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Decisions within decisions: the good citizen's quandary

AFTER an election everybody used to analyze why So-and-So won and What's-His-Name lost. Nowadays everybody, for weeks after, analyzes why nobody bothered to vote. The explanation falls under five syllables, pronounced as one word: ``voterapathy.''

In a chancy world, voterapathy can be counted upon so confidently that Ralph Nader explained it to readers the day before the election. Too much campaigning by television, he maintained. Too many candidates under electronic glass. Bored to tears with all the image-packaging, we hit the blab-off instead of the voting lever.

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This is certainly one of the more popular explanations of voterapathy, along with the familiar complaint that it makes no difference anyway - Republicans or Democrats, they become the same rascals once in office.

It's almost as if we're relieved to believe that it makes no difference, because if it does make a difference, what a responsibility! What choices we face to elect men and women who, at the least, will not bankrupt us or blow us up, given the mega-figures and mega-forces rattling loose in the world today!

The fact is, it's not just the candidates. It's the difficult nature of all political choices - between elections and outside the polling booth - that drives us to voterapathy, along with our elected officials, who have a lot of trouble casting their vote, too, if one judges by the legislation that gets stalled.

According to most kibitzers, the political question of the late '80s is this: Do we reverse our present tendency and invest more money in social programs or do we continue to tip the balance in the direction of armament? Even when we state the matter so simplistically, the question grows complex, changing color and shape with practically each day that history ticks past. But it is the subdecisions that truly throw us into the state of bafflement for which voterapathy is only the symptom.

If we decide on more armament, what weapons systems do we choose? Or do we choose to improve our military personnel rather than our military machinery? And should we take the huge gamble on ``star wars'' when a lot of small, conventional wars are the likelier scenario?

We're talking of trillions of dollars - and millions of lives - and who knows how many X factors!

Still, the subdecisions of the military are elementary compared to the subdecisions of those who hope to save the world by spending for peaceful political purposes - social welfare programs, environmental programs, and so on.

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It's fairly easy to say: Better to waste a little money on soup kitchens than to ``misplace'' some $1,021,876,000 worth of items in a year, as the Pentagon is reported to have done.

And how, we may briskly ask, is it justifiable to allot $154.2 million for military bands and only $144.9 million for all the programs of the National Endowment for the Arts?

What we couldn't do to help the homeless with the $8 billion a year that goes to General Dynamics in defense contracts!

But once we get off the guns vs. butter comparisons the choices become far less neat.

How do we divide the funds available between the needs of children and the needs of the elderly, the needs of farmers and the needs of the industrially unemployed, the needs of the drug addict and the needs of the AIDS victim?

One dilemma-wrestler has narrowed the choices just to the sciences. A federal proposal calls for $4 billion for a subnuclear particle accelerator that promises the ``sharpest glimpse yet of the ultimate nature of matter.'' But a second federal proposal calls for $3 billion to ``reconstruct the entire genetic blueprint of a human being.''

Where does an enlightened benefactor of the race place his bet? Or should it all go to drought in Africa?

Every time we consider an option, two more pop up.

Each year on the television screen, 2,713 brands invite us to buy them, and this is the metaphor for our time of multiple-multiple choices.

Voterapathy is hardly the answer. But no wonder we feel numb when confronted by all these choices-within-choices. No wonder, when we do vote, we end up electing Ronald Reagan, the least Hamlet-like of men, to whom choices appear clear to the point of being self-evident - no problem at all.

The only thing one can conclude is this: Never has it been so difficult to arrive at informed choices - never has it been so dangerous not to.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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