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Think outside the vote

Michael Poffenberger | Sunday, October 31, 2004

Given this most coveted column timing, one day before what has been hearkened in frenzied tones by many as the most important election of our lives, I will not inundate you with hyperbolic arguments in support of the candidate for whom I will vote. This somewhat reactionary decision on my part comes not only from an eagerness to be past the tense and divided atmosphere of election season, but also from the conviction that too much emphasis has been placed on voting as the crucial form of civic engagement. Our electoral passion should, in fact, extend past tomorrow.Surely, the degree to which Americans have been investing themselves in the future of their society during the past six months is incredible. Thousands have been canvassing door to door in their home towns and states and creating grassroots networks to get out the vote. Television ratings from the debates were at an all-time high. Newspapers, radio stations and dinner tables across America have been buzzing with dialogue about important issues. At no other point in recent American history have so many people been investing themselves in the future of their country.But any citizen that sits back on Nov. 3 and considers their civic duty accomplished by simply having cast a vote is wasting an unparalleled opportunity to carry on this momentum to create a more flourishing democracy.Indeed, the success of a democratic society relies most fundamentally on the constant participation of its members. The “power of the people” is meant to be exercised to determine our communal well-being at all times; it is expressed not just by electing politicians but also by holding them accountable, not just by learning about the issues but also by acting on them directly. Realizing our power demands recognizing that these issues affect our lives.In many ways, elections actually represent the worst of democracy. Acknowledging that one vote will most likely never make a literal difference is often disempowering. The semantics and sound bytes of stump speeches and debates represent culture wars and battles for swing voters more than honest dialogue about the common good. The vote can even be seen as a mere symbolic representation of the values that already exist in America, making the year-round work at the level of individual hearts and minds a much more important and effective form of social change.The problems brought up in the dialogue surrounding this election do not miraculously disappear after a victor is declared tomorrow, regardless of which candidate wins. Two days from now, all of us will still have a vested interest in understanding why two-thirds of America has grown poorer over the last four years.Two days from now, our soldiers will still be in Iraq and many of our children will still lack health care. In other words, two days from now, needless suffering will continue its disillusioning existence, awaiting our impetus to act.Each of the 1,460 days between Presidential elections represents an opportunity to respond to this impetus by giving of ourselves to the community around us and by engaging any of the countless ways our values can affect the public square. Each new day is an occasion to challenge the status quo and to be builders of a healthier world.This act of building can take many forms. It can be writing letters to the editor or to our elected officials. It can be raising awareness in our community for important issues. It can be supporting or participating in a social or political movement or campaign. It can be joining a rally or prayer vigil for structural change. At the very least, it can be educating ourselves about these issues and discussing them with the people around us.Let each of us take up this mission and not lose the participatory spirit of this election season. For President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation made during his 1961 inaugural address certainly holds as true today as ever: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” And that means always.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major, and a member of Common Sense. Contact him at mpoffenb@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.