Sonia Sotomayor, the only female Supreme Court Justice of color, once said that her experience as a “wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Her point was that a Supreme Court populated by any single race or gender would not have the tools to reach the best overall result – a breadth of perspectives is essential for justice and fair governance.
A recent Campanil editorial (“Staff editorial: Going third party in the season of Trump,” published Sept. 7, 2016), mentioned that some of you plan to sit out the upcoming election, a sadly common feeling this season. I appreciate the diversity of views expressed in the editorial, and I respect the frustrations that many of you feel. Like some of you, my preferred candidate is out of the race, but that won’t keep me from voting. Here’s why.
Like Justice Sotomayor, each of us has the benefit of our own unique life experiences. When we abstain from the vote, we deprive our community and ourselves of that richness. Few Americans regularly vote, and those who do are often politically extreme. These voters populate federal, state and local legislatures. Elected officials govern everyone, but they only have to please voters. This isn’t the fault of the parties. If we don’t vote, it’s our fault.
I heard from many young people during the primary season that the system is rigged. It’s not rigged, but it is opaque and extremely complex. The primary system, like many other aspects of our electoral lives, favors those who understand its byzantine rules and those who vote regularly for all levels of government. Consider, for instance, the fact that in many states voting districts are drawn by the party in control of the state legislature. This gives that party a huge advantage in determining the outcome in Congressional elections. Is this system good? I would say no. However, if you are “unlikely to participate in any major political process for a long while,” then you cannot change or influence this system. If you don’t vote for your state senators, your abstention increases the political influence of every person who votes for your least favorite candidate. You can only change the system if you get informed, stay involved and vote.
If you feel passionate about Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, vote for them in November. For the rest of you, remember this: for the next four years, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be president. This president will nominate at least two Supreme Court Justices – lifetime appointments with enormous power and no political accountability. Among other things, the Court may consider or reconsider the death penalty, reproductive rights, affirmative action, worker and whistle-blower protections, gender-based discrimination, marriage equality and race-biased voter laws. You cannot directly influence the Court. If you care about those issues, the only way to impact the Court is to vote for president. And while you’re at it, vote for every other elected official, every single year. The presidency matters, but so do your city councils and your county sheriffs. Even the most outstanding president has limited powers, and state and local officials often have a greater impact on your daily lives than federal officials.
One of my students was advised by a faculty member at a different institution that people who aren’t informed about the issues shouldn’t vote. I don’t agree. The solution isn’t to abstain. The solution is to get informed. You have greater access to primary sources and research databases than any generation in history. Use them. Your editorial stated that Secretary Clinton’s actions “have been described as untrustworthy and politically expedient.” I find this sentence perplexing. You are Mills students and journalists, trained to dig deep and consider the evidence critically. Is she “described as” untrustworthy, or is there solid evidence that she is untrustworthy? Each candidate has been described negatively. Consider, for instance, the Republican claim that Clinton mocked Sanders supporters as “basement dwellers.” In less than a minute, you can locate the full transcript of her remarks and form your own evidence-based perspective on her words and their meaning. Twitter is bursting with tweets about Mr. Trump calling veterans with PTSD “weak.” Watch his remarks for yourselves and decide if this is a fair characterization of his words. That’s what your professors mean when we ask you to evaluate your sources. Don’t rely on spin, gossip or the opinions of others. Consider the evidence directly. Decide for yourselves.
Otto Von Bismark famously described politics as “the art of the possible.” Here at Mills, we don’t want to settle for the politically expedient. Politicians compromise on issues where we want the ideal solution. But sometimes incremental improvement, however imperfect, can push towards the ideal solution. If you came to Mills to change the world, know that the world doesn’t change in one fell swoop, and it doesn’t change just because you wish it would. It changes incrementally, and through action. Inaction is a kind of action. You are our future leaders. You cannot lead by staying home.
If you still plan to abstain, please come talk to me. My door is open to all Mills students, whether at my office hours (Mondays 9:30 a.m.– 11:30 a.m.) or by individual appointment (firstname.lastname@example.org). I promise that I will not attempt to influence which candidates you choose, but I WILL encourage you to cast your ballot in this and every election. Your vote matters, to all of us.
Assistant Professor, Art History
*This has been edited to reflect some corrections from the print version.