Vote, and after the election, keep voting: Citizen action on not Nov. 4

by Beacon Staff • January 28, 2009

If you don't vote, people say, you can't complain. If you don't vote, you don't contribute. If you don't vote, you aren't American. Even though we partake in the action maybe twice a year, and even though elections as monumental as last year's are rare, voting is America's central sacrament.

"Just vote"-our pathetically low standard for active citizenship. As our country and our world face unprecedented challenges, we need to raise the bar-we need to do more than just vote. Yes, voting is vital to democracy. But our freedoms therein implore us to make important choices every day-what we eat, how we travel, what we buy and what we do-not to enter civic hibernation when the polls close.

Last Tuesday, Barack Obama became our new president, to the relief and excitement of most Americans. Former President Bush's rule was, by many accounts, the worst in history. At the outset, many despaired over Bush's election; and then over his unbelievable (given the job performance) reelection; and then as his administration plowed forth, ambivalent to ever intensifying cries of protest.

Over the two Bush terms, Americans grew frustrated and nihilistic. President Bush stunted our civic initiative, and our personal decisions seemed to pale next to his broad-reaching failures. Reducing your carbon footprint: reversed by oil industry loyalties and global warming ambivalence. Volunteering at a food pantry: countered by abandonment of the struggling working class. Joining the Peace Corps: wiped out by torture; Guantanamo Bay and the reckless, bloody disaster in Iraq.

This civic withdrawal has been tragic for our country, and for our generation. To address the myriad problems facing our nation, we need to snap out of it. Hopefully, Obama's improbable triumph, and the massive movement behind it, will renew our faith in government. And for vanquishing the presidential color barrier, in ourselves.

But in the coming years, even if Obama's administration is good, our problems will not vanish. Change cannot be dictated from the nostrum; it has to rise up from kitchen tables and city blocks. As a community organizer, and as the leader of a massive, grassroots campaign, Obama understands this.

After last February's Super Tuesday primaries, Obama said, "We are the change that we seek." And at his inauguration, "For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."

This is a democratic state, not a totalitarian one, and the lion's share of influence lies not with governmental institutions, but with citizens-our country's greatest engine for change. The decisions we make collectively are as important as our leaders' decisions. Our republic can only do so much. It cannot do service work for us, or recycle, or buy ethically-made products, or be green.

Vote with your time, effort and kindness. Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recently introduced the Serve America Act, which aims to put into cities and towns peacetime armies of community service. The bill's goal is to increase enrollment in year-long service programs by 175,000 people. It's up to you to join.

Vote with your stomach. In his new book, iFood Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating/i, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman writes that "a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home." We all eat, and our diet, namely over-consumption of animal products, has global consequences-carbon emissions, rain forest loss and the perpetuation of hunger around the world. The government should end subsidies that encourage animal consumption and inflate agribusiness' profits. But we can make a huge impact ourselves by consuming less meat. By eating "the equivalent of three fewer cheeseburgers a week," Bittman writes, "we'd cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the [United States]."

Vote with your wallet. More than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water, making thirst and water-borne infections endemic and killing millions every year. There are formidable charities working to alleviate this humanitarian crisis, as well as other crises. We should donate generously-maybe with some of the money we put aside for Smirnoff and hash.

When we were young, many of us aspired to the presidency. We aren't in the Oval Office, but we aren't off the hook. To a degree, we are all presidents-we hold veto power over our decisions, our actions and our ethics. And we have important influence over our family and friends.

Our country can't afford for the civil idleness of the Bush years to go on. President You, it's time to get to work.

iChris Girard is a junior political communication major and opinion editor of /iThe Beacon.