Why I do not vote

See update for February 25, 2016, at end of post

There are many reasons people give to criticize non-voting. It is said to be apathetic or lazy. It is said to be a betrayal, that if only more people voted, the country might be a better place. And perhaps most prominently, it is claimed that if you do not vote, you have no right to complain.

But all of these claims overstate the role of voting. Ultimately, they assume first that voting is effective action, which requires one to believe that one vote counts against thousands or millions. It obviously does not; it rather depends on concerted, coordinated action with those thousands or millions of others, which raises questions about whose concerted, coordinated action we will be taking. Further, because in a democratic ideology, difference is to be expected, even celebrated, any action that will be taken will be incremental, even when substantial change is desperately needed.

But incremental change protects the position of those who are already in charge. It limits the pace of change to one that elites can adapt to. This obviously points to a deeper failing, which will underlie many of the difficulties I will point to in this essay.

Second, we insist on calling our political system a “democracy.” But James Madison rightly called the constitutional system he advocated a republic and took pains to distinguish it from a democracy. Democracy means direct participation which, certainly in those days, even in the size population (never mind the geographic distances to be covered) of the U.S. in the late 18th century, would have been unwieldy. A republic, by contrast, is—or at least claims to be—representative. We select representatives who ideally represent our interests in a legislative body that is more manageably sized.[1]

But also, even in those days, Madison expected that representatives would be wealthy (white) men (sexist language intentional). He argued that such men would be best able to set aside their own interests to govern in the national interest. Again, we must ask whose interest. If, in a democratic ideology, we anticipate difference—and Madison most certainly did—then there is no one single interest. And Madison anticipated that by pitting minority factions (none of whom he thought would be able to gain a majority) against each other, a republic would best be able to protect the minority property interests of these men against any majoritarian impulse toward confiscation (or redistribution).[2]

Again, the point is to protect the interests of those who are already in power. But we do so in the name of “democracy,” which is a perversion of the word and of the ideals for which it stands. And so the much vaunted “power of the people,” expressed when “the voters have spoken,” is in fact the voice of the rich. And it has been so since long before the Citizens United ruling which attracts so much attention.

Which is to say that it is not the non-voter who betrays her or his class interests, but rather the voter who subscribes to a false consciousness. This false consciousness is taught to children from an early age and so we can label it a fraud perpetrated upon the masses. Not only is the U.S. an oligarchy,[3] but it is so intrinsically, as a fact of its fundamental and foundational nature.

But on top of that fundamental and foundational nature, the U.S. system has additional features which act to further protect the elite. First, a common feature of journalism throughout the world is that it cannot truly challenge the status quo. It must act in support of the existing political and economic system[4] even when not in support of individual actors who are never seen as reflecting the system but occasionally, even often, as “rotten apples.”

Second, there is the two-party system, in which two parties hold a dominant position within the political order. In the process of attracting mass support (and squeezing out all “third” parties), they have little interest in being much different from each other. Rather, they each encompass a range of opinion meant to attract voters from their opponent. Each party offers little to its “base” which is encouraged to see it as better than its opponent and to accept compromise in the name of “governing.” Hence, progressives have little choice but to vote for Democrats and may generally be taken for granted. When, as in this year, an uprising such as the candidacy of Bernie Sanders appears, it will be ruthlessly suppressed, as we see in the machinations not only of the Democratic Party establishment, but now even in the mass media which rushes to assure us that such candidates cannot be elected.

Similarly, Republicans have exploited authoritarian populists, most recently known as the “Tea Party,” on divisive social issues while enacting a neoliberal agenda that favors multinational corporations at the expense of these same voters.[5] As Democrats do with progressives, Republicans take authoritarian populists for granted. And this year, we see the establishment failing to respond effectively to the candidacy of Donald Trump who tells authoritarian populists what they already believe—and what they already know, that they are treated as “patsies.”

But this, according to Howard Zinn, is the function of the two-party system. Emasculating each party’s “base” as extreme or unrealistic or impractical and appealing to a “middle range” of opinion, it constrains the range of acceptable political discourse to a narrow range so that change occurs, again, at a pace the elites are able to adapt to.[6] We cannot meaningfully challenge capitalism. We cannot meaningfully challenge “democracy,” even if it really is a republic. We cannot meaningfully challenge war. We cannot meaningfully challenge environmental devastation. We cannot respond even to existential threats to humanity.

But I am supposed to vote and thus to legitimize an authoritarian system of social organization. What the fuck for?

Update, February 25, 2016: When I first published this post, I had seen enough to observe that “the mass media . . . rushes to assure us that such candidates [as Bernie Sanders] cannot be elected,” but hadn’t really put together support for this claim. Adam Johnson has, and covers all the points I would wish for on this.[7]

  1. [1]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  2. [2]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  3. [3]Noam Chomsky, “The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy,” Salon, August 17, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/08/17/chomsky_the_u_s_behaves_nothing_like_a_democracy/; Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Princeton University, April 9, 2014, http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf
  4. [4]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995).
  5. [5]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  6. [6]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  7. [7]Adam Johnson, “Hillary is anything but ‘inevitable’: The political press is lying to you about her delegate lead,” Salon, February 25, 2016, http://www.salon.com/2016/02/25/hillary_is_far_from_inevitable_stop_counting_her_bogus_delegate_lead_partner/