In this 50th anniversary year of Selma and the Voting Rights Act, there’s been a lot of talk about the right to vote: how it was secured for black citizens in the South, and how it is being compromised anew by legislatures and a see-no-evil Supreme Court. But for the most part, the public has ignored the talk. The whittling away of the VRA plays as a technical matter, the concern of partisan insiders. Which, increasingly, is how voting itself is seen by the large pluralities of eligible voters who sit out most presidential contests, and the outright majorities who skip other elections. The sources of this apathy are familiar: people are too busy, the money game seems rigged, campaigns have become an ugly, unsatisfying spectator sport. The net effect is that the act of voting feels severed from personal purpose or collective identity. But it’s possible to change that. A playbook exists. There was a time when voting meant much more than just voting. In fact, that was true for most of this nation’s history. From the Revolution through the Civil Rights era, as historians like Mark Brewin and David Waldstreicher describe, the United States had a robust participatory culture of voting: parades, yes, but also raucous street theater, open-air debates, broadsheets and pamphleteering, committees of correspondence, rituals of toasting and fasting and even fighting, festivals and bonfires, and outrageous wagers.
What would it look like to have a modern culture of democracy so richly festal? From time to time, we get glimpses. Think of the heady days of the 2008 Obama campaign, when Shepard Fairey and will.i.am and others made pop art out of the images and words of their candidate.
Many early Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rallies also had a raw, homespun theatricality, from tricorner hats and Don’t Tread On Me flags to Guy Fawkes masks and “99%” iconography. And much of the post-Ferguson protest movement, as well as content created under #BlackLivesMatter, is infused with creativity.
But these are exceptions, mainly outside the electoral arena. Thanks to a half-century of TV, the couch has replaced the commons. The public sphere has become desiccated, quasi-private, and passive. The Internet makes that sphere more seemingly social. But sharing memes on Facebook and Twitter is still a quiet kind of citizenship. It’s being “alone together,” in Sherry Turkle’s phrase.
The couch has replaced the commons. The public sphere has become desiccated, quasi-private, and passive.
Imagine, instead, an electoral culture that’s about being together together. In person. In loud and passionate and even partisan ways. That means instead of “eat your vegetables” or “do your duty,” voting should feel more like “join the club.” Or, better yet, join the fight. The single act of casting a ballot might be surrounded with many public, participatory, and creative acts of arguing the ballot.