Voting as Firebreak

When I was a kid, Sinclair Oil Company used to hand out Apatosaurus toys and soap-on-a-rope as incentives, since their logo was “Dino” the dinosaur.

Word on the street with the banana-seat bunch was that oil came from dead dinosaurs.

Oil began, of course, as algae and plankton mixed with the mud of ancient seas. Coal started as dead plants covered with the right sedimentation. Heat, pressure, and time made these humble beings into fossil fuels. It is easy to attribute the power of oil, coal, and gas solely to their own magic and forget it came from something as commonplace as the light of day. When we uncover and burn them, they release the stored energy of the sun, along with new and unintended effects.

Now imagine money as another kind of energy-bank. Commonplace things, such as people’s labor and natural resources, are accumulated. Different heat, pressure, and time are applied. Wealth is concentrated, saved, and (sometimes) burned, often with unintended or ignored consequences.

There are many kinds of capital, but money appropriates its fellows. The rich, reaching for more, can be made to seem virtuous as well as powerful. After a while it can seem as if nothing can stop the interests of those with money. They become an out-of-control fire, consuming everyone and everything in their path. Against common sense and their own true bottom line, they do not invest in others’ future, or the planet’s. They do not stabilize society or help those in need, but instead ski down their raked-in piles, like Uncle Scrooge.

Representation in a republic is spotty at best: diffused by numbers, averaged, interpreted, and sometimes thrown open to the highest bidder. At its worst, the process becomes a mockery, the dark echo of true voice. I can’t breathe, people in mortal danger cry, and a minority, not wanting to be inconvenienced, mimic them. Here is a reverse image of your moral capital, they seem to say, which trumps you.

The voting ballot is just paper, like money and stock certificates. It is only a symbol of potential energy, which can be used for good or bad, like anything else. But the ballot comes around only now and then and especially in extraordinary seasons must be used as a firebreak to undue power.

That power never came from old dinosaurs, by the way, but from the patience of everyday life. Vote and release its stored-up light.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.