Balk: Voting is an insufficient form of political participation


Tim Balk, Opinion Editor

Word on the street is that Northwestern students should vote. In fact, since the start of Winter Quarter, The Daily has published two columns imploring students to hit the polls this year. I concur with those columns: voting is a worthwhile thing to do. Democracy is central to our lives.       

But voting alone does not make an excellent New Year’s resolution. Nope, in 2016 NU students should do a heck of a lot more than just throwing their support to Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton (Is Martin O’Malley still running for president? Who knows?!) or someone from the field of wackadoo Republicans.

In case you have not been paying close attention to the presidential election, it’s been a total you-know-what show, already featuring racist, sexist, homophobic, jingoistic and even totalitarian themes.

This year, NU students should not be bystanders in what could conceivably be an impending electoral train wreck. Even with the U.S.’ proverbial ship sailing smoothly under an able captain in President Barack Obama, and an economy largely recovered from the Great Recession, Americans are angry. Politicians are successfully tapping into that anger, with Bernie Sanders’ half-baked calls for an Americanized socialism striking a chord with millennials impatient at the pace of progress, and Donald Trump’s pandering populism inspiring a large group of Americans nostalgic for the society they perceive, often rightly, to have been lost.

It’s going to be hard to make America great again. Because America, even with its racism, patriarchy and incomplete democracy, has never been greater for people of all types than it is today.

Not to sound too much like Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky Balboa,” but we have to keep moving forward. And nobody, not even Donald Trump, is going to stop America’s collective movement forward on the arc of justice and equality. Well, as long as the institutions that have incited change for decades continue to do so.

Such as…colleges and their students. NU students hold a unique place in our society, at the crossroads of an elite education and an unclear professional future. They hold a voice muted by their age and inexperience, yet amplified by their idealism and their ability to make and transform news.

In 2016, NU students ought to engage actively in a world that is, as always, changing. Engaging is a two-step process. And most NU students skip one step, if not both.

First, NU students tend not to do the research. They might have a strong sense of justice, or deep-seated political views, but the NU student who digs truly deeply into an issue, whether it is education or climate change or inequality or the judicial system, is still too rare.

Voting is, to some extent, always an act of ignorance. Nobody truly knows in depth every issue on which they vote, nor can they know the impact of the vote that they cast.

But understanding and caring about specific issues is valuable. NU offers tremendous resources to its students — from the classroom to the library to guest speakers to each other — to learn and discover. To contemplate and study.

And in today’s whirlwind of concerning current events, right and wrong answers are not always ascertainable. Still, to the extent that they are, NU students should develop and act on their wisdom.

The second step of engagement is active participation, not simply as a voter but as person capable of impacting and shaping peers’ views and actions. NU students should not shirk their opportunity to spark and inspire change. They should speak up, speak out and act.

Change rarely happens in a ballot box. NU students should push the issues they care about in the ways that they see fit, be it through research, writing, rallies or protests.

Yes, they can and should cast informed votes in elections that they care about. But they should also engage in ways beyond the casting of votes, and remember that active voting is just a step toward greater engagement.  

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.