James Brown: “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” (King 45-6347, 1971)

Last Sunday, I participated in a voter registration drive. Usually, these drives target events or centers of activity, like college campuses, but this drive was a little different. We went door-to-door in the city of Hazel Park, which is a small city that makes up the southeastern corner of Oakland County, Michigan. 

I work for the planning department of this city, so I was especially interested in getting out and learning more of the town on foot (I’ve only been at city hall for about a month). Like a lot of the old inner-ring suburbs, it’s very walkable, but Hazel Park has struggled a bit more than some of its neighbors. 

I think the city’s relative misfortune has a lot to with its location—unlike its neighbors to the west and northwest, Ferndale and Royal Oak, it’s not on Woodward Avenue, which is essentially the Main Street of Greater Detroit. Its neighbor to the north, Madison Heights, is bigger and has more space for large-scale commerce, and its eastern and southern neighbors are Warren and Detroit, huge cities with comparably huge problems. 

Hazel Park plugs along, though. It’s a good town with a ton of potential, and the people I’ve met in its government are good, pragmatic people who are trying like hell to keep it prosperous. 

I wasn’t doing the voter drive just to get to know the town better, though. I really do want to see more people participate in the political process. Going door to door today, though, is a tough way to accomplish anything. People do not answer the door when someone knocks. One guy answered it just to scold me for knocking on his door on a Sunday—he assumed I was selling something. I told him I was only selling democracy, but I don’t think he got the joke. 

Most people who did answer the door and weren’t registered voters told me they just weren’t interested. I want to say I understand that, because I think of myself as a generally empathetic person, but honestly, I really don’t get it at all. I think I can see why people might feel as though their vote wouldn’t matter, but the purposeful disengagement I encountered is alien to me. Curiosity about the wider world is the thing that keeps me alive, and caring about what happens to that world and how is part of that curiosity.

It may come down to a distaste for conflict, which is what politics is at its root, a system for working through conflict. Preferring not to think about it is an acceptable response, certainly, but I’m not sure it’s an admirable one. Anyway, I’m conflict-averse myself, so I didn’t press anyone on why they weren’t interested. I just moved on to the next house, where people were clearly watching the Lions game in the living room but still wouldn’t come to the door.  

Even if I had pressed, I don’t know what I possibly could have said to change anyone’s mind. Convincing someone who’s felt disenfranchised for most of their life that their vote matters takes more than a few minutes. It takes years and a lot of contact. You have to show that person results and dedication to wash away the really legitimate feelings of alienation from the political process a lot of people feel, especially people at the bottom of the economic pecking order. 

So, to revise what I said earlier, I abstractly understand the reasons that people might not be interested in the political process (and there area  lot of other possible reasons, including the fact that maybe you just feel like no one running for office speaks for you), but the disconnect comes where I just can’t put myself in those shoes.

Because I do care, a lot. I vote in every election and referendum, and have since I was 18. This election will mark five times I’ve voted for Obama (senate primary and senate race when I lived in Illinois, presidential primary and presidential race when I lived in Arkansas, re-election bid this year). It’s not that I feel he’s perfect or even speaks particularly for me (though in some respects he does), but I do feel he’s the best option for the moment, and that is what we constantly choose in all aspects of our lives. 

But really, I don’t care what your position is on anything. It kills me that you, abstract person out there half-reading this, might feel voiceless and might even accept it. Maybe you wouldn’t go to the polls in November, but I at least want you to have that opportunity, and if you’re not registered, you don’t. Not registering ratifies your voicelessness.

That’s how I feel about it anyway. Maybe James Brown and Bobby Byrd can make a more convincing case than I can.