On Voting: Or, on Topoi and Convictions

I voted absentee a few weeks ago. I stay registered in Michigan because 1) it’s more of a swing state than Kentucky (though it hasn’t gone to a Republican since George H.W. Bush) and 2) because I have investments in the local politics of my hometown, Northport, that outweigh those I have in Louisville. I felt good when I dropped my ballot in the mail.

Voting is one of those small annual rites we can undertake and feel a deep sense of ritual meaning. The pride I feel in voting resembles the pride I feel in dismissing class on the last day of the semester and telling my students what a pleasure it’s been to meet twice a week for  three-and-a-half months. I’m always sincere when I say that, and I’m sincere in my belief that voting matters. These things are signposts in the narratives of our lives. Without them we’d feel lost. Or I would, at least.

I soliloquized about the election a little on Facebook the other day. Here’s what I said:

I try not to be annoyingly political on Facebook, so this is all I’ll say about the election. No democracies are perfect, and the two-party system teams up with the electoral college to make ours especially imperfect. But let’s not take it for granted that our country affords us voting rights, no matter how inconsequential they seem in the states that glow especially red or blue. I hope everyone I know votes.

I’m also a public educator from a family of public educators, and I have a lot of gay friends who don’t have the same rights I do — so it should be little surprise that I also hope the nation reelects President Obama. But I am, above all, a pluralist, and I hope you vote even if you disagree with me and support Governor Romney or a third party. I’m happy to talk or argue or explain myself with anyone who cares to ask; I think disagreement is good, productive, and even vital.

Anyway, vote. That’s mainly what I wanted to say.

I was glad to see lots of “likes” in response to my post, including many from friends who I know do not share my politics. I was sincere in my remarks: I believe in dissent, in disagreement, in hashing out differences. At the recent meeting of Louisville’s Rhetoric Reading Group, we talked about Wayne Booth’s different classifications of rhetoric that he outlines in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. Booth encourages a greater emphasis on “listening-rhetoric,” which seeks to “pursue the truth behind … differences” rather than just pushing one perspective or argument at all costs. It’d hard to disagree. Too often, campaign rhetoric resorts to the vilest sort of what Booth calls “win-rhetoric,” a sort of rhetorical slugging-it-out in an effort to more effectively impeach your opponent’s ethos than he can yours. I think we saw a lot of that in the debates this year. Anyway, I think we’d all be better off if we’d all seriously revisit the possibilities that we’re wrong in our convictions. But that’s hard to do. The power of ideology is it invisibility.

I was also sincere, though, that I hope President Obama wins. I have grave worries about the future of public education under a Romney administration, as well as the future of LGBT civil rights, the wellfare of the working class, and a lot of other things. I think Obama’s presidency invites some serious criticisms, but also serious praise. The choice was clear to me as I filled out my ballot.

So let me say, unironically: Yay, democracy! Yay, President Obama — a man who I do think, despite his many flaws, will go down as one of the good presidents, perhaps one of the greats. But I subtitle this post “on topoi and convictions” because I feel some serious conflict as a skeptical rhetorician on election day. On one hand, I do believe in voting, and I find myself angered by the apathy of many American citizens. On the other, we need to think critically about the power of the “I voted!” topos. Ralph Cintron has written recently about the “fetishization” of democracy, how it’s topoi (things like the taxpayer, the citizen, the grassroots movement, the term “democracy” itself) carry unbridled power and exist on a plane above critique. We can criticize politicians using the topoi of democracy, but we can’t criticize those topoi themselves. The importance of voting is one such topos; it is a powerful and uncontroversial statement to say, as I did, you should vote. But let’s remember this: to make voting into an unassailable topos is to overlook all the flaws in our voting system that mandates two parties and a first-to-270-electoral-votes-wins strategy. A priority voting system, for instance, instead of our one-person-one-vote system, would work to validate third parties. The way we vote could be better, even if voting itself is something to value.

But I hesitate to even make these points right now. The longer, more reflective genre of a blog post allows me to pontificate a bit, but I probably wouldn’t post to Facebook on election day: “Critically reexamine the topos of voting! Reevaluate our voting system!” No — because I’m concerned about people just voting in the first place. I’m concerned about the immediate material consequences of the election.

There’s no happy way to resolve this tension. At the end of the day, I’ll be watching the precincts report and counting the numbers from swing states like they’re the score of the Michigan-Ohio State game. I still viscerally believe in voting even when, on a certain level, I question it intellectually.

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