Scrabble, Virginia —Wind ripped at Rappahannock and much of the southeast last night. The unofficial rainfall counter on the farm across the road indicated that three inches of precipitation had fallen in twenty-four hours. However much it was, it caused the pond to overflow, pushing water down the sluice and into the tributary of the Rappahannock. When the storms cleared in the afternoon, the sky was more vivid that the most high resolution flatscreen.
The absence of cars and aircraft these days has made it easier to see great distance. Even in India, people recently reported seeing the Himalayan mountains for the first time in thirty years. In the Rapp, looking south this afternoon after the rain had washed the pollen from the air, I could see Cedar Mountain with a clarity I do not recall ever having. One afternoon, in August of 1862, thousands of Americans fought for that hill. Over five hundred died and over three thousand were wounded. The events of that day are noted only subtly on signage often driven past and seldom read. Few realize that Americans once cared enough about government’s role to give their lives on that Virginia hill one steaming summer day.
No one wants Americans’ dissent to manifest itself again with violence, but the country would be better off with a kind of revolution, a peaceful and democratic one, where more Americans turned out to vote. According to a rigorous effort by the Pew polling organization, more eligible voters failed to cast a ballot in 2016 than either the total of all Trump or all Clinton voters. Almost four in ten eligible voters did not show up at the ballot box. They decided the election outcome.
Some who stayed away from the ballot box said they were not attracted by either presidential candidate. Others say they thought the outcome was fore-ordained and their participation unnecessary (and they were wrong). Yet others claimed that they would not experience the results of policy choices made by the President, regardless of the candidate selected to sit behind the Resolute Desk. Recent events demonstrate that anyone who took such a stance in 2016 had more agency than they thought. The price for disenfranchisement is being paid in the lives and livelihoods of our fellow Americans.
Virginia taught non-voters lessons in 2017 and 2019. Control of the Virginia House of Delegates in the 2017 election came down to one district. The outcome there would determine what party was in control. After several counts, it was clear that that district’s vote was tied. A toss of a coin gave the seat and control of the House to the Republicans. After that, could anyone still think one vote did not matter? In 2018 and 2019, Democrats showed up in strength, taking what had long been Republican Congressional seats and then last year gaining control of both houses of the state legislature. Did that change of control matter?
Yes. The new legislature extended Obamacare to citizens. It passed reasonable gun control laws. It significantly increased funding for education. In symbolic moves, it terminated the annual celebration of a rebel leader’s birthday as an official Commonwealth holiday, and then authorized cities and counties to remove monuments erected during the eras of Ku Klux Klan terror and “Jim Crow” racism. Some of those who failed to vote because the outcome would not affect them (in their estimation) now have healthcare and their children improved educational opportunities.
Nonetheless, I understand the cynicism many citizens harbor for their government. After all, I wrote a book entitled Your Government Failed You, reviewing decades of mistakes by the national government on policies affecting war, intelligence, terrorism, cyber security, energy, and the environment. Later I co-authored a book entitled Warnings, with case studies of how various governments failed to heed clear, data-driven, expert predictions of impending doom from foreign enemies, engineering flaws, financial regulatory gaps, and, of course, emerging infectious diseases. In the books Cyber War and, ten years later, The Fifth Domain, my co-author and I documented the misfeasance and nonfeasance of the national government in tackling the task of defending the nation from cyber attacks. My first book, sixteen years ago, entitled Against All Enemies, documented the failure of he Bush (43) administration to deal with bin Ladin and al Qaeda before September 11, 2001.
If you detect a leitmotif among these volumes, you are correct. I lament government failures, in part because I know what government successes look like: the terrorist attacks that were prevented, the wars that did not take place, technological advances in space, the internet, funding for DNA sequencing, and countless health improvements. In Siena, Italy, there are two large murals dating from 1338 A.D. In one, entitled “Good Government,” the people prosper, learn, build, and celebrate. In the other, Bad Government, people are stricken by poverty and befallen by sickness.
The people we elect do matter. Elect the wrong person president? The unnecessary war he starts can cause thousands of our fellow citizens to die or be maimed, physically and emotionally. Abstain from casting a ballot? A person intellectually and emotionally unsuited to lead the government may downplay a pandemic for his own perceived political advantage, costing thousands of Americans their lives and millions their financial stability. Voters’ choices of one candidate over another can change their lives, and will impact others’, for better or worse. Evidently, the choices those eligible make not to exercise their right to vote bears just as heavily on the outcome and on their own lives. The philosopher Harvey Cox once wrote that “not to decide is to decide.” He might have added “not to vote is to undermine your fellow Americans’ lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness.”