Articles, Essays & Sermons

Voting - What it does and does not do

13 suggestions to help clarify decisions

by Ken Sehested

As has been said,
if you think you're too small to be effective,
you've never been in bed with a mosquito.

From all appearances, we in the United States are at one of the most dangerous moments in our nation’s political history. We have a president who thinks that “when someone is president of the United States the authority is total.”  Someone who winks at white supremacist terror plots to assassinate public officials. Who repeatedly suggests that he won’t leave office voluntarily—and by so saying may in fact unleash a hail of street violence after the election.

So, yes, I believe voting is an urgent duty. As the poet adrienne maree brown writes, “today we show up for those furthest from power” (“election day spell”).

But we need to bring added context to this urgency. Here are a baker’s dozen suggestions to keep in mind before, during, and after you cast your ballot.

1. Voting is such a small part of our commonwealth duty. You will likely spend more time in grocery store lines every month than in polling stations every year. Elections are but the end result of an advocacy for the common good that starts in each watershed. Imagine a different future, find collaborators, and spend yourself extravagantly.

2. Renewed public policy requires new public consensus. Even our best, most humane public officials face immense pressure from powerful, moneyed interests, particularly at election time. They need the backing of public opinion to withstand corruption. Do what you can to organize and focus such backing.

3. Ballots have proved a welcomed alternative to bullets. It is no small feat that the U.S. has survived for over two centuries with only one attempted coup d’état. But elections do not a democracy make. They can be bought in a thousand different ways.

4. As Frederick Douglass knew all too well, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Be demanding. Justice often requires the painful work of delegitimizing existing power arrangements before reconstruction can occur.

5. The roots that nurture my support for democratic polity include conclusions from philosophical reflection and political theory. But the deepest are theological: democratic governance is an important public means by which we practice nonviolence.

6. Vote—with a chastened realization that what we get does not coincide with what we want. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Increments matter. Better-than-worse is a relevant calculation.

Long before polities are decided in D.C.—or your state capital or county commission or city council—the struggles to build a movement powerful enough to make substantive change is underway. Lend yourself to one or more.

7. No movement has ever been generated or crushed by an election, but they can be encouraged or restrained. As Einstein said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Work at constructing a new level.

8. Convictions that don't raise blisters or calluses are good only for talk shows and fashion runways. We live our way into new kinds of thinking far more often than we think our way into new kinds of living.

9. Think large in small ways; act small in large ways. Be like the trim tab on a large ocean-going vessel, altering inertia just enough to allow the rudder to shift course without fracturing.

According to the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy (aka Six Nations), “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Pay it forward.

10. People of equal vision, passion, courage and intelligence will (and do!) disagree on how to get to where we need to be. The body politic needs vigorous, even heated debate, but not demolition derbies and cockfights.

11. Lasting change takes patience and endurance, characteristics in short supply in our fickle, attention-deficit culture. It requires disciplined persistence—a truly countercultural asset—of fostering, precinct by precinct, the willingness to demand more than seems feasible at present.

In his novel, The Overstory, Richard Power wrote: “Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.”

12. Stephen Jay Gould, renowned paleontologist, coined the phrase “punctuated equilibrium” in revising Darwin’s theory of evolution. Most evolution comes at glacial, nearly imperceptible speed. And then . . . shazam . . . as if from nowhere emerges dramatically altered biological conditions giving rise to new species. So also with social change, which sometimes appears as a miracle. Think bus boycott in a sleepy Alabama town—carried out by marginalized people, taking frightful risks, against seemingly impossible political odds—which ends up launching a global civil rights movement.

13. Finally, ponder the parable of the coalmouse.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.  “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn't have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952.  When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch—nothing more than nothing, as you say—the branch broke off.”

Having said that the coalmouse ran away.

The dove, since Noah's time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person's voice lacking for peace to come about in the world.” (“A Tale For All Seasons,” adapted, from The Caribou by Kurt Kauter)

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org