Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on their respective campaign trails. Photos by Scott Ball.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on their respective campaign trails. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When the nation that invented modern democracy finds itself choosing between the equivalent of a morally degenerate teenage boy and the incarnation of political cynicism for its highest office, it’s time for a little self-examination.

Yes, self-examination. Because we still live in a democracy, and that means these two candidates, the long string of at-best mediocre presidents preceding them, and our inoperative Congress really are a reflection of us, the people who put them in power.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. Sometimes it seems easier to throw one’s hands in the air and say the whole system’s screwed up, there’s nothing any one of us can do about it. But that’s exactly the problem. For decades we’ve settled into that apathetic stance, coming to accept even such obvious political cancers as the unfettered expansion of our campaign finance and lobbying systems. Politicians in both parties have dutifully represented our impuissance in their offices, increasingly blaming systemic intransigence for their own remarkable failures to live up to campaign promises. In a profound act of deflection, our leaders degrade the political system by lamenting that degradation.

This year, the pattern has reached a harrowing low as Trump supporters promote baseless accusations of conspiratorial election manipulation, endangering the legitimacy of democracy’s key institution. Such accusations feed a downward spiral: Decreased faith in the system threatens to reduce participation, rendering the system more vulnerable to undemocratic influences and less responsive to the public will. And so faith declines further.

The cycle starts, and therefore has to end, with us – and that means treating the vote as the precious gift it is. In that respect, we could use a lot of work: According to the Pew Research Center, only 53.4% of eligible voters participated in the last presidential election, placing us at 31st out of 35 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in voter turnout. That’s nothing new for our country, though there was a time when rates were consistently in the 70-80% range.

But that figure doesn’t tell the full story either. The general election is arguably only as reflective of the public will as the primaries are, since that’s where voters whittle a much broader pool down to two. In the 2016 primaries, a mere 28.5% of the electorate voted. That was an especially “high” turnout.

Think about that. When vying to be one of two contenders for the world’s most powerful position, a role with the unilateral power to engage in nuclear war, candidates only need to appeal to about one in four voting-eligible Americans.

Considering the widespread odium felt toward the two options we’ve been left with this year, it’s not unreasonable to assume this election would have been completely different if three-fourths, or two-thirds, or even half of Americans thought their input was worth keeping informed and standing in line for a few hours. Even if the candidates were the same, a more broad primary turnout might make them less polarizing and more consistent, since they wouldn’t have to first appeal to a more extreme primary base and then pivot duplicitously to the general public.

All of this should make us wonder: What would politics look like if we placed more weight on the vote? What if making informed voting decisions became an important litmus test in how our culture judged a person’s character?

The question might make you cringe. In a society where “judging” has become taboo, it might evoke a long history of social evaluations, used as a basis for oppression, that hinged on arbitrary and unchangeable qualities like race, sex, and one’s natural endowments.

But when Martin Luther King Jr. said he dreamed of a day when people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he clearly was not calling for a judgment-free society. It’s hard to imagine him accepting the character of a person who neglected a right King, like so many others, fought and died to render universal.

Though judging character should always start with oneself, it’s not just an individual process. The person I present to society influences a collective culture that absolutely needs to grow and change. That doesn’t mean we should treat people of bad character poorly or make assumptions about what’s really going on inside them. It’s not even important that we know who these people are. As in most successful social movements, what matters most is challenging our cultural values.

Our problem isn’t that we judge ourselves and each other, but that we’ve let arrogance, irrationality, selfishness, and closed-mindedness interfere with this healthy process. But what could be more modest, rational, selfless, and open-minded than the franchise? There is no space for a big ego in the voting booth: You assert your sacred right to self-determination with a full awareness that it will be balanced against that of millions of others. Though your one vote, as a fraction of the whole, is infinitesimally small, you have the rationality to recognize its significance as part of a collective act. You are selfless enough to stay politically informed and vote even when it’s not terribly pleasant, because you value a system that, at its core, acknowledges your worth as equal to that of your compatriots, without distinction.

That is, except one: Those who don’t vote have no value. And why should they? They have renounced the institutional embodiment of their free agency and equal worth. Why should they continue to be regarded with such hard-fought honors?

I won’t act like I’m any less guilty than the average American in this respect. The first election I ever voted in was in 2012, when I was already 23 years old, and I definitely haven’t always been as informed as I could have been. I was either too arrogant to face the relative smallness of my one vote, or apathetic enough to say politics weren’t for me. In a sense, I was right. Politics weren’t for me. By ignoring them, I rendered myself unworthy of their consideration. I deserved the kind of government in which others paternalistically make the decisions.

Which is, in a sense, the government that we currently have. It doesn’t respond to many of our needs because, politically, they don’t matter. Then we go and complain that the system is rigged, the government is corrupt, democracy doesn’t work. Well all these grievances are partially true. Money in politics, increased barriers to voting, presidential nominees threatening to jail their opponents and reject election results – all of these are legitimate threats to democracy. But let’s not forget that for most of our history, the majority of Americans had to advocate for their interests without the franchise and in the face of political violence we can hardly imagine. They had the courage and sense of agency to do it, and so should we.

If there’s anything to carp about, it’s not the system, which is still fairer and more representative now than it has ever been. Instead, we should be outraged that we the people have grown too soft and ungrateful to nurture and protect that system in even the simplest of ways.

And then we should do something about it. Along with our democracy, we’ve inherited a rich history of cultural self-examination and progress. It’s time for us to renew that legacy. Using the informed vote as one criterion for evaluating character could be a great place to start. Of course, it’s only a start. But, if we can’t muster even that modicum of self-improvement, I can’t see us getting too far.

Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.