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The Hard Work of Voting Well

By Philip Humbert

Democracy is distinguished from a mob by the willingness of citizens to think carefully and rationally before they vote.

Many historians have noted that a key difference between the American and French Revolutions was how the leaders went about decision-making.

The American Revolution was the result of at least ten years of increasing debate and thoughtful discussion. The American revolutionaries studied and debated Greek and Roman philosophers, and the writings of John Locke and Adam Smith. The American revolutionaries wrestled with issues of Good and Evil, Man's essential nature, and the concept of limited Government. They tried to carefully think their way toward a just and lasting, limited government.

In contrast (I am greatly simplifying here) the French Revolution was marked by emotional extremes. Mobs sacked churches, destroyed universities, burned palaces and civil institutions. Thousands were beheaded and many more were tortured and imprisoned for real and imagined offenses "against the people."

The French Revolution finally drew to a close with the rise of Napoleon. The American Revolution (and our Constitutional government) culminated in the election of George Washington. Big difference!

My point is that "government of, by, and for the people" requires an educated and thoughtful electorate.

I've read that in ancient Athens, all citizens (a small minority of the population) could vote, but they were required to be physically present in a public arena and to cast their votes by standing in front of the entire community, prepared to explain or defend their vote. It was a big deal and put tremendous responsibility on each voter.

Now, I'm not questioning the value of the secret ballot. I think it's absolutely a good thing! But I am suggesting that voting should still be an important and thoughtful responsibility.

Too often, we vote casually, and sometimes ignorantly. In any of the "sidewalk interviews" television stations like to do, very few citizens can name their elected officials, identify the Vice-President, or intelligently discuss a candidate's positions. Most people (it appears) vote out of habit, or are influenced by tradition, by emotion, or by their preferred "reference group."

People vote the way their family has always voted, or because their union, their colleagues or neighbors are recommending a particular candidate. Some vote for a "likeable" person, while others angrily vote to "throw the bums out." Candidates make promises because they know many people vote out of immediate self-interest. And of course, many people don't vote at all because they forget or were busy that day, or don't believe their vote will make any difference.

All of these reactions, in my opinion, move us away from the Republic our Founders intended, and down the slippery slope toward slow-motion mob rule. (I'm thinking of Ben Franklin's response when a woman asked him what kind of government they had created: "A republic, madam, if you can keep it.") In the end, it makes little difference if the mob is screaming with pitchforks and torches, or blindly voting out of habit. In either case, the result is a relatively mindless, thoughtless momentum that leads to disaster.

I want to leave you with this: Voting is serious business. It determines the world in which we live and the government we leave for our children. Over time, we do in fact get the government we deserve. So voting should be a thoughtful, disciplined decision based on the best information you can get.

I'm not trying to influence who you vote for. That's up to you. TIPS is about building a great, world-class life, not party politics.

But I do want you to educate yourself about the policies and candidates you support. What kind, and how much government do you want? Who supports policies that will create the world you want for yourself and the next generation? Who influences your thinking? What are the best arguments for the other side? Strive to consider and understand both sides, then make up your own mind and vote accordingly.

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