Earlier this month, Mike Rowe’s condemnation of celebrity “Get out the Vote” campaigns went viral. It started back in August, when a fan suggested that the Dirty Jobs star use his influence to get voters to the polls in next month’s Presidential Election. Rowe refused.
He responded by penning a veritable manifesto of electoral ambivalence in which he argued, “I’m afraid I can’t encourage millions of people whom I’ve never met to just run out and cast a ballot, simply because they have the right to vote. That would be like encouraging everyone to buy an AR-15, simply because they have the right to bear arms. I would need to know a few things about them before offering that kind of encouragement. For instance, do they know how to care for a weapon? Can they afford the cost of the weapon? Do they have a history of violence? Are they mentally stable? In short, are they responsible citizens?”
Excusing the apples-to-oranges nature of this comparison, I’ll concede that Rowe has a point. But then he continued to say, “Casting a ballot is not so different. It’s an important right that we all share, and one that impacts our society in dramatic fashion. But it’s one thing to respect and acknowledge our collective rights, and quite another thing to affirmatively encourage people I’ve never met to exercise them. And yet, my friends in Hollywood do that very thing, and they’re at it again.”
He went on to argue that it “strikes him as somewhat hysterical” when celebrities and movie stars like Ellen DiGeneres, Leonardo DeCaprio, and Ed Norton tell fans that voting is their “most important civic duty.”
Well Mike, I’ve never seen your show and I don’t know much about you but I will say this: you’ve just made my job a whole lot dirtier.
As an adjunct professor at a community college, I have a hard enough time engaging my students in current events without you telling them that the notion of voting as our “most important civic duty” is “somewhat hysterical.”
And while many Americans have been lauding Rowe’s “wisdom” on social media, most fail to recognize that most of his “common sense” ideas would land us right back in the era of Jim Crow.
And that’s not the half of it. Here are the 5 major problems with Rowe’s point of view.
1. Rowe is mistaken in his characterization of voting as a “right that we all share.” It’s not. If you’re a convicted felon, you’re likely to lose that right. If you’re an immigrant in this country who has yet to obtain citizenship, you don’t have that right. Under 18? Out of luck. Not yet registered to vote and too late for this year’s election? Sorry. Better luck next time.
So no, Mike, it’s not a right that “we all share.” It’s a right that some of us share, and unless you’re a white man descended from a family of wealthy landowners, it’s a relatively new right at that. If you’re a woman, or a person of color, or if your ancestors were of limited means, somebody had to fight for your right to vote. That somebody might have risked life and limb for you, might have been imprisoned or gone on a hunger strike for you. That somebody might have died for you. And even if they didn’t give their life for the cause, many of the early suffragists and civil rights advocates died before they got to see the fruits of their labor anyway.
But I’m sorry, America—no really, I get it— you’re not going to vote this time around because you don’t like either candidate. That seems fair. No big deal.
Which brings me to my next point.
2. The election for president is not the only election that’s happening this fall. Nope. You might be surprised this hear this and if you are, it’s not your fault. We’ve heard of little else for the past year. But there are important down ballot races happening this fall too.
If you don’t think this affects you, it’s probably because you’ve already forgotten your temporary outrage over the mass shooting that occurred at the Pulse Nightclub earlier this year. You’ve probably forgotten how inspiring but ultimately frustrating it was to watch Congressman John Lewis lead a sit in on the floor of our nation’s capital.
Why? Because nothing happened. Nothing changed.
Our elected officials are going to keep squabbling about the causes of climate change until it’s too late to do anything about it.
That Supreme Court seat is going to be left vacant.
And although we can point fingers about Republican obstructionism in Congress (hint: theirs is not the only party to resort to such tactics), our next president is going to have his or her hands tied unless we break the deadlock that’s infected two out of three branches of our government.
3. Were you surprised to hear that we have three branches of government? Yes? Well, if so you’re the sort of person who Mike Rowe doesn’t want “running” to the polls this November. He also doesn’t want “[a]strologists, racists, ghost-hunters, sexists and people who rely upon a Magic 8 Ball to determine their daily wardrobe.”
I have to say, Mike, maybe don’t worry so much about that last demographic. If they’re waiting for a Magic 8 Ball to select their outfit, they’re not going to make it to the polls on time anyway.
But let’s talk about the racists and the sexists. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some way we could screen these sort of voters? If there was some sort of required reading that would keep them from the polls?
Perhaps we could institute a literacy test. Or establish some sort of financial threshold. Like a poll tax… That would help to screen out people who aren’t intelligent enough to hold down a job. And if you’re not intelligent enough to hold down a job, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
In fact… I think I’m onto something here! Have we ever tried this before? Has anyone in government ever considered the possibility of testing the electorate?
Yes. They did. And it disenfranchised millions of people for centuries. Polls taxes, literary tests and the Jim Crow laws that upheld such forms of systemic racism were eventually declared illegal. They didn’t disappear entirely—now we have Voter ID laws that target minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged in addition to archaic voting practices that disproportionately affect already marginalized communities—but the mere suggestion, even in jest, that we should refrain from encouraging our lesser educated colleagues to vote simply because they’re ill-informed is not funny. It’s un-American.
But let’s stick with this line of thinking for a moment—what if there was a test? I’ll admit that when I’m feeling particularly outraged by the state of affairs in our country, I can sort of see where Rowe is coming from. I don’t want people who “believe the world is flat” to elect my president. I don’t want morons casting their vote for other morons.
And there is, in fact, already a test after which we could model such a mechanism. It’s the test for United States citizenship, without which newcomers to our country can’t cast their vote.
I administer this test every semester to my anthropology students when we’re discussing immigration. It’s easy to say you’d be all for immigration if it was done legally, if they became citizens, when you don’t realize how hard it is to get a visa or how long the vetting process (which, by the way, we already have and yes, Donald Trump, it’s already “extreme”) can actually take. It’s harder to scapegoat immigrants and look down on newly-minted American citizens, however, when you yourself have to take the test.
Out of my forty or so students, most of whom are American-born and speak English as their first language, I’ve never had more than two pass the test. The two who manage are usually history or political science majors—they know that the federal government is comprised of three branches—but the rest? It does frighten me that they’ll vote someday, yes, but this should be a condemnation of our educational system, not our electoral.
So to all those who think we should implement a test, I say be careful what you wish for, because you might not pass it yourself.
4. Is voting a right or a duty?
Well, it depends who you ask.
If you had asked my Belgian flatmate, with whom I lived in London nearly a decade ago, she’d have said it was a duty. And when it came time for her to cast her absentee ballot, she was frantic: if it didn’t arrive in time, she’d be fined.
How un-American! How fascist! Mind you her education was completely paid for, she received a “looking for work” stipend when she returned to Belgium and never had to decide whether it was more important to have health insurance or to pay off her non-existent student loans.
If you asked the 40 Danish students who flew across the Atlantic earlier this month to canvass for our election, they’d say they were shocked to discover how few Americans actually vote. (And no, I’m not making this up. There are nearly four dozen of them here, volunteering throughout the southeast, because they recognize the monumental importance of this election and don’t quite trust us not to mess it up. Being good Danes, they haven’t actually come out and said it, not in those exact words anyway but one of the ones I heard interviewed last week said that voter turnout usually reaches over 90% in Denmark—a country that seems to be deemed the happiest on the planet in just about every 3 months.)
So let me give it to you straight, America:
The world is watching. You can find a whole host of constitutional amendments to defend your jaded ambivalence, your disappointment in the system, your unwillingness to “get involved,” your refusal to consider the greater good and yes, I’ll say it: your laziness (because—perish the thought!—you actually had to do some research to determine what the presidential candidates actually think). Legally speaking, you have the right to not vote.
But what about ethically speaking? Morally speaking? You can cloak your ignorance in an aversion to “getting political” but if 40 Danish students can care enough about our election to fly over from Europe, then surely you can care enough to get yourself to the polls.
Last but not least:
5. Rowe’s biggest problem with Get Out the Vote campaigns isn’t that they’ll get everyone—including those ubiquitous “deplorables” and their magic 8 balls— out to the polls, it’s that he suspects, not incorrectly, that when celebrities say, “Get Out the Vote” what they really mean is “For a Democrat.”
He goes so far as to say,
“Remember – there’s nothing virtuous or patriotic about voting just for the sake of voting, and the next time someone tells you otherwise, do me a favor – ask them who they’re voting for. Then tell them you’re voting for their opponent. Then, see if they’ll give you a ride to the polls.”
I’m sorry Mike, did someone steal your lunch money when you were kid? Ruin Christmas by telling you there was no such thing as Santa Claus? Hang you from a flagpole by your underpants?
Because really, you need to have a little faith in humanity.
I’ll admit it: like many blue blooded Americans, I felt a perverse sense of glee when a certain-candidate-whom-shall-not-be-named reminded his supporters in Florida to head to the polls a full 20 days after Election Day. Not only did it bolster my conviction of his absolute stupidity but it also was fun thought to entertain: what if his followers actually listened? What if they really did mark their calendars for the wrong day?
But would I actually want them to?
Would I deny someone a ride to the polls based on their political affinity?
I would not.
And even though there are probably plenty of people out there who would, I like to think there are a greater number who would remember that our nation was founded on some rather radical notions of equality.
So to you and your holier-than-thou-finger-pointing Mike Rowe, I say nice try. Just because Get Out the Vote initiatives are often co-opted by democrats, that doesn’t invalidate the sentiment behind them. You don’t get to crack jokes about the electorate, make fun of their gullibility and somehow still feel lofty for the way you’ve recast our nation’s lack of political engagement (and your subsequent refusal to use your position of influence to make whatever slight difference) into a condemnation of party politics and a polarized citizenry.
You’ve just given a bunch of apathetic Millennials and disenchanted Boomers one more excuse to stay home in November.
I hope you are proud of yourself.