News - Don't rock my vote

Trade the dumbing down of democracy for informed involvement

I'm standing in a smoky club waiting for the headlining band to come on when I spot her and tense up. She's smiling as she works the crowded room, inserting herself into conversations and quickly moving on.

Maybe you've seen her: She's the Rock The Vote girl. She's pressing stickers on unsuspecting concert-goers and motioning them toward a table where they can register to vote. She's moving my way. Ugh.

I know Rock The Vote seems a benign organization, but it's not. It's silly, patronizing and, for all its noble intentions, ultimately complicit in the dumbing down of our democracy.

From the name on, Rock The Vote is an exercise in condescension. The idea that the 18- to 34-year-old demographic can be energized by rebranding the voting process with some quasi-hip tag insults anyone between 18 and 34. Lest you think the organization panders only to rock fans, RTV has a division called Rap The Vote aimed at — you guessed it — black people, er, "the hip-hop and urban community." This is an organization that speaks a political language we should be eradicating: the politics of marketing and demographics.

What has Rock The Vote brought to the national discussion? Count on RTV-sponsored debates to forward important questions like "Boxers or briefs?" "Mac or PC?" and the ever-popular "Did you inhale?" This past November's RTV debate gave each Democratic candidate a chance simply to play a commercial he or she had constructed for the RTV demographic. Isn't the point of a debate to get beyond consultant-derived fluff? But RTV plays happily into TV's infotainment paradigm, which has determined that viewers' attention spans are so short, no candidate can speak uninterrupted for more than 90 seconds. If your solutions to America's problems can't be summed up in a minute-and-a-half, that's too bad, Mr. Kucinich. Here's your bus ticket back to Cleveland.

In school, it's drilled into us that voting is a patriotic duty. The voter registration fascistas come at us like a horde of Jewish mothers, guilting people to the polls. It works. When I was 19, RTV registered my drunken ass on my way back from the Port-A-Potties at a Fishbone concert. At the time, politics was slightly less important to me than remembering what day the university cafeteria served sloppy joes. What did I do with my precious, constitutionally guaranteed right? I voted for Ross Perot. I thought he was funny.

I take little solace knowing I was one of millions who base their vote on little more than a handful of political ads, some evening news soundbites, an "SNL" parody and the first four paragraphs of a Time magazine story, abandoned once the dental hygienist appears in the waiting room.

The result of this troubled system is that running a political campaign — and, for that matter, governing, which has become almost indistinguishable from campaigning — has nothing to do with ideas, insight and genuine debate, and has everything to do with marketing. We've created a shallow democracy, where style trumps substance. If propping the president up in front of a poster with the words "Corporate Responsibility" tattooed across it is enough to mesmerize 51 percent of voters into thinking he's taking a stand against corporate malfeasance, why on Earth would the administration spend money and political capital to actually do anything about it?

After every election, the public is ceremonially scolded for a predictably paltry turnout, particularly among the RTV demographic. But how would dragging those uninterested souls to the polls help democracy? Registration officials argue that turning out voters is half the battle. They view suffrage as some sort of gateway drug toward full democratic citizenship: Once people start voting, they'll inevitably get drawn into caring about real issues.

But there's scant evidence supporting that theory. Even if there were, such thinking sacrifices election after election in service of a vague ideal. What kind of government can we expect from leaders who know that to be elected, they must cater their campaigns and administrations toward voters who barely are paying attention?

Along with the right to vote comes the right not to vote. Citizens have every right to be apathetic, to be lazy or to simply withhold their support. Granted, democracy must be participatory to work. But participation amounts to more than just voting once every few years and calling it a day. Participation amounts to staying informed and taking an active interest in local and national government. What you do with that information is up to you. March in protests or don't. Write your senator or don't. Run for tax commissioner or don't. Vote or don't.

Ultimately, the country might be better served if fewer people voted. The sensationalistic, image-driven media isn't suddenly going to change its course any more than the general populace suddenly is going to lose interest in sensationalist, image-driven media. So wouldn't our democracy be better off if only engaged citizens voted? Instituting a competency test that isn't elitist, biased and reprehensible is implausible, but if the uninterested weren't constantly badgered into "doing their patriotic duty," voting might largely be left to those who are engaged enough to do so. Beyond that, perhaps the effort spent on registering new voters could be put to better use educating the voters we already have.

Back in the smoky club, I'm still trying to figure out how to elucidate these points to the Rock The Vote girl. She works her way through the crowd to my right and turns to me. I purse my lips and shake my head. She shrugs her shoulders and moves on.

David Peisner is a freelance writer and registered voter who may or may not vote for Ross Perot again this year.

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