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Background

The Army always made it easy to vote. A soldier fills out a form roughly the side of a postcard with appropriate identifying information and political party preferences and returns it through the US Mail or a certified Voting Assistance Officer.

As a resident of Colorado, I never had to avail myself of such things during my nine-year stint in the Army as an infantry officer. Every spring a calendar alert I set up about ten years ago reminds me to log on to the Secretary of State’s website and update my information and party preferences. Generally, the process takes about 90 seconds, much faster than dealing with the Federal Voter Assistance Program, which involves filling out a new form each year and sending it through the mail, instead of simply updating a few changes on a web portal. The program is great and much needed. But we have even better tools here in Colorado.

Despite the convenience, I still had to attend the briefings. There’s an old saying in the Army that you might not be guaranteed a meal or a place to sleep, but you will always get your mail. We might also add that you will get your vote. Voting Assistance Officers hold briefings in chow halls, conference rooms, basketball courts, humvee hoods, Bradley ramps, and virtually any place an audience can gather. I’ve seen combat and training operations paused to enable soldiers to vote. The point is driven home time and time again that one should maintain voter registration and vote in every election. Political preference never enters into the matter.

Voting hasn’t always been an imperative in the Army. An old tradition holds that Army officers, especially, should not vote. As civil servants, officers are charged with carrying out the orders of an elected civilian government. Although military advice helps shape policy, it was commonly held that officers should avoid political activity, even in the secrecy of the voting booth. This seems to have changed sometime after the Vietnam War when the military was first politicized during an unpopular conflict.

While politicians reside behind veils of security and officialdom, individual service members alone in public were easy targets for popular outrage and were viewed as having decision making authority over the conduct of the war. Protesters during the Vietnam War famously singled out individual soldiers for scorn, while elected officials were largely held immune from the consequences of their military decisions. The civil-military divide began to develop during the Vietnam War and continues to grow at an alarming pace today. Following the war, officers began to vote, but professional ethics restricted adopting policy positions or publicly stating one’s preference for a candidate.

That’s not to say that during my time in service we didn’t follow politics closely. As a matter of foresight, it’s important to prepare for where you might fight next.

In the autumn of 2016, I was wrapping up a tour as an operations officer in the 10th Mountain Division. The week before the election, we deployed to the field to conduct company live-fire exercises, a capstone training event to certify formations to carry out their combat mission overseas. To control maneuver forces in the field we set up an operations center, which is a rather large tent with tables and desks for workspace, and several million dollars’ worth of communications and information technology to keep abreast of an evolving battlefield. Our operations center was staffed by a group that is a fairly typical military demographic for an infantry battalion. We were about twenty young men and women, officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers, between the ages of 19 and 33. Most of us had at least some college-level education, and all of us had advanced technical and professional schooling. We were infantry soldiers, intelligence analysts, communications specialists, and medical support personnel.

In the north forty of Fort Drum cell service is hard to come by. We called it dinosaur country. We spent no small effort to set up a satellite feed to watch the election coverage and devoted a screen usually used to observe drone footage to the watch the show. A light but cold rain fell. We turned on the television and watched the pundits at their round tables updating their projections as data from the polls rolled in. A hypothetical preference emerged: A Trump-Sanders ticket. We might experience a bit of peace, or at least a bit of restraint, and maybe some strategic sense, with decidedly isolationist and non-interventionist politicians.

None of us were particularly partisan, and most of us would probably consider ourselves pragmatists. However, it’s difficult to support a party that tried to run a peace ticket while at the same time expanding the scope of US interventions across the globe. Someone like Secretary Clinton, who defended an anemic response to an attack on a US embassy and intelligence compound, was unthinkable. Out of options, we watched the election results roll in with the enthusiasm of football fans watching a Super Bowl that didn’t feature a favorite team.

After a couple of hours of watching flustered pundits going off script to explain the results, and seeing demonstrations develop in major cities across the land, we turned off the screens. I lay my sleeping mat out under my desk and took my sleeping bag out of my ruck. We had an air assault to coordinate in the morning, followed by a combined-arms attack on a fortified compound. After a few hours of sleep, we woke up and went to work in the dark, oblivious to the supposedly earth-shattering event that had taken place a few hours before. Life went on, and we had a mission to train for.

War Drums

Over the next couple of days, the national freak-out that was the aftermath of the 2016 election – billed as the most important of our lives – rolled in. I suppose most of us did our best to ignore the election fallout. After coming in from the field, we’d have about five days of rest to celebrate Thanksgiving, and then it was back out to exercises in the snow until Christmas time. It’s easy to ignore what’s happening with the nation when all you want is a meal that leaves you full, a shower to wash off mud and the smell of diesel, and a warm place to sleep.

Something happened that I didn’t expect, however. The demonstrations didn’t stop, and politicians kept using the same rhetoric they spewed during their election campaigns. A state of perpetual political crisis entered our national discourse and seeped into our souls. The supercomputers we carry in our pockets never failed to remind us of the latest outrage. Having traveled in failed states, I had a hard time keeping up with the hype. We peacefully transferred power in a lawful manner. Our election didn’t occur under the guns of a militia or an international peacekeeping force. Government services maintained uninterrupted operation. Despite sensationalized stories of violence, America stayed safe.

Democracy ultimately requires consent and consensus to function, and none was had. The seeds of this dysfunction were laid a long time before, but in 2017 it seemed that the crop was ripening. In late May of that year, the Sanders Shooter struck in the DC metro area, followed by the MAGA Bomber in October of 2018. An eighteen-month long war of words surrounded these clear examples of political violence.

We’re not remotely close to becoming a failed state, but our institutions are clearly under threat from the two-party electoral system. The perpetual campaigning started by the Tea Party and carried on by the Obama Administration continues to grow in strength. Legislation is proposed, and executive action is carried out to boost polls and agitate the base, but not necessarily to benefit the commonwealth.

I doubt most of us want to live in a world like this, and most people I know don’t express satisfaction with any politician. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a few weeks ago that although the parties are pulling towards the extremes, most Americans don’t want to go along. They want sensible and stable government. They want peace at home and abroad. They want consensus and consent. They want their government to function, so they can get on with their lives.

None of this is to say that one shouldn’t oppose injustice wherever it may appear. Debate over the definition of justice is at the core of the history of philosophy and thought on ethics and politics. Folks will disagree on the best way to reach a just society. Compromise is necessary to reach consensus. Thinking about public life is a fine balance between maintaining one’s principles and compromising with others. We should be exposed to and choose from a broad array of solutions, not the Manichean dichotomy we currently suffer under.

The United States and the Western World survived the riots and violence of 1968 on the strength of our institutions. And these institutions work. Some of the leading lights of the conservative movement were known to say that America is a nation of laws, not men. But we need men and women of good will to ensure it stays that way.

“A perpetual race to the bottom in search of power, even if that power is intended to be used for good ends, is a dangerous game to play.”

And so we come to the 2018 election, the most important of our lives, we’re constantly told. Just like the last election, it will be the pivotal point of our democracy until the election of 2020. After 2020, 2022 will be the most important election of our lives. Get out the vote efforts have become largely free of content yet heavy on fear. Democracy is a fragile thing, but America wasn’t broken in an election cycle, nor will it be fixed in one.

What is to be done?

A good life starts with self-examination that results in a concrete sense of self. Read and experience deeply, reflect on who you want to be, and define clear steps to become that person. This process is an individual transformation and largely independent of peer groups and outside influences. Friendship comes next. True friendship. Upon it is based the tiny communities we inhabit and come to think of as family. After forming the self and finding a community, the person can begin to function in society more broadly. These little communities will be our salvation, for they provide peace in a world that is unpredictable. It is the civil society we are asked to return to. We can all work to bring this reality into our lives.

However, we should pursue two structural reforms. Getting out the vote is often a contentless aspiration. We must make voting easy. In Colorado, we lead the nation in security and access to the ballot. Many other states maintain Election Day as the only day to go to the polls. To facilitate access, Election Day should be a national holiday with paid time off for voting. Barring adoption as a national holiday, we can make going to the polls a state holiday. Removing this simple barrier to the vote will increase participation in our democracy. We are all stakeholders in our society, whether we provide our assent or not. Our voting structure should reflect that.

Ranked choice voting is our way out of two-party dysfunction. Presently, the first candidate past the finish line takes the prize. In effect, this means someone seeking office must first appeal to a base, and then swing others who may not be as enthusiastic into their orbit. This system is the Petri dish in which our toxic political brew incubates. In a ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates by preference. For instance, on this year’s gubernatorial ballot, one might choose in descending order the Democrat candidate, the Unity Party of America candidate, the Republican candidate, and finally the Libertarian candidate. These results are compared with other ballots, and the candidate who was most preferred by a plurality of voters wins. At its core, this system forces candidates to realize they must appeal to all voters, and likely hew a more centrist tack. Ranked choice voting is emerging as a powerful voting reform in many local elections across the United States.

Our federal system favors change led at the local level. In the laboratory of the states, we can create visions of the future. As Coloradoans, we can be change leaders within our nation. Regardless of the outcome of this election, we will all wake up on November 7th and go to work to create the world we want to live in.