On Election Day four years ago, I wrote about the following scenario, which is worth recounting again this year. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, with the most troubling irregularities occurring in territory controlled by the challenger’s brother, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.
The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges to declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. After seeing to it that his troops had placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him out of the capital, he then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace.
The question is, what happens next? Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? Based on this set of facts, this country is likely going to experience an outbreak of violence, if not armed civil conflict, and authoritarian rule is almost certainly going to prevail. Fortunately, we do not have to guess the trajectory of this country’s future because this series of events actually occurred somewhere relatively recently, but the country in question was not Yemen, Zimbabwe, or Syria. As many of you have already realized, the country I have described is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration. As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.
The reason that transfer of power here is so routine is because we vote. If you ask most people why voting is important, they will say it is because it allows the people to decide who their leaders will be, but I don’t think that is correct. Choosing our leaders is the outcome, but not the biggest reason it matters. It matters because the simple act of voting protects our freedom and our political system, without which it won’t much matter who our leaders are. One of the ironies of our unparalleled democracy is that the right to vote allows people to purposely not exercise that right if they choose not to do so, but that is the wrong way to look at things. Being a citizen of a democracy gives us rights, but it also comes with responsibilities and obligations, and expecting to keep those rights without taking the responsibilities and obligations seriously is the best and fastest way to see those rights disappear. Voting is the ultimate responsibility and obligation, and if you choose to stay home today, not only do you forfeit your right to complain about the outcome when you inevitably don’t like it, but you risk losing the freedom to stay home next time.
Voter apathy seems higher this year than it has ever been, but no matter how you feel about this election, go vote. Want to make America great again? Go vote. Think America is already great and has to be protected from someone who doesn’t understand that? Go vote. Hate both candidates and bemoan the state of our politics that has produced two historically unpopular nominees? Go vote. Think that voting doesn’t matter because there is no real difference between the candidates and their policies, and the system is rigged anyway? You’re wrong, and go vote. No matter what your preferences or political proclivities, go vote. Whoever wins at the end of this day, there is no scenario in which not exercising your ability to protect our system of government is the right decision. Demonstrate that the awesome power of the American electorate is something that can never be trifled with or taken away, and make sure that the story that I told above never unfolds in this country with a different ending. Go vote and celebrate what makes this country unique in the history of the world, and happy Election Day to all.
On December 6th, we invite you to join the Israel Policy Forum in honoring Peter A. Joseph. For more information, please click here.