It's that time of year -- election time. I'm registered independent. I don't much like the political parties, expensive machines for organized conflict that they have become. I'm always reminded in this context of chapter 13 of Dickens's hilarious Pickwick Papers, his timeless depiction of the election campaign in Eatanswill between the Blues and the Buffs. Read it? If not, here's the short version:
The candidates, and newspaper editors who align themselves with each party, rant and rave about the urgency of their side winning, their own high principles and sterling character, and the degraded qualities of the opposition. The one thing missing from the struggle is a substantive issue, and Dickens makes it clear that the contenders are all windbags and rogues.
Whether that is a fair summary of our political environment today is a contract you may enter into or not, dear reader, as the spirit moves you. And I'm certainly not here to side with the Blues or the Buffs. I'm just here, as Fools are wont to do, to sniff out and confront a conventional wisdom. Namely:
"Get out and vote!"
You know the chant. You hear the urging. Within the next 24 hours you'll hear, if you haven't already, statistics quoted for "voter turnout" along with the almost inevitable bemoaning of just how low these figures are ("Geez, less than half the precinct actually came out to vote -- democracy is in trouble!"). Yes, you'll read about how voting is a noble and beneficial thing to do, that it's part of our heritage (as it assuredly is), that we Americans should take the time before, after, or even during work to get over to the local public school or post office or what have you and cast our vote. As we walk out we even, in this Age of Self-Esteem, get a self-congratulatory button: "I Voted!" it proclaims to all and sundry. And truth be told, much of the time I vote as well... and the times that I don't, I admit to feeling some small guilt about it, probably since from an early age I've heard the sentiments expressed in this paragraph.
And yet! And yet, something is missing....
What is missing is some stronger urging, which should be uttered by the media even more frequently and vociferously, that before you "get out and vote" you should know what the heck you're voting about! It seems to me that voting should be a responsible and sober act, embarked upon after making sure one has heard both sides of the issues at stake. Do not vote mechanically, without consideration, in ignorance, or based on image. A vote cast ignorantly -- I want the "Get out and vote!" crowd to shout this -- is a greater blow to free democracy than no vote at all.
And I've done it in the past. I mean, I'll go in and see four more issues or races on the ballot than I thought, and I just start filling out additional circles almost at random! As if reading the line or two of "context" included on the ballot for that particular issue has sufficiently informed me and prepared me to act responsibly in promoting or demoting its future. Heck, I'm there after all, right? I shouldn't leave any part of my ballot empty, anymore than I would leave any part of my 8th-grade algebra test empty!
Well, I'm not going to do that this year, and I encourage you not to do so either. I agree with the author of Basic Economics, economist Thomas Sowell, when he writes, "A case could be made that those who have not informed themselves on the issues have a patriotic duty to stay away from the polls on Election Day, rather than mess with something that is too important to be decided by ignorance or prejudice."
It's just a quick and Foolish thought for you this week, with no passionate or peremptory conclusion.
On this Election Eve, I'm saying pay no heed to those who tell you just to "get out and vote"... unless you truly know what you're voting about!
Make your "I Voted!" button actually mean something.
David Gardner, co-founder and co-chairman of the board of The Motley Fool, was at last check neither a registered Blue nor a registered Buff. However, he is considering forming the Pickwick Party, whose simple plank is to promote two dear commodities in this world: more sense of humor and more self-effacement.