The “joke” in the Dunham-for-Obama ad is the equivalence it posits between voting and sex. But a more basic premise of the ad—one which I think is not challenged by either its irony or practical purpose—is the intimacy of voting. While I don’t care much at all about the ad or actress, I do find this conflation of the intimate and the civic troubling.
Positing voting as intimacy undermines the possibility of civic action and civic life. An intimate act is private, between two individuals. One’s votes, however, are not between the voter and the candidate, even if the ballot is secret. They are between the voter and the community, part of a decision about the direction or leadership of a society. If societal concerns impinge on the act of voting, it is not intimate. But if voting is intimate rather than part of civic life—if its concerns are merely and uninterruptedly dyadic—I find it hard to picture a functioning civil society.
On one level, this is just another instance of the contemporary breakdown—perhaps it would be preferable to say, “restructuring”—of the public-private distinction. But it doesn’t quite map onto public/private. Personal acts can be committed in public, but society cannot meet one as individual does. One can, certainly, have personal reasons for voting one way or another. One can, to use myself as an example, keep the kitchen in their private residence to a stricter, communal standard of kashrut, while being willing to eat in public restaurants that according to a laxer, personal standard. There is overlap between the public sphere and the civic/communal, but it is not perfect.
Civic life—the life of a society—entails the coming together of individuals. In our self-governing formulations, individuals don’t come together to be fused into a single entity, but to act as a plurality of individuals. It is this pluralism of individuality that stands in the way of an intimate relation between the state and the person, and it is precisely this which is threatened by conception of a vote as intimate between the voter and the candidate. There’s a whole collection of others out there—and they’re all coming together to vote—and their votes are part of a collective act; by definition, they stand in relation to every other vote cast, not just the one it selects. An intimate vote denies this. It either does not see or chooses not to see the coming-together of votes and voters. It does not see, that is, the possibility of genuinely communal acts of self-governance and ultimately isolates the individual voter from the formerly self-governing civic society that, in turn, begins to atomize.