Why bother? The game is rigged. My vote won't count. The choices are terrible. Voting is for suckers.
Perhaps you've thought some of these things. Perhaps you've even said them. And if so, you wouldn't be alone, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. The game of public policy today is rigged in many ways. How else would more than half of federal tax breaks flow up to the wealthiest five percent of Americans? And our choices indeed are often terrible. For many people across the political spectrum, Exhibit A is the 2016 presidential election. But in any year, you can look up and down the ballot and find plenty to be uninspired about.
But in spite of all this, I still believe voting matters. And crazy as it may sound, I believe we can revive the joy of voting. Today, I want to talk about how we can do that, and why.
There used to be a time in American history when voting was fun, when it was much more than just a grim duty to show up at the polls. That time is called "most of American history."
From the Revolution to the Civil Rights Era, the United States had a vibrant, robustly participatory and raucous culture of voting. It was street theater, open-air debates, fasting and feasting and toasting, parades and bonfires. During the 19th century, immigrants and urban political machines helped fuel this culture of voting. That culture grew with each successive wave of new voters. During Reconstruction, when new African-American voters, new African-American citizens, began to exercise their power, they celebrated in jubilee parades that connected emancipation with their newfound right to vote. A few decades later, the suffragettes brought a spirit of theatricality to their fight, marching together in white dresses as they claimed the franchise. And the Civil Rights Movement, which sought to redeem the promise of equal citizenship that had been betrayed by Jim Crow, put voting right at the center. From Freedom Summer to the march in Selma, that generation of activists knew that voting matters, and they knew that spectacle and the performance of power is key to actually claiming power.
But it's been over a half century since Selma and the Voting Rights Act, and in the decades since, this face-to-face culture of voting has just about disappeared. It's been killed by television and then the internet. The couch has replaced the commons. Screens have made citizens into spectators. And while it's nice to share political memes on social media, that's a rather quiet kind of citizenship. It's what the sociologist Sherry Turkle calls "being alone together."
What we need today is an electoral culture that is about being together together, in person, in loud and passionate ways, so that instead of being "eat your vegetables" or "do you duty," voting can feel more like "join the club" or, better yet, "join the party."
Imagine if we had, across the country right now, in local places but nationwide, a concerted effort to revive a face-to-face set of ways to engage and electioneer: outdoor shows in which candidates and their causes are mocked and praised in broad satirical style; soapbox speeches by citizens; public debates held inside pubs; streets filled with political art and handmade posters and murals; battle of the band concerts in which competing performers rep their candidates. Now, all of this may sound a little bit 18th century to you, but in fact, it doesn't have to be any more 18th century than, say, Broadway's "Hamilton," which is to say vibrantly contemporary.
And the fact is that all around the world, today, millions of people are voting like this. In India, elections are colorful, communal affairs. In Brazil, election day is a festive, carnival-type atmosphere. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, there is a spectacle, eye-popping, eye-grabbing spectacle to the street theater of elections.
You might ask, well, here in America, who has time for this? And I would tell you that the average American watches five hours of television a day. You might ask, who has the motivation? And I'll tell you, any citizen who wants to be seen and heard not as a prop, not as a talking point, but as a participant, as a creator.
Well, how do we make this happen? Simply by making it happen.
That's why a group of colleagues and I launched a new project called "The Joy of Voting." In four cities across the United States—Philadelphia, Miami, Akron, Ohio, and Wichita, Kansas—we've gathered together artists and activists, educators, political folks, neighbors, everyday citizens to come together and create projects that can foster this culture of voting in a local way.
In Miami, that means all-night parties with hot DJs where the only way to get in is to show that you're registered to vote. In Akron, it means political plays being performed in the bed of a flatbed truck that moves from neighborhood to neighborhood. In Philadelphia, it's a voting-themed scavenger hunt all throughout colonial old town. And in Wichita, it's making mixtapes and live graffiti art in the North End to get out the vote. There are 20 of these projects, and they are remarkable in their beauty and their diversity, and they are changing people. Let me tell you about a couple of them.
In Miami, we've commissioned and artist, a young artist named Atomico, to create some vivid and vibrant images for a new series of "I voted" stickers. But the thing is, Atomico had never voted. He wasn't even registered. So as he got to work on creating this artwork for these stickers, he also began to get over his sense of intimidation about politics. He got himself registered, and then he got educated about the upcoming primary election, and on election day he was out there not just passing out stickers, but chatting up voters and encouraging people to vote, and talking about the election with passersby.
In Akron, a theater company called the Wandering Aesthetics has been putting on these pickup truck plays. And to do so, they put out an open call to the public asking for speeches, monologues, dialogues, poems, snippets of anything that could be read aloud and woven into a performance. They got dozens of submissions. One of them was a poem written by nine students in an ESL class, all of them Hispanic migrant workers from nearby Hartville, Ohio. I want to read to you from this poem. It's called "The Joy of Voting."
"I would like to vote for the first time because things are changing for Hispanics. I used to be afraid of ghosts. Now I am afraid of people. There's more violence and racism. Voting can change this. The border wall is nothing. It's just a wall. The wall of shame is something. It's very important to vote so we can break down this wall of shame. I have passion in my heart. Voting gives me a voice and power. I can stand up and do something."
"The Joy of Voting" project isn't just about joy. It's about this passion. It's about feeling and belief, and it isn't just our organization's work. All across this country right now, immigrants, young people, veterans, people of all different backgrounds are coming together to create this kind of passionate, joyful activity around elections, in red and blue states, in urban and rural communities, people of every political background. What they have in common is simply this: their work is rooted in place.
Because remember, all citizenship is local. When politics becomes just a presidential election, we yell and we scream at our screens, and then we collapse, exhausted. But when politics is about us and our neighbors and other people in our community coming together to create experiences of collective voice and imagination, then we begin to remember that this stuff matters. We begin to remember that this is the stuff of self-government.
Which brings me back to where I began. Why bother? There's one way to answer this question. Voting matters because it is a self-fulfilling act of belief. It feeds the spirit of mutual interest that makes any society thrive. When we vote, even if it is in anger, we are part of a collective, creative leap of faith. Voting helps us generate the very power that we wish we had.
It's no accident that democracy and theater emerged around the same time in ancient Athens. Both of them yank the individual out of the enclosure of her private self. Both of them create great public experiences of shared ritual. Both of them bring the imagination to life in ways that remind us that all of our bonds in the end are imagined, and can be reimagined.
This moment right now, when we think about the meaning of imagination, is so fundamentally important, and our ability to take that spirit and to take that sense that there is something greater out there, is not just a matter of technical expertise. It's not just a matter of making the time or having the know-how. It is a matter of spirit.
But let me give you an answer to this question, "Why bother?" that is maybe a little less spiritual and a bit more pointed. Why bother voting? Because there is no such thing as not voting. Not voting is voting, for everything that you may detest and oppose. Not voting can be dressed up as an act of principled, passive resistance, but in fact not voting is actively handing power over to those whose interests are counter to your own, and those who would be very glad to take advantage of your absence. Not voting is for suckers.
Imagine where this country would be if all the folks who in 2010 created the Tea Party had decided that, you know, politics is too messy, voting is too complicated. There is no possibility of our votes adding up to anything. They didn't preemptively silence themselves. They showed up, and in the course of showing up, they changed American politics. Imagine if all of the followers of Donald Trump and Bernie Sandershad decided not to upend the political status quo and blow apart the frame of the previously possible in American politics. They did that by voting.
We live in a time right now, divided, often very dark, where across the left and the right, there's a lot of talk of revolution and the need for revolution to disrupt everyday democracy. Well, here's the thing: everyday democracy already gives us a playbook for revolution. In the 2012 presidential election, young voters, Latino voters, Asian-American voters, low-income voters, all showed up at less than 50 percent. In the 2014 midterm elections, turnout was 36 percent, which was a 70-year low. And in your average local election, turnout hovers somewhere around 20 percent.
I invite you to imagine 100 percent. Picture 100 percent. Mobilize 100 percent, and overnight, we get revolution. Overnight, the policy priorities of this country change dramatically, and every level of government becomes radically more responsive to all the people. What would it take to mobilize 100 percent? Well, we do have to push back against efforts afoot all across the country right now to make voting harder. But at the same time, we have to actively create a positive culture of voting that people want to belong to, be part of, and experience together. We have to make purpose. We have to make joy.
So yes, let's have that revolution, a revolution of spirit, of ideas, of policy and participation, a revolution against cynicism, a revolution against the self-fulfilling sense of powerlessness. Let's vote this revolution into existence, and while we're at it, let's have some fun.
Thank you very much.