This year, nearly half the members of the Rhode Island General Assembly will run unopposed. They’ll just cruise right back into a $15,000 taxpayer-funded salary and the power to vote on things like whether Rhode Islanders can legally smoke a joint, marry a same-sex partner, drive over the Sakonnet River Bridge without being billed, and any number of other matters relating to business, public safety, schools, the environment, and the way our state functions. They’re called “lawmakers” for a reason.
Meanwhile, if voter turnout from recent non-presidential-election years is any indicator, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the state’s eligible citizens will head to the polls on November 4 to cast ballots in these GA races, along with contests for governor, attorney general, US representative, and a handful of others. On Primary Day — Tuesday, September 9 — participation will almost certainly fall below 50 percent.
These numbers — half of the state’s eligible citizens voting in political races that aren’t technically “races” nearly half of the time — are not good.
Well, that question leads to a larger question about why politics matters at all. And to this, as a formerly politically apathetic arts and culture writer who is flush with the zeal of the newly-converted, I have many answers.
I could talk about how politics would have broader appeal if it had the more honest, attention-grabbing name “What People Are Doing With Your Money.” (See: 38 Studios. See: $5 million in tolling equipment installed on the Sakonnet River Bridge, rendered useless when the General Assembly retracted the toll it previously created. See: smaller but no less important things like those large metal signs that pop up on street corners in Providence to inform citizens that road repairs are, indeed, happening, thanks to Mayor Angel Taveras. How much does one of those signs cost? Do they serve any purpose other than propaganda for an incumbent mayor, who also happens to be a gubernatorial candidate? Where does that money come from?)
I could talk about how, on a pure entertainment level, politics is the ultimate story. Where is there a better character than Buddy Cianci? Where is there a better image than former Rhody Governor Ed DiPrete diving into a dumpster outside of a Walt’s Roast Beef for a bag of cash? Where is there a more memorable line than State Senator Josh Miller’s (D-Cranston, Warwick) March 2014 response to an outspoken citizen journalist/2nd Amendment enthusiast underneath the State House rotunda: “Go fuck yourself”? We’ve already paid for a ticket to this show with our taxes, so why not tune in?
And finally (though not finally, since I could go on about this for hours), as a political journalist, I’ve got a whole drawer full of inspirational quotes pertaining to the intersection of news, citizenship, and democracy. Tops is legendary reporter Walter Lippmann’s riff from his 1920 book, Liberty and the News:
“The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct.”
But then there’s Washington Post/Watergate legend Bob Woodward’s oath: “I get up in the morning and I ask the question: ‘What are the bastards hiding?’ ” And let’s not forget Hunter S. Thompson’s alt-press rallying cry from his obituary for Richard Nixon: “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.”
But I don’t want to hog this conversation. So, this week, as the clock ticks down to Election 2014 in Rhode Island, we threw open the forum to a bunch of smart folks who spend their lives talking and thinking about politics, and who, collectively, make a hell of a good case for hopping off the Apathy Train.
The following submissions have been edited for length and clarity, in some cases.
POLITICAL ANALYST AT RHODE ISLAND PUBLIC RADIO
The voting booth is the last place in Rhode Island where every citizen is equal — whether rich or poor, newly-sworn citizen, or Mayflower family that can trace their lineage all the way back to slave traders or rum runners. In a state that becomes more stratified each day among the haves, the have-nots, and the have-mores, your vote is what makes you equal to your boss, wealthy uncle, or [a] Harvard graduate.
If you don’t vote, you are letting others make the choices of who gets what in our state.
WRITER, ACTIVIST, TEACHER
Unless communities of color are organizing to exert their collective political power based on a specific agenda which reflects their socioeconomic and educational interest, then for them politics doesn’t matter. They simply become the subjects of someone else’s politics.
If we evaluate the struggle taking place in Ferguson [Missouri], what do we see: a community that’s nearly 70 percent Black but only has 12 percent voter participation. However, the Black community in Ferguson is now organizing to develop a political agenda which will allow Black folks in Ferguson to either vote for candidates who will push policies which reflect their interest, or put forth their own candidates.
ORGANIZER, SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION (SEIU) 1199NE–RI’S HEALTH CARE WORKERS UNION.
Decisions get made by those who show up.
Saying “I don’t care about politics” is basically saying “I don’t care what they do to me.” Most people I meet who say that, though, actually mean, “I don’t think my voice matters to those in power.” And often (though not always) they are right, especially given the influence of big money in politics. The balance of forces that get to implement their will aren’t typically aligned in favor of workers, women, immigrants and people of color, youth, LGBTQ folks, etc.
But that very fact is precisely why people who feel shut out need to find a way to get engaged. Maybe it’s cliche, but if you look at history, it’s clear that change happens when people get together and push for it: abolishing slavery, outlawing child labor, winning the right to vote for anyone who wasn’t a landowning white man, establishing basic environmental protections — or even two recent victories here in RI, marriage equality and paid family leave.
But politics is so much more than voting. Politics also means organizing in our communities, campuses, and workplaces. It means mobilizing around issues of equality and justice, and building movements that last beyond Election Day so that ordinary people — and not just the 1% — can make our voices heard in the halls of power.