As our country instantly shifts gears from Halloween to Election Day, the democratic process seems more wicked than ever. At every turn, we’re bewildered by the drumbeat of “attack ads” on TV, and besieged by nonstop “robo-call” pitches from candidates and supporters of all stripes.
How does this circus atmosphere lead to good governance?
Election Tricks Aren’t the Answer
Maybe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it best this week, while making remarks about America’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific Region: “One thing we have learned over the last few years is that democracy is more than elections.”
That kind of nonsense cheapens the concept of civilized society. And in my view, it speaks directly to the heart of concerns that Mahatma Gandhi raised, when he outlined the “Seven Deadly Social Sins.”. It shouldn’t be tolerated by a
Politics without principle
Wealth without work
Commerce without morality
Pleasure without conscience
Education without character
Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice
Look again. What’s at the top of that list? Politics without principle. In other words, if elections are only about winning for winning’s sake, then we’re selling our collective soul to the devil.
I realize there are cynics who say that, in our republic, the battle has already been lost. That slipping voter turnout reflects irreversible disenchantment and indifference. That it’s no longer even worthwhile for our nation to engage in free elections. But I’m not willing to let go so easily.
First, let’s recognize that everything is relative. And second, let’s recognize that, if “We the People” don’t take responsibility for preserving the processes and principles that define democracy, who will?
Case in Point:
As we approach election day in the U.S., I’m reminded to look briefly in the rearview mirror. On September 18th, I wrote about Afghanistan’s election day demons and heroes. Specifically, I honored the millions of voters who cast ballots in this year’s parliamentary election – despite the threat of T violence and a cloud of fraud concerns.
Sadly, that day 14 people were killed in dozens of attacks – although fortunately, far fewer incidents occurred than anticipated. Also sadly, numerous claims of fraud and bribery made it difficult to determine an accurate vote count. In fact, investigation of the 5.6 million ballots cast led to disqualification of nearly 23% (about 1.3 million votes).
However, I don’t think we should be distracted by the flaws in Afghanistan’s evolving system. No election process is perfect. And in this case, suspected abuse was actually exposed and corrected. In the end, 4.3 million legitimate Afghan voters proved a point. The spirit of democracy inspired these people to act on principle – despite the fact that they’re ravaged by war and terrorized by Taliban thugs. This year, more than a third of eligible voters had their say. Coincidentally, certified election results were scheduled to be announced today (although delivery is now expected to slip into early November.)
What’s the bottom line? If humble Afghans are willing to face their fears – to risk mutilation – or even death – for a voice in their own fledgling government – who are we to judge their efforts? And even more importantly, who are we to sit at home during our own country’s elections, and leave our fate to others?
A World Without Elections? Come to the Dark Side
At its core, voting equals progress. It’s the most basic instrument we have to demonstrate our collective will. Without voter participation – without active, continuous feedback loops – progress isn’t possible. And if progress isn’t in our future, then I fear for my children – and their children.
Consider this. Not long ago in history, most nations were ruled by governments that typically seized and maintained control strictly through brute force and birthright. People didn’t elect government representatives. Instead, they were ruled by an elite class – a king, a queen, a tribal chieftain, a warlord, a landowner, a cleric – or some combination. No matter who was in charge, the concept was functionally the same. Anyone who was not a “ruler” was, essentially a servant. These “subjects” literally lived at the mercy of those in power. Perhaps the best they could hope for was a benevolent dictator.
But now, in countries like ours – where “rulers” are elected – that relationship is reversed. By definition, our leaders serve us – rather than the other way around. Literally, democracy gives “power to the people.” Then why do so many of us seem to care so little about it?
Whether power is put in the hands of only one ruler – or distributed among many – its value cannot be underestimated. Why else would dictators invest so dearly in structures and systems to maintain control? Unless we collectively work to protect our right to determine who represents our interests, we should recognize that we’re opening the door for dangerous, power-hungry factions.
The world has seen what happens when nations bend to the will of zealous despots. And no one wants to write another chapter like that in history, if we can avoid it. So why would we allow even the tiniest crack in our nation’s democratic armor? Our strength is our plurality. Our power is our collective voice.
Putting Principles Back into Politics – One Vote at a Time
The most fundamental freedom is the right to vote. It is a hallmark of democracies like ours. Therefore, the logical corollary would be this – the more citizens who vote, the more freedom our country can truly enjoy.
And so I urge everyone who reads this to vote. And I hope you’ll encourage others to follow your lead. No matter how distasteful or unprincipled you find campaign tactics to be – don’t let cynicism hold you back. Don’t let an imperfect system become even more deeply flawed because you choose not to participate.
Instead, be the change you want to see in the world (as Mr. Gandhi once said). Demand principles behind politics. Seek common sense and accountability from public servants. And exercise your freedom to vote.
We may disagree politically – that is also is our right. But it’s our hard-won privilege and duty to vote. It’s a tradition that binds us together as Americans. And I will gladly fight to maintain that right. Choosing to ignore elections scorns the blood of countless Americans and allies who died for your share in “ruling” America. So let’s claim our rights – and remind our nation’s leaders who’s really in charge.
Until Tuesday, I wish you a safe and sane All Saints Day/Election Eve. Don’t get spooked by last-minute attack ads. And no matter HOW you choose to vote – please join me at the polls – and, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Let freedom ring!”
P.S. I invite you to discuss freedom, faith, troop support and related issues with me at my “Afghan Journal” Facebook Forum: http://Facebook.com/AfghanJournal.
P.P.S. Interested in my experience in training Afghan security forces in a remote region near Pakistan? Check out my book at Amazon.com: “Afghan Journal: A Soldier’s Year in Afghanistan.”