When Did We Stop Believing in the Power of the Vote?

I remember watching the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, as a young third-generation American of Chinese descent.

Probably the single most striking image, one that has endured the test of time, was the image of a single man — known only to history as ‘Tank Man’– halting an entire column of tanks with only his political willpower.

It’s not like we haven’t had similar iconic images in America — the enduring ‘Flower Power‘ photograph, for instance — but what about more recent images of single individuals exercising the power of one?

But then again, perhaps we are not comparing apples to apples. In China, the system was broken because of the Communist Party’s grasp on political, economic, and social issues. In America, even for the 1968 election following the ‘Flower Power,’ it was broken for a totally different reason…

We as a people simply don’t vote.

Only three times in voting history have we broken 80 percent turnout, with the last time being in 1876.
Only three times in voting history have we broken 80 percent turnout, with the last time being in 1876. Since then, we have, with fair consistency, hovered below two-thirds turnout for our elections.

We have turned choosing not to choose into an art form in this country.

Yet on all sides of the political spectrum, we have groups decrying the destruction of our society from immorality, the unfairness of the system, or the trampling of the U.S. Constitution.

And we still don’t vote.

Not much changed from the actions of ‘Tank Man’ or ‘Flower Power.’ In China, it would be another decade before serious reforms started taking place. In America, the Vietnam War was substantially up-scaled with the victory of Richard Nixon in 1968.

And that’s the reality that we need to remember. History displays these photographs as people of courage–but in the end, their actions really didn’t do much.

In America, the voters have the true power–but we’ve trivialized it to the point where it’s almost unfashionable to vote in certain ilks.

In 2012, 37 states were blowout victories for one side or the other–won by more than 10% of the total vote. How many of these would have been more competitive if even just the registered voters made it out to vote?

We need to start believing that our votes have the power to stop a column of tanks.

But how do you teach this to the current and next generation?

Therein lies the real problem–and the focus of several upcoming stories, all examining different groups’ strategies to encourage and increase voter turnout and participation.

Because this is the real grassroots struggle–to regain a real voter turnout that has been lost for almost 150 years.