The founding myth of the United States of America is one that champions liberty. Liberty is inherently a self-serving concept as someone fully liberated has no obligation to anyone or anything beyond their own desires. Of course, no one is completely liberated; we are all constrained by our mortal requirements for subsistence and shelter. While there are those that willingly choose the life of a vagabond or a transient to maintain maximum liberty, humanity has generally found itself more palpable to address these mortal requirements by shedding some liberty and burdening themselves with the duties of society.
This dynamic of abandoning liberty to be a part of society is known as the Social Contract. It was a concept argued at length by authors such as John Locke and Jean Rosseau that the Founding Fathers absorbed, digested and incorporated into the Constitution of the United States of America. The Social Contract gives an individual an obligation of duty to maintain the society that they live in. In times of war this comes in the form of service in the armed forces; in instances of natural disaster this comes in the form of helping one’s neighbors avoid tragedy and rebuild in the aftermath; and in times of democratic election it comes in the form of voting.
We can and have discussed the numerous problems with our current methodology of voting, but that does not dilute the importance of the democratic process. Living in a republic, our government draws its legitimacy from the consent of the people. We determine that consent with the outcome of democratic elections, and every time a citizen neglects to have their vote added to the tally, the legitimacy of our government erodes. The United States is burdened with some of the lowest voter turnout in the Western world; political apathy will do nothing to make America stronger and safer.
In times like these, it is important to reflect on the founding myth of America. The Founding Fathers were emphatically proponents of the Enlightenment, which was the abandonment of Christian dominance in politics and the rediscovery and application of Greco-Roman ideas, myths and traditions in Western society. One of these is the story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.
Cincinnatus was a Roman of great standing and respect who had retired to a farm to live a simple life with his family. Unfortunately for his pastoral desires, the Roman Republic fell into a time of crisis during a war. With normal democratic methods of dealing with crisis failing, the Romans pulled the fire alarm; they decided they needed a Dictator.
A Dictator in the Roman Republic was somebody that had absolute power for a set amount of time, at the end of which they were expected to release their power back to the people. The inherent danger that the Romans were aware of was that a Dictator might take a liking to power, which might lead to the return of the monarchy. This speaks to both the urgency of the crisis and the gravitas that Cincinnatus commanded.
Cincinnatus, as the legend goes, did not want this power. He wanted to continue plowing his fields to ensure that his family would have enough food to last the winter. Convinced of Rome’s dire situation, Cincinnatus decided that being a patriot was more important than being a patriarch and he set off to save Rome. Given six months of absolute power, Cincinnatus refocused the Roman economy, commanded the Roman military and outmaneuvered Rome’s enemies. With victory achieved, Cincinnatus walked away from absolute power and back to his family after only 15 days. A few years later, he did it again - made Dictator to save Rome from a plot to reinstall the monarchy, Cincinnatus foiled the conspiracy and gave up his powers after 21 days.
The legend of Cincinnatus became the Roman ideal for duty and service. This was reflected in the founding of the United States where innumerable comparisons were made to George Washington. It also served as the basis for the Society of the Cincinnati, which was made up of officers of the revolutionary Continental army and navy.
With such lofty ideals of duty in our background as Americans the burden of our duty to vote as citizens seems trifling. Regardless, it is a vital function of our Social Contract that we must take full advantage of. Because just as there were those who wanted a return to monarchy in the Roman Republic, there are those who would like to have such a system in the United States of America. The threat of narcissistic conspiracies to centralize power is a constant threat for any republic and made all the more easier to achieve with voter apathy.
Tomorrow is Election Day in America. Will you elect to contribute to a more perfect Union or neglect your duty?