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I used to think not voting was a viable option for an American citizen.

There is a danger in investing too much attention in politics; often the things we argue and fight about matter less than our relationships with other people. The voting habits of most people I know well enough to greet in the street or nod at in the supermarket are unknown to me. I'd like to believe our Constitution, criminal justice system and the basic decency of our kind are enough to protect us from the kind of atrocities we read about in history books or hear about in the news.

America is a big country, with lots of different types of people. People who have come--or whose ancestors have come--from all over the planet. People who look different, people who have different ideas about what's good to eat, who might have different ways of relating to the mystery that lurks out there beyond the reach of science's headlights. Maybe you don't see this where you live, maybe you can walk for blocks or drive for miles and not see anyone too different from yourself. But that kind of diversity is out there, and it has always been our strength.

We have been a magnet for the best and the brightest, for the most determined.

It would be fair to say that we have attracted the ruthless too, and that we often fail to acknowledge the violence that has underscored the American experiment. It would be fair to say that we took away what belonged to indigenous people and that much of our wealth was built on the scarred and struggling backs of people stolen from their families and nations. (But that, you tell me, has nothing to do with you.)

It costs me nothing to acknowledge these things, to admit my good fortune to be born where and when I was born, with whatever advantages I had. I could imagine that I could do better than my parents, who achieved a level of comfort for themselves, who felt themselves a part of a community. When I was coming up, boys like me only had to show up and follow the rules to be assured of a place in our society. We could screw up in all kinds of ways--we could flunk out of college or get busted for drugs and get a second or third or fourth chance. Back then we might have been offended if anyone suggested that we were somehow privileged.

But we were, and we are. The world isn't fair, it's random. Talent isn't destiny, talent isn't even scarce. Your best chance of succeeding is having a close connection to someone successful.

If you don't have those kind of connections, all you can do is work hard and hope. Try to be smart about the world.

What we call the American dream has never been available to all Americans. These days not even being born white and male and middle class is enough to ensure your place at the table. There's not as much opportunity out there for people of ordinary ability, people who used to be able to get along by selling their time and diligence and labor. These days you can sell three-quarters of your time and maybe end up with enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Maybe.

So maybe it's not surprising that people are angry. When you can't plot a reasonable route to economic security even though you come home tired every day, maybe you've got the right to be angry. When you've got, as the Bard says, bills no honest man can pay, there's nothing wrong with being angry.

But you need to think about who it's reasonable to be mad at. Probably not folks who have it even worse than you do. It might make sense to look at who profits from the status quo.

Despite all the lip service some will give it, we don't have anything like a democratic republic anymore. Ordinary citizens have practically no influence over the actions of policymakers; the game is run by economic elites consisting largely of old white men with money who mean to protect and grow their wealth. It's those voices that matter, not yours. If you want some consideration, write a check. There's a direct correlation between how much you spend and the service you get.

We can no longer afford to be naive about the way the world works. While there are good people who are drawn to politics, probably more decent people than otherwise when you come down to it, being a good citizen is not what gets you elected. We have the sort of politics we deserve--a mediocre sport played by and large by the vain and second-rate. And, at its highest levels, by the insanely needy.

It used to be OK to ignore them, to put trust in our Constitution, our criminal justice system and in the basic decency of the American people. It turns out we can take nothing for granted. It turns out that for all our self-congratulatory pride we aren't any better than anyone else. We're as susceptible to compromise and self-deceit as anyone else. We're scary when we're scared.

And for all their talk of patriotism, we can't trust the people we send to Washington to put the nebulous idea of country ahead of their party or their own narrow self-interests. They're in a difficult spot, for we're in a peculiar moment of our history when an energized, radicalized minority that credits only those "facts" custom-tailored to fit their assumptions and superstitions and will tolerate no critique of the Russia-backed reality television star they put in office. They have calculated that it's better not to know if the president is a traitor than to risk a mean tweet from the White House.

They have calculated that the American people will not hold them accountable. They have placed their bets on a man they know is incompetent and corrupt.

All we can do is prove them wrong. We have to vote them out.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 07/10/2018

Print Headline: Not voting is not an option

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