On Voting

For the record, I’m a liberal and this post is written from the perspective of a left-wing voter. I think my points in principle are applicable to any participation in the American political system, but the perspective here unapologetically reflects my values and priorities.

As Election Day approaches, I wanted to address the things I hear from people I know who are considering not voting. A sampling of these reasons…

  • I don’t want to participate in a corrupt system.
  • I could never vote for a party that supported drone strikes overseas or mass data collection on Americans.
  • All politicians are the same and they are all beholden to corporate interests.

Though I also feel the frustration and cynicism that feeds it to these, when it comes down to it I can’t accept these as good reasons for not voting. Though the system is imperfect, I think sitting out an election for these reasons is at best puritanical, at worst, teenage.

I’ve commented before in this blog on the American preoccupation with hypocrisy, with finding the inconsistencies and failings of those who profess any set of values, perhaps especially those we agree with. It’s right to seek the truth, and this form of seeking the truth feels good—it feels like we’re rooting out what we always suspected is wrong with the world around us. We are whistle-blowers, we are the smart ones. It’s a stay against a huge, messy, too-big-to-steer world where our impacts are always less visible than we wish they were. But unfortunately, that messy system is where all real action and all real advocacy for change happen. There isn’t a leader or an activist alive who hasn’t made a hard choice and doubted whether she did the right thing.

To me voting is not about moral purity. It’s not about feeling above it all. It’s a means of exercising the power that you do have to make things better. You don’t serve what is right by removing yourself from the ambiguities and compromises and ugliness of the world, keeping yourself somehow pure. Your duty is to do what you can to make things better, particularly when it involves a minimal amount of time and effort and no threat to your safety. The decision of whether to vote for a candidate should therefore not be a question of whether you agree with all the candidate’s views or actions, or even of whether the candidate takes some views or actions you consider unethical. It’s a question of whether there will be measurable positive or negative impacts on the world as a result of the election outcome. And there will be. These are (based on actual and recent events, not my catastrophizing) just a few of the things that happen when Republicans control state legislatures, governorships, and Congress (and the White House, though this isn’t a presidential election year):

  • Women’s right to control their bodies through access to contraception and abortion is undermined. More women, particularly the poor, find themselves forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. More women are sickened or die of improper abortion attempts due to lack of access.
  • SNAP and other basic safety net benefits for the poor are attacked, cut back, and tied to degrading and obstructive requirements, effectively denying benefits to many eligible people.
  • Attacks on voting rights and targeted disenfranchisement of the poor and minorities continue and accelerate.
  • Increases in the minimum wage are less likely, while millions of working poor people can’t afford basic needs. More people go without food, decent housing, heat, and other basics to make ends meet.
  • At the state level union-busting of public employees continues, driving down wages, benefits, and negotiating power for these workers and workers in general.
  • Federal funding for scientific research is cut back and interfered with for ideological reasons.
  • More conservative supreme court justices are be appointed (even if the appointments occur under a Democratic president, an obstructionist Republican-controlled congress will force watered-down candidates, and this is also sure as hell a reason to turn out for the next presidential election), and the court will be more likely to rule the wrong way on voting rights, corporate power, and women’s rights for many many years to come.
  • Though I’m not optimistic about substantive action on climate change in general, I think it’s even less likely under Republican-controlled government. And at the state and local level environmentally-friendly policies are less likely.

Turnout is the deciding factor in most American elections today. The vast majority of people don’t have their minds changed by campaigns. Though they are not the only two world views, the two major political parties in this country represent fundamentally different approaches to living in a society and caring for others. Who shows up at the polls is the biggest factor in which of these approaches is implemented. And which one is implemented matters.

I support efforts to diversify the two-party system and attack the influence of corporations in politics, and I’m deeply troubled by some policies supported by Democrats. And there are many ways to mobilize and advocate on behalf of a better political system and better policies. But if you are considering not voting as an approach, or, worse, your only approach, to contributing to those goals, you need to evaluate how effective the act of not voting is as protest. When you don’t speak at all, it’s very difficult for people to know what you mean—if you listen to speculation by pundits about the electorate it might drive home how poor a communication tool not voting is. And when you compare the degree of your impact sitting out an election to the immediate effects of U.S. local, state, and federal elections I listed above, there is no contest.

You can and likely should attack the Democrats for many of their positions and the political system in general for its limitations and yielding to moneyed interests. You should do these things loudly and publicly. But that doesn’t mean that voting against the destructive impact of conservative policies isn’t the right thing to do. The right thing to do is often messy and imperfect and compromised and may not always make you feel good. But if you are enfranchised it is your duty to wield the power you have to do the best you can. End of lecture. Get your ass to the polls.

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