The perennial truth of this article, which I wrote in the fall of 2004, says more about the nature of politics than it does about my prescience. But it says the most about my serious young man phase, which as you will see, was pretty serious.
Think or Die
This election was deemed “the most important election of your life” by numerous political pundits along with the most fecund intellectuals of our generation including MTV’s Sway and P. Diddy. Voting is so imminent, we are told, that we might die if we don’t participate in the democratic process.
People dramatize elections because, supposedly, elections change the direction of our country. But what ultimately changes society, for better or for worse, are ideas; politicians are merely manifestations of ideas laid down by individuals.
John Maynard Keynes reminds us of this vital point:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct philosopher.”
To be sure, the social, economic, and political ideas that shape society are indirectly products of the thinker, not the politician. A new politician won’t make a difference because he’s given the same environment as everyone else. By the nature of politics, he must conform to that environment, not change it. The politician’s ultimate goal is to be successful, or in other words, to get the most votes. When success is our only aim, the best we can do is become part of the world, never change it.
Change is best left up to people who don’t need to lie in order to put food on the table. People like us. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who wins the election, what does matter is whether we think because this alone affects the intellectual climate of future generations.
So write a letter to the editor, talk about an issue with a friend, or simply educate yourself. This is much healthier than stressing over the voter turnout in the 23rd precinct of Illinois.
Emancipating the mind from the concrete, trivial election lifts the political weight off our shoulders. It allows us to realize the noise surrounding an election is just that. It frees us from the pressure of being part of a crowd. No longer must we burden ourselves with the “civic duty” of voting and the unearned guilt that comes from seeing the futility of the process. We need not think of ourselves as a giant collective, chained together to be called up like soldiers in battle. We begin to realize that our only responsibility is to the self.
Instead of political clamor, let’s realize the future of civilization is the result of an election that occurs every day—when we elect whether to think. It’s that simple, it’s that difficult, and it’s that important.