I have to spend fifteen to twenty hours at the computer instead of being outside, feeling happy and healthy. I don’t get paid. I’m involved in the horrible world of internet popularity frenzy—“likes,” subscriptions, self-promotion. I’m no good at any of this. But I do have a rationale, of sorts. This:
In recent years I’ve found out that this whole democracy thing, which I grew up thinking was pretty important, was flawed from the beginning. In the early days of this country, you had to be a white landowner to vote. For quite a while after that, you still couldn’t vote if you were Black, or a woman, or one of the original inhabitants of many states. It astounded me to learn that the Native residents of Arizona were kept from voting by our state Constitution until five years before I was born. You’re no doubt younger than I am, but this fact of time feels still very raw to me.
With time and a lot of effort, we fixed those things. Sort of. Words on paper changed. But there were plenty of ways to keep the voter exclusions going: literacy tests, intimidation ranging from subtle to violent, outright fraud, poll taxes. And they’re still going, with new twists. Long lines at the polls (with snack reinforcements from outside forbidden in Georgia!). The interception of mail-in ballots. Reducing the number of polling places. Making voting hours inconvenient. Requiring hard-to-obtain identification, or a reservation home address where the street has no name. Purging voter rolls for “dead” (but really living) citizens. Requiring perfect election attendance. Revoking the right to vote for the homeless or those who have spent time in prison.
And gerrymandering? It’s such an obvious cheat—drawing preposterous, zig-zaggy lines like you’d never see on a map, just to make sure you win, and not the real majority of the people in your state. If you were the mother of a little boy who pulled a silly prank like that in order to win some kind of strange class contest, I don’t think you’d let him get away with it.
In the United States we have a unique system for making sure votes are unequal: the electoral system. If you live in a close state, a swing state, you’ll get candidate attention like you’re the prettiest girl at the dance. Your vote is worth diamonds and gold. You have voting power. But if your state is predictably lopsided—forget it. Its love or disdain for the contenders are already known; there’s no need for the suitor to come courting you. The value of your vote has been eclipsed by your state’s electoral certainty. This means voters have unequal abilities to affect the election; the value of a vote differs from one state to another. Sure, one person has one vote—but that vote can be a thousand times less powerful, in terms of influence, than someone else’s.
So many ways to manipulate the vote! It must be important. The late congressman John Lewis said, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.” A lot of people have agreed with this, judging from the number of voting-rights movements achieving legal victories throughout this country’s history—for the voting rights of former slaves after the Civil War (15th Amendment, 1870), for women’s suffrage (19th Amendment, 1920), for the still-unenforced civil rights of African-Americans (the Voting Rights Act of 1965), and for the rights of young adults “old enough to fight” and therefore old enough to vote (26th Amendment, 1971).
Still, I’m often stunned that so many people will stand in long lines, give up a block of their precious time, or travel long distances to make their will known at the polls. Why do they do this? Is it an awareness of those above-mentioned battles that were fought—a sense that all this was for them, personally? Was there a parent or civics teacher that spoke of each vote as precious, almost sacred, as John Lewis did? Someone who impressed upon them that voting is a solemn duty? It’s just one vote, after all! The ballot may list different of candidates and initiatives, but each item is soliciting just one person’s vote. Speaking of initiatives: why do people read through thick election manuals to make sure they’re making intelligent choices that reflect their wishes?
I don’t know what motivations drive people to do these noble things. I’ve never experienced any voting challenges, unless you count the time my ballot flew off the back of my bike and, even though I retraced my route, I couldn’t find it. (A mishap of my own making.) But I truly admire the people who act with such determination. It makes me happy and grateful to hear about them. But I also feel angry and sad that these offensive roadblocks have been put in their way. It means there are probably others who gave up.
Lately I’ve become aware of another voting system, very different from the formal arrangement we recognize. It’s based on the banking system and the recording of financial transactions—purchases, sales, loans, payments, interest agreements. Considering that this represents an unfathomable amount of activity, the numbers are accurate. The votes are recorded accurately.
When I first heard of this other electoral system, it was called “voting with your wallet.” I felt immediately excluded from it, since I carried a purse and had no wallet. I must have understood the concept, though, because I never forgot it. Much later, I built a small house in my back yard using mud and salvaged supplies. I avoided new materials, but it was just because I didn’t need them. I only gradually came to understand that I wasn’t spending anything at the Home Despot or Target. And, because of my garden and amaranth-purslane stir fries, I was spending less at the grocery store. I understood, then, that this lack of spending was a form of voting. It wasn’t just about what I withdrew from my “wallet.” I was voting with the whole sum of my life. Throughout each day, my life was being accurately recorded (or not recorded) in the economy. How many votes was that per day? I realized that was a ridiculous question. Continuous restraint can’t be counted. Yeah. Voting was continuous.
But this wasn’t about affecting government—political officers, or the leaders of my state and country, or even ballot initiatives. This was about exerting my wee bit of influence on those parts of the economy I thought deserved to succeed or fail. How is that voting?
Well. As we all know, government and big business are in bed together. When I first heard this metaphor, I really did not want to visualize it. But it was already too late. I could clearly see two old white guys—one powerful, the other rich—rolling around and messing up the covers. Their “involvement” was an exchange based on this exact state of affairs. The politician would try to pass laws favoring the CEO’s company, if the CEO would contribute a wad of money toward getting him elected and re-elected. It was a win-win situation for the two “lovers.” But the rest of us, who have to watch, are the losers.
We’ve lost a big chance to vote, because CEOs aren’t elected. They get their power from their corporate wealth, which, in most cases, comes from consumer spending. That’s where the phrase “vote with your wallet” comes from, and why I’ve begun to talk about lifestyle voting (although I do hate that L word, because it connotes the “rich and famous.” Maybe we can get a divorce from it. If you have a better word that works, please let me know.)
One difference between voting at the polls and lifestyle voting is that the latter is inescapable. I don’t have to “advocate” it. Everyone votes in this way as they make choices, small or large, throughout the day. There’s tremendous power there. Or, I should say, there’s potentially tremendous power there, communally, if voting blocks were organized.
But I’m no organizer. Especially when people laugh and say, You think you’re gonna separate Americans from their processed food or their cars or their gadgets or their mansions or their toys? Hahaha.
No, I don’t. I’m actually aware of what most Americans are like, and the strong magic spell that is advertising. And pretty often someone will say to me, Hey, one person alone can’t do anything to change the climate crisis. Or, Living in some kind of politically correct way isn’t going to make a difference to the planet. I even hear this from myself. I’ll be cutting up my junk mail and sprinkling it in my compost bins, and there’s that voice that says, What’s the point? Or I’ll be getting on my bike to run an errand, when the voice says, Hmmm, it’s rather hot today; why not ask Terry for the car? What’s a few drops of gas? Or I’ll head for the back yard and the alley to pick amaranth and purslane for an omelet and the voice says, Way out there? Why not just use that grocery-store onion in the fridge and some cheese? Or it berates me for taking too long looking in thrift stores: Why don’t you just buy a new one? You could go get it right now.
I’m more convinced of a different reason for lifestyle voting. It’s because the rules I give myself—the anti-consumerist alternatives, the ecological habits, the digital contrariness, the incorporation of nature and natural environment—turn out to create the best life for me. If I wait for a thrift-store find instead of rushing to buy new, I’ll save money and maybe get something more durable. If I take the time to pick edible weeds, I’ll be adding necessary fresh greens to my diet. If I take the bike instead of driving, I’ll be getting exercise, battling that fat accumulation, and saving gas. New stuff sucks for personal reasons.
And sometimes I do give in. There’s no rule that says I have to follow my own rules. I have weak moments and down times like everyone else. I even get belligerent, yelling to the accusing forces that I’m going to leave the light on this time while I’m gone.
But I do have a couple of answers—the first one being, Well, I am voting. Why does anyone ever vote? Fill in or punch this particular ballot that records just one person’s wishes among thousands or millions? It doesn’t make a difference. And yet, in the aggregate, it does. So we do it. It’s a paradox. In fact, the “paradox of voting” is a real term, also called Downs’ paradox, that essentially asks the question, Why does anyone vote when the chance of one person deciding the results is so low? Lifestyle voting is at least sure to be tallied correctly, and doesn’t have to wait for election days, spaced widely apart. Also, markets can be affected by smaller margins than politics. If someone would only organize . . . But here again, I’m no organizer, and I’m afraid I have too low an opinion of modern consumers to project the hope this kind of movement would need.
I think lifestyle voting is a fabulous concept, and I wish it would explode into the collective consciousness, like, today. But what I can recommend from experience is a whole way of living well, starting with avoiding new stuff, and following that path where it takes me. I might be the only one to “vote” in this strange way, but—oh, well. It feels absolutely right to me. Healthy, and profoundly honest. I’m linked to my ancestors, and to the way of life my body evolved for.
If anyone is inspired by that—that’s exciting. If not, well. I’m good.