No one’s ever asked me who I voted for in 2016. I had left my decade-long career as a teacher and was pursuing a life as a comedian. Lost in the concrete jungle of New York City, I followed the election from a safe distance, confident that the right candidate would win. I was so confident that I didn’t feel compelled to vote. I didn’t think my vote would make a difference. I stayed home on Election Day.
That night, I followed the race on my computer and went to bed in disbelief. I woke up, saw the news, and decided I had to go back to teaching. I now see this decision as part of a private quest for redemption.
No one asked me who I voted for, which was a relief, because I didn’t have to reveal my shame. But it’s a shame that no one asked me because then I wasn’t held accountable. The thing about democracy is, you can’t wait for someone to hold you accountable for what you know is right. You have to affirm your beliefs at the polls.
Here’s how I feel now: I got it wrong. I didn’t vote. I contributed to an outcome I didn’t want and couldn’t fathom. Pretending that what did happen couldn’t have happened was a great way to convince myself that my action wouldn’t matter. I committed the worst kind of doublethink: forgetting that I have power, forgetting that I forgot, and forgetting that there was something to forget in the first place. Once it was clear who won, I felt sick that my inaction had contributed to such a worst case scenario.
It’s not just about you
Here’s something else I forgot. By surrendering your power to vote, to speak up, you leave the most vulnerable people in our country at an even greater risk. When you don’t vote, you’re deciding that what happens in your world doesn’t really matter; you’re deciding to let other people decide your fate for you. When you don’t vote, you greet your life with a shrug.
Cynthia Ozick once wrote a powerful condemnation of bystanders, arguing that they are as culpable, in the end, as the criminals they’d dare to judge without taking any meaningful action against them. As she writes, “Indifference is as determined — and as forcefully muscular — as any blow. For the victims on their way to the chimneys, there is scarcely anything to choose between a thug with an uplifted truncheon and the decent citizen who will not lift up his eyes.”
People often appeal to your decency when they’re trying to get you to do something that, for them, is an indisputable moral obligation. But I want to be more than decent. Voting is the start.