In his “Happy Thoughts” special, Daniel Tosh tells a joke about the Olympics, highlighting the inexplicable emphasis Americans place on sporting events for which they have little knowledge or care. “I hate summer games, for that matter,” he explains, particularly emphasizing “…a sport no one cares about for 3 years and 11 months at a time, then for one month, I got to act as if the vault affects my patriotism. It doesn’t.”
I love this joke because it’s so relatable. When the Olympics come around every four years, I somehow find myself glued to NBC, watching intensely as the best athletes in the world battle over nanoseconds and centimeters for athletic and international prowess, never more aware of my American identity. And I don’t like that this post is predicated on a Daniel Tosh joke, but I think he’s getting at something critical here. Athletes I don’t know in sports I don’t follow suddenly carry the entire stake of our nation, and millions of eyes are glued to their TV sets. And then, as quickly as it began, the torch is extinguished, and we switch back to the NFL, reality shows and Netflix and bury any memory or concern for professional badminton until the next cycle.
Too often, I think that Americans view presidential elections through a very similar lens. Instead of Tosh’s hilarious vault comparison, though, the thrust of our patriotism hinges on one day, one outcome, and two terribly imperfect candidates’ visions for a fractured nation. But the most striking similarity to me is the infrequency of these events; just as we disproportionately weigh gymnastics in an Olympic month, we too overweigh election results in November. Intentionally or not, Daniel Tosh exposes a contrast in our national identity – what do we do in the four years between Election Days, and how do we let that define us?
It’s damn near impossible to avoid the election in the current climate. Beyond the news feed advertisements on Facebook and Twitter, campaign fliers clog our mailboxes and attack adds interrupt our TV programs. Debates are hyped up, then overanalyzed. Once-taboo conversation about immigration and abortion dominates work and family dialogue. Society has pushed the election narrative so hard that it becomes difficult not to think in terms of two absolutes: either your candidate wins, and the country improves, or your candidate loses, and the country implodes. Let’s ignore for a second that this false binary is complete rubbish. The real brilliance in this broad media strategy is that we unwittingly put all our eggs in one, grandstanding, name-calling, unpresidential presidential basket, and ignore all our other political and social responsibilities.
Voting is very important. But it is also very rare. In between U.S. federal elections, there are approximately one thousand four hundred sixty-one days. In each of these one thousand four hundred sixty-one days between elections, we can, in a non-fraudulent manner, vote – and vote often. Democracy takes on so many more forms than an election, and the beautiful part is that we can have such greater impact locally than at the national level. We vote with more than our ballots; we vote with our feet, our time, our money, our energy, influence, and advocacy. To view the presidential election as the political apex is to completely miss the value of democracy, and to completely neglect our individual potential!
This interpretation of voting is not novel, but often gets swept away in nagging media coverage of the presidential race, and every nuance that comes with it. And while there is fear of sweeping socialism that suppresses individual freedoms, or fear of technology dominating our subconscious, we must realize we are already conceding if we narrow our scope of our own democratic power. Presidents are limited by endless checks and balances; the best-intentioned Executive Order or Bill can spend an eternity in legislative purgatory. While Washington is and always has been anemic, it’s up to every one of us to pump iron through the blood of our communities – to enrich them, to mobilize them, to energize them.
Each of those one thousand, four hundred sixty-one odd days carries tremendous political responsibility – regardless of party, religion, or any other identity. Who do we support in this interim? For whom do we care? How do we offer our time and services? I’m reminded of a saying that’s stuck with me through contentious election cycles when I begin feeling overwhelmed and utterly powerless:
“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” – Unknown.
Our communities are yearning for our votes. And what’s more, participation in concrete voting activity far surpasses voting for convoluted ideals. Think about an issue like income inequality, the effects of which permeate both the national and local landscape. A $50 campaign contribution is abstract, in the sense that you are donating money towards concepts. Those dollars could be spent on TV advertisements, paying staffers, cold calling, tours or rallies. Even if your candidate wins, what does that money really pay for outside of campaign staffers, convention centers, and television advertisements? Most likely, none of your contribution serves the values you are supporting.
Conversely, consider a $50 donation to your local food bank. Such a contribution is concrete; that institution will purchase food at discounted prices, advertise its mission, and feed people who you can see in your community. Even more impactful? Get involved. Vote with your feet, your hands, your compassion. Advocate in your community for the same groups you’re asking your elected officials to advocate. If you’re angry over the Republican tax cuts’ enhancement of inequality, don’t just vote against these ideas at the polls. Vote against them in your neighborhood and serve those who have felt the horrid effects of a pandemic atop a growing wealth gap and health coverage hanging in the balance. It’s been said that you can’t complain if you don’t vote. But if you vote and earn the right to complain, what means do those complaints serve unless you back them with action?
Like watching the United States compete in the Summer Olympics, we should feel a sense of patriotism in voting, just as we feel it when watching our athletes succeed. And voting, however marginal, is still important. It’s the backbone to a healthy democratic society. But we must extend our vote beyond the polls, through our advocacy and actions and charity, and continually serve the needs of our communities, where a vote manifests itself in so many varieties. Because this year, November third matters – very much so. But so does November fourth.