For years, a list has floated around the Internet attempting to make a grandiose point about the value of voting. It’s Reader’s Digest-type stuff, the kind of crude summary you might see used by a lazy high school civics teacher or in an email that’s been forwarded along a half-dozen times. This bit of flotsam catalogs one-vote winning margins throughout history with a popular version showing impressive breadth, citing Oliver Cromwell taking control of England in 1645 and America choosing to use English over German in 1776, both by a single vote. Jesse Jackson, apparently inspired by the list’s power, included its claims in his speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, noting that “One vote made Texas part of the United States of America in 1845. One vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic. One vote has the power to change our course.” It makes for pretty rhetoric and a can-do sense of purpose, but regrettably—like almost everything on the Internet—it is total bunk.
None of these claims are true—some quite far from reality—but the “one-vote” list still surfaces time and again. The list popped into my brain around 1:30 am Tuesday, the night of the Iowa caucuses, when CNN’s vacuous chuckle-heads revealed that Mitt Romney was beating Rick Santorum by, you guessed it, one vote. A half-hour later, Santorum nosed ahead by four votes, and by Wednesday morning the final numbers had given Romney his landslide win of eight votes. It’s hard not to find this absurd virtual tie at least somewhat intriguing, despite the fact that these caucuses are an achingly undemocratic, uniformly meaningless practice that directly decides zero delegates. After the silliest process possible—scrawled paper ballots, placed in hats and plastic buckets and later tallied by elderly volunteers by hand—the margin came down to fewer participants than in a regulation basketball game. This faux-decisive folly isn’t to suggest that the process before caucus night followed any sense of logic. Reports in the final days described hapless voters torn between Santorum and Ron Paul, candidates so similar that one wants to bomb Iran to bits and the other wants to all-out ignore it. Ultimately, a tie for the huffily righteous Santorum—a man who believes states can and should outlaw all forms of birth control—allows him to play the front-runner for a while and spew out more mean-spirited untruths over the next few months. And what’s worse, I hope he gets as close as he can to the nomination, if only to make synthetic zillionaire Romney beg for it just a little bit more.
The whole thing is, as always, a bit depressing. Which is probably why I’m so interested in the fact that the vote difference in the 2012 Iowa caucus couldn’t even make a minyan. It appears that votes, even cast in asinine snapshots of a 99 percent white populace, do matter. Sure, more people took part in the 2010 D.C. mayoral race than in Tuesday’s caucuses, but those in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids can’t argue that they didn’t have the option of making a difference. It is true that not many took advantage of the opportunity: of the state’s 2.2 million voters, only 147,000 cast a ballot. And of those, only 122,000 voted in the Republican contest, for a turnout of 5.4 percent. This weak statewide showing, however, offers those who want their opinion heard an even larger platform. The eternal battle to convince both ourselves and others that voting matters is a permanent tradition in political worlds. And Iowa this week presents some symbolic evidence that participation is worthwhile, that engagement can in fact push one’s beliefs forward.
So do these narrow Iowa returns suggest, even if allegorically, an obligation to vote? To “be” political? Most of us in Washington have elected to dedicate ourselves to civic life, so we’ve long since swallowed the premise. But many of our friends and fellow citizens have instead conscientiously declined to take part in politics. This innocent apathy seems like almost a romantic flight of fantasy, the kind of freeing warmth that also pervades every time a movie’s protagonist blissfully falls for another Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Political detachment, to be sure, remains a comforting option. And yet as we learn about the world and read its fine print, we unearth more about the oppressed and the exploited and we realize we have a relationship with them whether we acknowledge it or not. Bloody Engelsian revolution isn’t an option, and so we instead must operate within the boundaries of micro ideology and intuition. Our experiences are offered up to our personal moral intuitions, and our consciences buoy decisions to be made about what feels right or wrong. And if we’re tussling with that struggle, we’d have to be willfully ignorant not to have convictions about the world. It’s these convictions that make us by definition political. And this is how we find ourselves participating in matters of politics—by learning to unearth inner disgust and declaring that if things get worse we can’t be said to have been complicit with inaction.
Much has changed regarding mass civic engagement in the last few years. Think back to 2008. When the political right faced a Mack truck of participation in government on the left, they began a ground-war against it, painting that involvement as some kind of unsavory cult worship. Yet when the enthusiasm gap flipped on its head a year or two later leading to a nationwide congressional town-hall shout-fest, that participation was hailed as purely emblematic of American freedom. But this isn’t a partisan issue. Theoretical studies on the psychological benefits of political participation have found that people who engage are more satisfied with their lives thanks to subsequent feelings of autonomy and relatedness. This realization echoes a long-standing understanding in political theory dating back to Aristotle, an argument suggesting that political activity matters because of its effects on the individual citizen and his relationship to the system—regardless of any actual outcomes. In other words, you and seven friends may not always be able to make the difference in an election, but your instinctive sensation of virtuous connection might make it all worth it.
Let’s face it, people are going to vote. It can either be you or it can be the people who actually “see more now” after GoDaddy.com commercials air. It’s up to you. There’s little surprise that after generations of young people getting dominated by their grandparents at the ballot box that issues like Medicare and Social Security get more attention and funding than education and college tuition. (This trend may be changing after 2008 saw more voters under 35 than over 65. We’ll see.) The point is that when you choose not to participate, the conversation shifts—perhaps permanently. You take an election off, and some other group takes your place—and your energy and your capital—and before you know it, you’ve been Wally Pipped into meaninglessness. With countless opportunities to participate, there’s no excuses, really. Some say that politics is an evolutionary substitute for violence, that the societal power that previously moved around at the hand of a weapon is now conducted at the ballot box. To borrow the metaphor, in times like these, it sure feels like we’d be foolish not to keep the tightest of grips on that sword.