Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Flipping through an old paperback copy of Freakonomics I found lying around the house the other day, I was struck once again by a chapter devoted to the question of why people vote, when, statistically speaking, their ballots don't mean shit.

That sounds harsh, but numbers are harsh, and Freakonomics takes a cold look at life from the point of view of probability and statistics, and, when viewed through that particularly unforgiving, clinical lens, glimpsed through that narrow numerical prism, voting makes no sense whatsoever.


We're told, repeatedly, that every vote counts. Your vote counts. You are encouraged to read up on the issues, weigh what the candidates favor and oppose, listen to the faint but insistent sound of your moral compass steadily pointing in one particular direction.

And yet, it doesn't matter.

How many elections have been decided by one vote in the entire world in the past, oh, one hundred years?

Freakonomics comes up with one, some kind of local election in Buffalo at the turn of the twentieth century.

The reality is, your vote doesn't matter. (Statistically speaking.) You could spend hours and days and weeks and months and years considering who is the best candidate for such-and-such particular office, but if you didn't vote, if you stayed at home crashed out on the couch and proceeded to watch a twelve-hour Silver Spoons marathon on Nickeloedon -- 'all Ricky Schroeder, all the time --' the absence of your vote wouldn't affect the election one little bit. Life would go on.

So what is going on when people decide to vote?

The authors of Freakonomics cite an intriguing survey out of Sweden, I think, which found that, when given the chance to vote via Internet, anonymously, from the comfort and privacy of their own homes, people en masse actually voted less than they did when they had to haul their ass out of their house and schlep their way to their local school to cast a paper vote.

Which means what, exactly?

People do everything for emotional reasons and nothing for logical reasons. (That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.) Politicians bombard us with the fact that we live in a democracy, and, in a democracy, it's our moral duty to exercise our legal right to choose our next leader. That's right: you. Me. We have a duty to perform. A sacred trust has been given to us, and we must not waste that benediction. If we choose to remain at home and marvel with glee in our living rooms at little Ricky Schroeder's latest shenanigans, instead of driving on over to the City Hall to case our votes, we have, essentially, performed an act of moral outrage, if not cowardice.

This is the cynical way of looking at it -- that we vote because we think we'll feel guilty if we don't vote. If we thought about it calmly, cooly, rationally, we'd rationalize: the dudes who wrote Freakonomics are right. Our vote doesn't change anything.

Only the collective matters.


What we have to work is here is the ongoing, endless electrical synergy that attempts us to reach outside of our individual selves and connect with something larger, greater, possibly even more noble than our own puny, fleshy, smelly human bodies.

The great irony of American electoral politics is that candidates shuffle from city to city, state to state, and in each of their speeches they state that they are merely spokesmen for the people; that it is you, the people, who are the true bedrock of the nation; that is you the people, who will make the real change.

But I don't think people want to hear that.

I think American politics reaches such orgasmic levels of intensity (and with ten months still to go before the election!) because people don't want that burden of change placed upon their shoulders. They come to the rallies and wave the signs because they are looking for, longing for somebody else to lift them up out of the muck of their lives.

"Hillary, John, Obama, Mike: Take us to the promised land, please! We're voting for you, not ourselves!"

And yet the vote is a link in the chain, a connection from one person to that other person, the one up at the podium, the one promising to lift the country to a new and more hopeful elevation. By voting, the voter may realize (rationally) that their vote doesn't make any difference whatsoever, but it stands for something else, something symbolic, something elevated, a state of mind and heart beyond logic and approaching something very close to religion.

Look at what's happening with Obama. He's become something bigger than himself. He's bringing the kind of energy that has not been felt in American politics since, I would say, the presidential campaign of Robert F.Kennedy. And people are responding to that; people are desperate for that kind of energy. (And this Canadian hopes that American, Obama, will ride the wave all the way to that distant but reachable shore of the White House in Washington.)

And there will come a day this November when the last ballot will have been cast, and the final votes will have been counted, and the result will read: 53, 543, 762. (Hopefully for Obama.)

Sitting in their living room, watching Katie Couric perkily read out those cold, static, indifferent numbers, some plumber kicked back with a beer and a smoke and a back that won't stop aching will be able to look at that number -- 53, 543, 762 -- and he will think: That's me -- that last digit. If I hadn't have voted, the number would be 53, 543, 761. That might not have made much of any difference, but Obama is now President of the United States of America, and I had a part in that, goddamnit. My wife's left me, my kids hate me, my job sucks, but I was part of the process that led to this man taking office. I made my voice heard. Tomorrow -- shit, later today, even -- that voice will have been silenced, and I'll have to resume my little life, but I helped that man get where it is we wanted him to go.

Life is nasty, brutish and short. We lead with our hearts and look for something to cling to. Usually, that 'thing' is each other. And I think a vote, at heart, is the way we latch on to somebody else. We are born alone and die alone, but a vote is a restless, hopeless stab in the dark at immortality, a middle-finger-to-the-face of statistics and probability, a means by which we can become part of that link that leads from our living rooms to a larger room, elsewhere, at the center of the nation.

Voting may reduce us to a decimal point, externally, but internally, an exclamation point has been crudely formed, one we puny mortals wield as the dagger that stabs at the universe's black hole of indifference and unfairness.

Statistically, it means nothing.

Which is why, of course, it means everything.

For who the hell wants to live their life as a mere statistic, when an silent but emphatic exclamation point is waiting to punctuate our lives from within?