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That vague, gloomy shadow moving slowly across the already stormy skies of American life right now? Yeah, that’s the upcoming 2024 election. We are going to have to put up with an intensifying cacophony of thoughtless chatter and snitty nonsense in the next six months. We will have to gird our loins.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with two of my own adult children about politics—they were worried about Gaza, and they reported that young people are so disgusted with American politics, Biden in particular in this case, that they don’t want to vote at all. We had a productive discussion about this, and I’ve been thinking ever since about voting and citizenship and how best to play our role in a fraught democracy.

It was only recently that I finally heard Rebecca Solnit’s now-famous phrase, “a vote is not a valentine.” She wrote that in 2016 in an article in The Nation. At the time, she was trying to answer widespread dislike of Hillary Clinton. The idea is: you don’t have to adore the person you vote for. You’re just trying to use one of the little tools that you have in order to push the world a little closer to a vision you want, and you’re choosing the person you surmise is more likely to help nudge things in that direction. Here’s what Solnit said:

We can get a little closer [to that vision] by elections, or at least not get further away on every front, but the work doesn’t begin and end with elections—and it doesn’t necessarily work through them. That’s part of why I think of voting as a chess move, not a valentine. It’s just a little part of the picture of how we make the world.

Think of voting as a chess move. I find this enormously helpful.

Writer Rebecca Solnit

It seems to me people have all kinds of unhelpful notions about what a vote means. And that can lead to them choosing not to vote, usually for either (or both) of two reasons. 1. They don’t think their vote matters. 2. They want to signal their virtue.

Let’s address these one at a time.

Your vote definitely matters.

I know it can be hard for people to deal with the complexity of life right now, let alone the ugliness of politics. And researching which candidates to vote for is a whole thing. You have to wade through a lot of crappy information to make good choices. It’s not simple or easy, and you shouldn’t trust people who tell you it is. But opting out is a terrible choice. Here are some good reasons to vote, reasons that refute the “your vote doesn’t matter” argument.

  • Vote to honor people who have fought hard for the right to vote. Don’t take it for granted. It may be easy for you, but it’s still not easy for everyone. Do it.
  • Vote as resistance. If you don’t vote, you cede power to those who do, as well as to those who are able to manipulate voters in ways you’re not going to like. Opting out is complicity with other actors who may not have your idea of noble motives in mind.
  • Vote to show that your demographic votes. This argument was helpful with my own kids. You know why political candidates pay attention to what old people think? Because old people vote, that’s why. If the statistics show that young people don’t vote, no one will care what you think. Make ‘em worry now about the next election, when you will be older and have even more influence. See #2.
  • Vote to contribute to the stats. Even if you live in a very blue state, for example, your blue vote is still an indicator of engagement. It’s like a basketball game. It’s nice to win a game by two points, but it’s even better if your team wins the game by fifteen points, because that margin becomes a meaningful team stat, and the players who scored get their stats raised, too. In other words, turnout leads to attention paid to those voters. See #3.
  • Vote to wield your down-ticket power. Your down-ticket choices count WAY more, statistically speaking, than your presidential vote. And those down-ticket people have direct influence on your community, your state, and through your state on the federal level. The presidential election gets all the press, and it’s absolutely true that the presidency is crucial. But all those state and local leaders also have huge influence. And don’t forget judges!

Something like 99% of American government officials are state and local, not federal. People who know how power actually works know that you can easily work the local levers while everyone is mesmerized by the newscasters gesticulating in front of their slick graphics for the presidential election. Don’t look away from the local! Good ol’ Tip O’Neill used to say that “all politics is local.” He wasn’t wrong, even in a globally connected world.

But what about my virtue?

No one says exactly that out loud, but that’s the thinking behind some people’s resistance to certain candidates or to voting at all. Your vote is not a virtue test—or an identity marker for that matter. Remember: it’s a chess move.

But I don’t like either candidate!
What do you mean, “like”? They’re not pop idols. Or heroes. Or saviors. They’re people applying for a job, and you get a vote on the hiring committee. Yes, character counts very much. Character is relevant to decision-making, reliability, integrity, and staff hires. Lots of other things count, too, including the candidates’ willingness to listen to voters and not just special interests. However, voting for a person does not mean you fully endorse every last thing they do or think. And if “your” party’s candidate is terrible, it’s not a relinquishment of your entire identity to vote for “the other” party. It’s a strategy. Also, your vote is not the end of your influence. You’re just getting started.

All politicians are so horrible!
It’s easy to suppress turnout. Just convince people that politics is a dirty business and no candidate is “pure” enough, so in order to maintain and signal your own purity you have to stay above the fray and refrain from voting. This is self-defeating, and honestly a sadly ineffective form of protest. Also, for those of us with a Calvinist bent, it’s a non-starter. Of course this is a dirty business. I’m not saying we overlook or excuse appalling misconduct, treason, corruption, illegal business or other extremes. No. No one is above the law, and some candidates are just beyond the pale, I agree. I’m just saying that imagining a pure and/or perfect candidate is, alas, a fantasy.

This is especially hard, I think, on young people. At some point when you’re young, it dawns on you that the people who run the world are not necessarily smart, or wise, or good. Some are, happily! Others are indeed nefarious and need to be removed from power. But many others are just people. This is a devastating realization. Young people have a keen sense for evil and corruption, and a keen, almost painful longing for a better future. So it’s very easy to get discouraged and cynical and want to give up. But here’s my encouragement: hold on to that vision of justice and goodness and a better world! Hold on, and don’t let go, and keep fighting for it. And don’t give up just because we can’t get there next year. Chess moves. It’s a multi-dimensional, extremely long game. Stay in it. We need you!

But what about [my issue]?
The best way for politicians to win your vote is to make the decision easy and simple. And the best way to do that is convince you that only one issue matters and you can only consider yourself virtuous (or safe) if you vote a certain way on that issue. If you’re focused on only that one issue, then you won’t be looking at all the other things that person or party are doing on any number of other issues. Don’t be caught up in simplistic voting—it makes you easy to manipulate. This works on both ends of our political spectrum. Some conservative voters have for decades looked only at abortion. Progressive young people right now might look only at Gaza, or the Willow Project. We have to be savvier than that.

I know, it’s hard. A frightening number of American voters are “low-information voters.” I think it’s important–even crucial–that people of faith refuse to be one-issue, low-information voters.

Voting isn’t everything: there’s more

Voting is important, but in my older years (since 2016, I guess) I’ve realized it’s only one important move that makes for meaningful citizenship. Here I’ll quote Solnit again, from that same article:

Elections matter, movements matter too, and in the latter we have more power, including the power to change the culture in ways that change the elections and electoral politics.

Having watched the climate movement closely for the last seven or eight years, I’ve begun to understand how much goes on behind the scenes to create and influence policies, to analyze what governments can and can’t do, to find paths forward through a hugely complex set of problems. One example of this is described in wonky detail in a recent Twitter (I refuse to call it X) post from Hank Green. Green noted the response to a certain graphic about climate change posted by Hillary Clinton, a graphic meant to show that a future with Biden is far better for climate than things would be with … the other fellow. Green explained that yes, the graphic was problematic, but he was still frustrated with the dismissive responses because, he wrote, “a lot of progressives are primed to see the Biden Administration as half-a**ed on climate.”

As Green contends, this is not true: Biden has accomplished a lot (Infrastructure Act, the IRA, the CHIPS Act, and dozens of other initiatives) and all against ferocious headwinds. Perfect? No. Mission accomplished? Hardly. However, Green gives a recent example of how the administration also works through a series of chess moves toward the larger goal of reducing emissions by 50% (over 2005) by 2030. The particular set of moves Green describes had to do with new EPA rules for the power sector on carbon emissions, rules which are aimed to phase out coal plants completely. But getting to these rules required a whole series of feisty little increments, a whole bunch of … chess moves.

So it’s easy to say “not good enough” on climate change or Gaza or any other difficult thing. It’s hardly ever good enough, but that’s no reason to take home your marbles. Instead, it’s a reason to follow the moves behind the scenes and put the pressure on through your own paths of influence: including, but not limited to voting.

Bonus feature: I commend to you this cracking presentation by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap on why Christians should be engaged in politics and how to do it. Kyle is talking about advocacy practices, which he calls “loving our neighbor in public.”  

It would be so lovely if the perfect leaders would solve all our problems so that we could just enjoy life. But whatever agency and power we have is a privilege, and I intend to use mine, chess move by chess move, in and out of the voting booth. Yes, it’s hard to hold on to the vision we long for, a vision of justice and beauty and flourishing for all—a vision I believe God gives us—and still be patient with the struggle. We hold both urgency and patience in a strenuous tension, living as best we can by faith. I think that’s what we’re called to do.

Apparently, this post is the second in a multi-part series I’m writing about voting? Younger me would be shocked by this. I’m just trying to understand things I didn’t understand earlier in life.

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