Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.” While Brandeis is 70 years departed, his words are perhaps more relevant now than ever. His insight is a reminder of the fragility of democracy and the tenuous nature of political enthusiasm. Indeed the harsh partisanship and endless gridlock of recent years has lead many to conclude that our political process is broken, and that participation is irrelevant. But such conclusions are precisely why the system is broken and why a small band of elites is able to influence elections in a way that erodes the notion of “one person one vote.”
As a volunteer for one of the many political organizations operating in the area, I have had the opportunity to engage with voters from across the political spectrum face to face and over the phone. While many are eager to get involved, there is a solid and persistent group that does not feel compelled or inspired to participate in any way, even at the ballot box. Often times I will hear people say their vote makes no difference or that they simply can’t support any of the candidates for any number of reasons. Whether they be conservative, liberal or independent, there are people ready to allow pessimism and objections to the political process hamstring their ability to create real change.
It is this position of apathy and inertness that creates the self-fulfilling prophecy of political powerlessness. By choosing to not participate, these pessimists and principled objectors have the luxury to freely criticize the government they didn’t help elect and the policies they didn’t help shape. They can also absolve themselves of the failures of our leaders and use the dysfunction to continually justify their non-involvement. It is this menace of apathy that opens the door for special interests, wealthy elites, and entrenched partisans to hijack our liberty to perpetuate their hold on power. So what can be done to preserve the voice of all the people, even those who don’t take the time to be heard?
The answer is radically simple: get involved. Those principled objectors are your neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends and may be Republicans, Democrats or something else. Maybe they are so apolitical they don’t know the difference. But they share something in common: They are not powerful D.C. lobbyists or shadowy billionaires who casually toss about millions of dollars to the super PAC of their choice. They are ordinary citizens who have been disenfranchised for one reason or another. They have lost faith in the institutions of our democracy and are blinded to the immense power they yield as individuals.
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So how does one get involved? Register to vote. Learn about the candidates and volunteer for the one that most speaks to your core values (whether that be a presidential contender or local official), and then persuade others to join you. Sign up to register voters, canvass neighborhoods, or make phone calls. Reach out to the political party you most agree with and ask how you can help. Hold a house party to watch a debate or discuss the election with your friends and family.
Don’t worry about your ideology or political persuasion. Worry about the health of our democracy and vitality of our communities. Guide your apathetic acquaintances to at least vote, even if they don’t contribute any time or money.
Ordinary people are the most powerful asset to any candidate, campaign or idea, so when we don’t participate we allow the best ideas to fail and the worst candidates to succeed. If you are watching in dismay as the ruling class solidifies its monopoly on free speech and power, then it is incumbent on you to take action.
As Americans, we bear the responsibility and deserve the consequences of our government’s failures should we choose to abandon participation in favor of ineptitude. Keep this in mind the next time you see the menace of apathy rear its ugly head.
Casey Dunivan, a northeast Olympia resident and member of The Olympian Board of Contributors, is author of the bully pulpit — a news and opinion blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.