their arguments/positions. I do take umbrage with people that parrot talking points, though, as more often than not they aren’t really all that well informed. If your thought process can be summed up on a bumper sticker, it’s really hard for me to engage. Well, unless it’s something like “Don’t fuck kids.” That would be cool with me. Because, you know, you shouldn’t.
The real issue I have with things like Rock the Vote is the myopy. How is it that we should all just agree about all the things that these types of campaigns represent? How is there no dissenting conversation even amongst the “true believers?” We wouldn’t even be able to come to a clear consensus on what brand of bread is best, so how are we so easily swayed by things that actually matter?
How can a person, of any age or demographic, make an informed decision based on part of an argument? Spoiler alert: They can’t. Sure, in a vacuum you can convince anyone of anything, really(Trust me, I’ve watched enough “The Illuminati in Hip-Hop” videos to know. Hey, I get bored.), but that doesn’t denote “informing” anyone. At the very least, there’s two sides to every story, and rarely are either of them the whole truth. Perspective is important in any type of analysis.
The problem isn’t really Rock the Vote, though, is it? It would be a lot simpler if it was, but it is just a symptom, just a tangible example of a larger problem. Almost all of the information given during political cycles come from people that are atypical. They aren’t “the common man,” hell, they aren’t even middle class. Yet, every few years we allow ourselves to be lead around by our noses by people that have no actual, tangible awareness of the way most of us live. Of what most of us want or, more specifically, need. Instead, they appeal to our empathy by beating us over the head with what basically amounts to propaganda. And that’s ubiquitous. No one party holds the patent on this stuff. All of their campaigns are so obfuscated by misinformation that gets parroted over and over again until no one has any idea what’s true and not. What’s worse is that the picture that we are presented with has become so zoomed out, that we can only see the monoliths in our cultural landscape.
Every few years we go through the same thing. Which liar lies the least? Which out of touch “civil servant” will maybe/sorta be the best person for the job? Honestly, those reflexive type questions aren’t even asked in contexts that really matter. Why do we only get serious about politics in regards to presidential elections? It may be the least important political office when it comes to our day to day life. Sure, they represent incredibly broad ideas, some of which you may even agree with, but at the end of the day they aren’t much more than figureheads. They don’t have enough power on their own to enact change. Well, borderline illegal executive orders aside.
They are part of a system, and aren’t really more important than the other parts, but unlike the presidency, a position that’s really filled more by super delegates and the electoral college than our vote, we can effect actual, tangible change in, say, congress. That’s where our real power as citizens lies. Those are the politicians that are worth paying attention to, and your vote, in regard to who is elected, actually carries some weight. So, maybe that’s what we should actually be paying attention to?
Listen, my level of ignorance of local and state politicians is embarrassing, to be frank, but the older I get, the more I understand what actually effects me. I don’t mean that as an exercise in myopy, that I’m only interested in things that directly effect me, but if I believe that the values I hold are “righteous,” then fighting for what I want and believe in should have a larger effect(I’m always right, so that helps, too.) that my fellow humans would benefit from. And I can do that by who I vote into the senate, or congress. It’s a much more direct line from my beliefs to them, than trying to get my voice heard by president. Literally the only way the president will hear a thing you say – Even then, it’s only in a collective sense – is through these people.
For better or worse, this is where our ability to affect change really exists, and these aspects and elections are probably the most under represented in our mainstream media. Sure, you could tune into to your local news, they generally cover this stuff, but the big, corporate media conglomerates only address these people after the fact. After they’ve already been elected, turning them into mini-celebrities, distracting them from their responsibilities. Namely, to serve our interests as a state, to maintain our sovereignty so we don’t become a victim of the vocal minority. That last thing is paramount in today’s world, especially considering the current social climate. Well, in my opinion, anyways.
The closest and simplest analog I can think of, regarding the presidential election cycle, is the super bowl. All season long we root for our team, hoping they get into the playoffs, and then once the big game rolls around, if our team doesn’t make it in, we align ourselves with the “lesser of two evils.” Then we watch the thing. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, there’s commercials and celebrity endorsers, there’s pundits speaking almost entirely in conjecture. But at the end of the day, once we’ve become awash in the pageantry, it’s just another football game. It doesn’t really matter. Then we all wait for a few months before we can be indignant to one another again. It’s all almost a bizarre version of nationalism, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Just in case you’re like me, and have no idea what the fuck is going on in my own state and county, here’s two lists for you: Senators and Governors. Take a couple of minutes, and see who your actual representatives are and, more importantly, where their interests lie. Where did they come from; What companies have they been involved with; How do they tend to vote; Do they show up to vote at all?
Educate yourself in where your power as a voter actually lies. Don’t get caught up in the machine. Don’t allow yourself to become a tool, a useful idiot that treats these institutions as sacrosanct. Next time you hear yourself, or your friends and family, start whingeing about the apocalyptic ramifications of whoever becomes president, ask them if they know who the governor of the state they live in is. Take back control of the things you actually have control of. Get involved on a local level, and pay attention to what’s going on in your own neighborhoods and cities. That’s my intention going forward.
My apologies if this came off as too preachy, but it is what is!