Recently, my local letters the editor column has been awash in letters urging people to do their
"patriotic duty" by voting. Even leaving aside issues of fraud, there are so many reasons to consider not voting. I originally started thinking about it in terms of game theory, but have since changed to more practical, easily apparent reasons to avoid voting. Or if not to avoid it altogether, at least vote for a third party that you feel best represents a shot at real change. In fact, I'm slowly coming around to the perspective that voting for third parties can send the same type of message to Washington that one would be sending by not voting, while also helping to "do" something to help that change come about. Anyway, here's my letter to the editor, then read on after that for more diverse perspectives on voting and change.
There has been some discussion in The Public Pulse lately as to whether one ought to vote or not. Democracy, in any meaningful sense, is a system that allows people to have a say in decisions to the degree that they are affected. Do we have that? The Bush administration has approval ratings stuck around 25%, while Congress struggles to keep their approval ratings in the double-digits. So it can hardly be said that the government has the support of the people.
Reporters without borders recently ranked the USA 36th out of 173 countries in it's annual Press Freedom Index. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of its member states only Turkey and Mexico have higher levels of income inequality than the USA. The United States has troops stationed in 136 countries around the world. We now have secret prisons, where we hold prisoners indefinitely without formal charges or access to representation. The world knows that we torture prisoners, despite the Geneva Convention. Our students have some of the worst educational scores in the developed world. Allegations of voter fraud and rigged voting machines have plagued elections in America since the 2000, and international election monitors had to be brought in to monitor the 2004 presidential election to ensure fairness. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. We only have 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners are in American prisons. The machinery of international capitalism is falling down around our ears and the major candidates are quibbling about tax policy on the richest 1% of Americans. I've heard more about lipstick, pigs, pit-bulls, and plumbers than I have about any of the issues that really matter.
Despite all assertions from hard-core partisans, there are no meaningful differences between the two parties. There is no way for citizens to influence the policies that affect them most. If you doubt this, consider the recent vote on the banking bailout. Despite the clear opposition of the majority of Americans communicated through hundreds of calls and emails to their "representatives", politicians from both parties scrambled to enact it anyway. Since it's been enacted, news of unbelievable corruption and greed have come from many of these financial institutions, including AIG and Lehman Brothers. It is clear that without access to millions of dollars and lobbying firms, the average American doesn't have any representation in the halls of Congress or the White House.
So for all of these reasons and more, a case could be made that by refusing to vote, one is withholding consent and taking a moral stand against the immoral actions of our "leaders". If you feel that you must vote, I certainly understand the urge to use one of the few constitutional rights you have left. But please don't harbor any illusions that a vote for either of the major parties will change anything that really matters.
How should you vote?
With the U.S. presidential election fast approaching, Americans are settling on their decision for who would best take their country in the right direction and serve their interests. Most view the political system with cynicism. Most see the two dominant political parties, Democratic and Republican, as serving the interests of corporations and the financial elite but not their own. Many feel disenfranchised. Many feel that to participate in a system that merely perpetuates the status quo without offering any hope for real change is to grant it legitimacy when it deserves none. And if past trends are any indication, most won’t vote.
Among those who will cast their ballot, most, even those who will vote along party lines, view both Barack Obama and John McCain with skepticism. They are both seen negatively, both representing the established order. But one or the other of them is viewed as the lesser evil. To keep the greater evil out of power, a vote for the lesser one becomes necessary.
This remains true even when there are alternatives to the Democratic and Republican candidates, and even when the alternative candidates are seen far more as representing American interests and far less as being corrupted. A great many voters will vote for who they see as a lesser evil rather than who they see as actually being a good candidate because they so greatly fear the possibility of the greater evil gaining power.
This voting strategy is deeply ingrained. During the 2000 election, Ralph Nader was an extraordinarily popular candidate, particularly among the left. He was seen as far more worthy than the Democratic candidate Al Gore. And yet many liberals who shared that view chastised their fellow leftists for casting their vote for Nader, particularly when it came down to the Florida election.
The reasoning is straightforward: voting for Nader meant not voting for Gore, which meant George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, had a better chance of winning. Voting for Nader helped ensure a Bush win, the argument goes, because liberals might swing their vote away from Gore, but conservatives were less likely to do so. Nader didn’t have nearly as good a chance as winning as Gore, and so the strategic goal of keeping Bush from power meant voting for Gore even if Nader was the better candidate.
While this appears to be a perfectly logical argument and pragmatic voting strategy, it is rooted upon a number of fallacies. First and foremost is the deeply ingrained belief that alternative candidates don’t have a chance of winning, and so to vote for one would mean “wasting” your vote.
This year, the most extraordinary candidate was, hands down, Ron Paul. He was extremely popular, and remains so after having withdrawn his candidacy. He made waves in America, and, despite being old enough to be their grandfather, spoke to a whole new generation of voters that are disillusioned with business as usual in Washington. His position on the issues make sense and Americans recognized that he represented real change. The fact that he was even in the running gave hope to many that the U.S. political system might actually be able to function as the founding fathers intended, that a restoration of the American Republic based upon the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land might be possible.
Still, one could turn on the TV and watch news reports where people on the street are interviewed about their preference of candidates and see people saying things like “I really like Ron Paul. I think he’s the best candidate. I like his position on the issues, and he makes sense. But he doesn’t have much chance of winning, so I’m probably going to vote for Barack Obama.”
Therein lies another fallacy. People don’t vote for who they actually like for the presidency based upon their opinion of whether or not they think it is likely that they will win. The “we have to ensure the greater evil doesn’t gain power” mindset wins out over “we have to ensure the best candidate wins”. But, of course, strict adherence to this electoral strategy can only result in the self-perpetuation of the same political process they are so disillusioned with in the first place.
The truth is that the only reason a candidate like Ron Paul is “unlikely” to win an election is because people won’t vote for him. And they won’t vote for him because they think he’s unlikely to win, which of course results in the self-fulfillment of that reality.
The American people need to recognize that an alternate reality exists, and that the way to bring it about requires merely a shift in paradigm. American voters should shift their electoral strategy from seeking to put the lesser of evils into power to seeking to elect the force for the greatest good.
There are, of course, those who already adhere to this alternative framework. If there were a few more among their numbers, alternative candidates like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Ralph Nader would gain more votes. They might still lose. But does voting for a losing candidate mean one’s vote has been wasted? How much more wasted is a vote that goes towards the lesser evil? You’ve still voted for the perpetuation of evil.
Far more worthy alternative candidates might still lose, but it wouldn’t mean votes were wasted. The increased percentage of the votes that went towards them would send a powerful message to Washington. It would encourage more people in the next election to do the same and vote their conscience, rather than adhering to a voting strategy that virtually guarantees nothing will ever substantially change.
Eventually, the number of votes being cast towards alternative candidates would be enough that the message from the American public could no longer be ignored. Even if still resulting in a loss for the worthiest candidate it would remain a win for the American public, because whichever evil from whichever party did win the election would be under far greater pressure to implement real reform.
And for Americans who don’t believe their voice is heard in Washington or that public pressure has any effect, a simple refresher course in history could remind them that advancements in society are not made at the behest of government or the ruling class, but only by pressure from the masses reaching a tipping point. Politicians don’t go out on a limb to promote radical change on their own accord. They have to be pushed out there under massive public pressure and under the fear that one’s constituency might very well vote one out of power if one doesn’t do precisely what they are publicly demanding.
One of the most effective means by which the American people could send a message to Washington would be by voting. There’s every reason to be cynical of the political system in the U.S. But there’s no reason for despair. There is hope. And there are individuals working within the system representing real hope and real change. More Americans need to take the time to stay informed and get engaged in the political process. And of those Americans who do vote each election, more need to recognize that the “lesser of evil” strategy only perpetuates the framework wherein it remains a choice between evils.
The only real voting strategy that can offer real hope for change is the one wherein Americans vote their conscience and cast their ballot for the candidate they think is truly the most worthy to be called by the title of President of the United States of America.
Until Americans realize this then there will indeed remain little hope for the future.
We have nothing against voting. We plan to vote in the upcoming election. Some of our best friends are voters.
But we also believe that we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that the most important political moment in our lives comes in the voting booth. Instead, people should take politics seriously, which means asking considerably more of ourselves than the typical fixation with electoral politics.
First, we won't be coy about this election. Each of us voted for Obama in the Texas primary and will vote for him in November. We are leftists who are consistently disgusted by the center-right political positions of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and we have no illusions that Obama is secretly more progressive than his statements in public and choice of advisers indicate. But there is slightly more than a dime's worth of policy differences between Obama and McCain, and those differences are important in this election. The reckless quality of the McCain campaign and its policy proposals are scary, as is the cult of ignorance that has grown up around Palin.
Just as important, the people of this white-supremacist nation have a chance to vote for an African-American candidate. Four decades after the end of formal apartheid in the United States, in the context of ongoing overt and covert racism that is normalized in many sectors of society, there's a possibility that a black person might be elected president. Even though Obama doesn't claim the radical roots of the anti-apartheid struggles of recent U.S. history, the symbolic value of this election is not a trivial consideration. This isn't tokenism, but a sign of real progress, albeit limited.
But even though we make that argument, we will vote knowing that the outcome of the election is not all that important, for a simple reason: The multiple crises facing this country, and the world, cannot be adequately addressed within the conventional political, economic, or social systems. This is reflected in the fact that neither candidate is even acknowledging the crises. The conventional political wisdom -- Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative -- is deeply rooted in the denial of the severity of these crises and hostility to acknowledging the need for radical change. Such a politics of delusion won't generate solutions but instead will lead us to the end of the road, the edge of the cliff, the brick wall -- pick your preferred metaphor, but when the chickens of denial come home to roost, it's never pretty.
These crises are not difficult to identify; the evidence is all around us.
Economics: We aren't facing a temporary downturn caused by this particular burst bubble but instead are moving into a new phase in the permanent decline of a system that has never met the human needs of most people and never will. It is long past the time to recognize the urgent need to start imagining and building an economics based on production and distribution for real human needs, rejecting the corrosive greed that underlies not only the obscene profits hoarded by the few but also the orgiastic consumption pursued by the many. We can't know whether McCain or Obama recognizes these things, but it's clear that both candidates -- along with their parties and the interests they represent -- are not interested in facing these realities.
Empire: The way in which First-World nations have pursued global empires over the past 500 years to grab for themselves a disproportionate share of the world's wealth has never been morally justifiable. The recent phase of U.S. domination in that project is particularly offensive, given U.S. political leaders' cynical rhetoric about democracy. But whatever one's evaluation of the ideology behind the U.S. attempt to run the world through violence and coercion, the project is falling apart. The invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq are not just moral failures but pragmatic disasters. While McCain and Obama have slightly different strategies for dealing with these disasters, neither is willing to face the depravity of the imperial endeavor and neither argues for abandoning the imperial project.
Ecology: It's no longer helpful to speak about "environmental issues," as if we face discrete problems that have clear solutions. Without major changes to the way humans live, we face the collapse of the ecosystem's ability to sustain human life as we know it. Every basic indicator of the health of the ecosystem is cause for concern -- inadequate and dwindling supplies of clean water, chemical contamination in every part of the life cycle, continuing topsoil loss, toxic waste build-up, species loss and reduced biodiversity, and climate change. Unless one adopts an irrational technological fundamentalism -- the faith-based assumption that new gadgets will magically rescue us -- this means we have to downsize and scale back our lives dramatically, learning to live with less. Yet conventional politicians continue to promise to deliver a lifestyle that constitutes a form of collective planetary suicide.
So, we live in a predatory corporate capitalist economy in a world structured by the profound injustice produced by an imperial system that is steadily drawing down the ecological capital of the planet. The domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of this world is rooted in the ideologies of male domination and white domination. This belief in the inevitability of hierarchy grows out of thousands of years of patriarchy, reinforced by hundreds of years of white supremacy. Any meaningful progressive politics also must address not just the worst behaviors that come out of these systems -- the overt sexism and racism that continue to plague society -- but also the underlying worldview that normalizes inequality. Yes, Obama is black, and McCain selected a female running mate, but neither candidate ever speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy.
There are two common responses to the analysis offered here. The first is to condemn it as crazy, which is the response of the majority of Americans. The second, from people who don't find such claims crazy and share the basic analysis, is that we have to be realistic and tone down our arguments, precisely because most Americans won't take seriously anyone who speaks so radically.
But if being realistic has something to do with facing reality, then arguments for radical change are the most realistic. When problems are the predictable consequence of existing systems and no solutions are plausible within them, then arguing for continued capitulation to those systems isn't realistic. It's literally insane.
We live in a country that is, in fact, growing increasingly insane. Fashioning a strategy for political organizing in such a country, and shaping rhetoric to advance that organizing, is indeed difficult. But it must start with a realistic description of the problems we face, a realistic evaluation of the nature of the systems that gave rise to those problems, and a realistic assessment of the degree of change necessary to imagine solutions.
Taking politics seriously in the United States today means recognizing the limits of electoral politics. Voting matters, but it's not the most important act in our political lives. Traditional grassroots political organizing to advance progressive policies on issues is more important. And even more crucial today is the long-term project of preparing for the dramatically different world that is on the horizon -- a world in which an already unconscionable inequality will have expanded; a world with less energy to deal with the ecological collapse; a world in which existing institutions likely will prove useless in helping us restructure our lives; a world in which we will need to reclaim and develop basic skills for sustaining ourselves and our communities.
These challenges are daunting but also exciting, presenting us with tasks for which the energy and creativity of every one of us will be needed. Can we find a way to talk about that excitement which could encourage others to explore these ideas? Can we develop projects to put those ideas into action, even if only on a small scale? When we have tried to articulate this worldview in plain language in recent political lectures and discussions, we have found that a growing number of people not only will listen but are hungry for such honesty.
We don't pretend that number is large right now -- certainly not a majority, and not anywhere near the number needed for a mass movement -- but one wouldn't expect that in this affluent society in which many people are still insulated from the worst consequences of these systems. But that's changing. As more and more people, from many sectors of society, face these realities, they join the search for a community in which to confront this together. Our political work should focus on connecting with people on common ground, articulating a realistically radical analysis, and working from there to construct a just and sustainable society.
So, we will vote on Nov. 4, without hesitation. But more importantly, on Nov. 5 we will be realistic and continue talking about the radical change necessary to build a different world.