Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on May 3, 2015
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“There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”
― Gore Vidal
If the above statement of the much-missed and oft-maligned Gore Vidal is correct, then why vote?
Many of us have given up on the current electoral process, arguing that the American system is completely wired by the uber-rich, and that nobody on the ballot truly represents their interests. Few would argue otherwise, in the wake of recent decisions by the Supreme Court: Citizens' United meant it was OK for corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate, and Buckley v. Valeo, which ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, thus giving a poor man the same right as a rich man to buy a million-dollar air schedule for political advertising. The artificial drama of D vs. R is a scam, a dumb-show and entertainment financed by the same sets of owners who contribute lavishly to both sides via legalized bribery in the form of "campaign contributions." The system grinds on, and many argue voting seems to change nothing.
At first glance that might appear to be true. During the last 40 years, America has plunged toward a plutocracy greased by wealthy donors eager to secure a favorable future legal environment, in which no options remain for expropriating their ill-gotten, swept-off-the-table gains. That won't change.
Voting by itself won't protect your rights or secure policies of which you approve. But politics is the art of getting half a loaf, rather than none, and voting is a key first step to getting there. And for all the above, voting is still worth the effort.
I begin with the a prejudice toward the common wealth, rather than the private fortune. And the premise that as a citizen, each of us has a social duty to cast the best possible vote. Faced with two undesirable choices, which is the best ethical choice? A conundrum. Bad choices at the polls lead directly to bad policies that destroy economic opportunity, produce crises that lower everyone’s standard of living, unjust and unnecessary wars of choice, (and consequently to hundreds of thousands of deaths of nameless, faceless others), sexist, racist, and homophobic legislation, help reinforce poverty, produce overly punitive criminal legislation, and worse. Faced with two bad choices, some argue the best choice is to make no choice.
So if a candidate were to stand up and offer an alternative to the policies described above, and we were to agree with the majority of this candidates' platform, would he or she not be worth a vote?
Some don't agree that they have a duty to vote. Every election cycle, futilitists use well-practiced handwringing and whining to help block any potential groundswell of those who might be persuaded to support a third party candidate by repeating the incantation, "They can't possibly win." If the energy invested in defeatism were spent on local ORGANIZATION and advocacy, a different outcome might be possible.
Yet vote boycotters say "we don't have enough people" to make a difference- a self-fulfilling prophecy. Low-turnout elections dominated by the enraged white paranoids of the hate radio/ Fox News/ white supremacist set will definitely keep power in the hands of the rich. Which is just how they want it. While you are sitting on your hands as a matter of principle, the rage/hater/right wing set is voting all of theirs, and the cemeteries as well. A higher voting turnout rate might well lead to a very different polity from the one we have now.
Net it out: the end result is to abet the criminals currently in charge stay in charge. Your partners Charles and David Koch thank you for enabling their agenda, led by an insurgency of the most intellectually and morally stunted cohort of American society. Who YOU helped elevate through your inaction.
There are indeed principled arguments for non-voting. Not voting has a long pedigree as part of the anarchist's playbook. As writer Colin Ward says, for well over a century, anarchists
…have been the most consistent advocates of conscientiously staying away from the poll. Since anarchism implies an aspiration for a decentralised non-governmental society, it makes no sense from an anarchist point of view to elect representatives to form a central government. If you want no government, what is the point of listening to the promises of a better government? As Thoreau put it: ‘Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.’
The various streams of 19th century anarchist thought were united together in their opposition to participation in elections. Most of them shared with the early Marxists the view that the State was simply the executive committee of the ruling classes.
Political democracy, they declared, was just a facade concealing the real effective power of the owners of capital and land. If the workers withdrew their labour power the capitalist class would be impotent and its State would fall to pieces.
So "not voting" has a rich history of ineffectiveness and futility. Most anarchists shared with Marxists the view that the State was simply the executive committee of the ruling classes, with political democracy a sham concealing the real effective power of the owners of capital and land. Time was when workers had leverage such that, if they withdrew their labor, the capitalists could be rendered vulnerable and the State fall to pieces. Or so went the theory.
Non-participation has always been a spectacularly ineffective form of "protest." While advocates offer their well practiced, richly-oiled poses of self-justification for the virtues of non-participation, here's what REALLY happens:
1) A result completely indistinguishable from total apathy. If an opponent of the political status quo takes the same expression of non-action as the ill-informed lout who cares about nothing, how is it even possible to tell how many non-votes are ill-conceived protests and how many are from those who couldn't be bothered?
The "just stop voting" advocate will claim that if enough of us stopped voting, election results would then become illegitimate through lack of participation. This without explaining the mysterious mechanism by which TPTB would be removed from power in the wake of the imagined "non-vote mandate," and without explaining the mechanism by what said system would be replaced. Really?
2) It simply increases the political power of those who do choose to vote. Failing to vote in census year 2010 gave the Repugs the power of the gerrymander, and thus of selecting their own voters, leading directly to the rise of a nativist right wing. When those who oppose the current system choose to not vote and remain on the sidelines, opponents gain an undeserved force multiplier.
Not voting ensures that unpopular extremists are elevated into power. Voter apathy translates to Louis Gohmert, Jodi Ernst, Ted Cruz, James Imhofe and the entire ALEC legislative agenda enacted as if by popular mandate: climate change denialism, legalization of discrimination by religious means, open season on blacks and "dissidents," tax cuts for corporations, endorsements and doubling down of the surveillance state, more illegal and unwanted wars, the entirety of the "more-of-the-same, but even harder" right-wing austerity-for-you-and-tax-cuts-for-me agenda. To say nothing of the serial idiocies being enacted in Republican- controlled state houses across the FSoA. Much of this state by state effort is being executed via the strategy of nullification of federal law, the instrument of choice of theocrats and Republiconfederates. CJ Werleman points out that
Since 2010, state legislatures have put forward nearly 200 bills challenging federal laws its sponsors deem unconstitutional. Typically, laws the nullifiers believe challenge “religious liberty,” the Affordable Care Act, and gun control.
In an editorial for Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall observes that since the election of Obama and the rise of the Tea Party, “there’s been more and more reaching back to the discredited ideas of nullification, interposition and even, at the truly fringe extreme, secession. They are each efforts to preserve power for disempowered minorities after they’ve lost battles in the standard majoritarian system. More simply, they’re workarounds to get out of the consequences of losing political fights. And by definition they are rearguard actions.
Not voting emboldens these people.
You might answer that we've had a "Democan" or "Republocrat" in office for six years, and we have drone wars, attacks on whistleblowers, enhancement of the surveillance state, NDAA, and the jewel in the crown, the TPP. You would be right. See Vidal's quote, above. Yet consider what your life might be like in the sixth year of McCain/Palin.
Despise the current political system? Then support a political party proposing change, rather than abstain and thus insure the status quo. I have brought opprobrium down upon my own head by advising my Dem friends that under no circumstances will I be voting for Hillary, and for my trouble I've been rewarded with the inevitable Ralph Nader/Al Gore horror stories. Don't care. I've decided that, before I quit this earthly coil, I'll cast a vote for president for someone who actually represents my interests. The recent entry of Bernie Sanders into the race provides an interesting grace note. An avowed socialist is actually once again running for president, and nobody (as of this writing) has yet burst into flames. Sanders should be more than a tuneup test for Hillary. With any luck, the issues upon which Bernie will run and will once again be part of the conversation after having disappeared for, oh, 40 years.
Ultimately, if you believe the great arc of history bends toward the direction of social justice, then each of us has a responsibility to do what we can to enable that happy day, no matter how dismal the prospects appear at the moment. And they are dismal indeed, as they generally consist of unsatisfactory choices between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Non-voters have the luxury of not participating in the political process because millions of others are doing the lifting involved of making a flawed system work. A relatively wealthy society can tolerate a large number of such disaffected free riders. Yet I see little virtue in refusing to participate. Voting helps keep the religio-economic ALEC fundamentalists away from the wheels of power, and denies them an undeserved force multiplier. Remember what Malcolm Gladwell has said about tipping points. Because, rest assured, your opponents will vote every bigot, pederast, hypocrite, window-licker and dittohead in their cohort… all while suppressing the votes of those likely to oppose them where they have the local power.
And if nothing else convinces you, consider this: if the vote is meaningless, why so much money spent to win it, and so much effort to cage and suppress the votes of probable opponents?
And if you still despair of how much your vote counts, consider this: the closer the home the election is, the bigger your vote becomes, and the more the outcomes directly affect your day-to-day quality of life. As noted above, much of the ALEC agenda is being enacted at the state level, away from the glare of national press. And if you really want your vote to count, find out when your local city primary or caucus is, research the candidates, and show up to vote. Those votes generally range from the dozens to low hundreds, so your vote really does make a difference- and where it matters most.
The vote still matters. If you don't use yours, you hand it to your opponents. And it's really the last thing we have left.
Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and quit barking and got off the porch long enough to be active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with his new bride Contrary in a triumph of hope over experience, and is grateful that he is not yet taking a dirt nap.