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To Vote or Not to Vote?


“I don’t vote. On Election Day, I stay home. I firmly believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that around. They say, ‘If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,’ but where’s the logic in that? . . . You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain.”

—George Carlin

Many nonvoting democracy activists argue that participating in U.S. national elections only maintains the illusion of democracy, and so voting can become a wedge issue that undermines solidarity among voting and nonvoting activists on democracy battlefields beyond electoral politics.

The corporate media tries to persuade Americans that the problem with the U.S. political process is a lack of bipartisanship between the Democrats and the Republicans, but on the key democracy issues of our era—senseless wars, Wall Street bailouts, unprosecuted corporate criminals, and the surveillance state—there has been Democratic-Republican bipartisanship.

The real problem for those of us who care about democracy is the lack of bipartisanship between voter and nonvoter democracy activists who often flail out at one another, and then can’t come together on democracy battlefields where they actually have a chance to gain power and create something closer to democracy.

U.S. Elections and Learned Helplessness

“If the Bush administration didn’t like somebody, they’d kidnap them and send them to torture chambers. If the Obama administration decides they don’t like somebody, they murder them.”

— Noam Chomsky

When the Republicans win, Americans get senseless wars and corporate control. When the Democrats win, Americans get senseless wars and corporate control. Learned helplessness means a belief that no matter what one does or does not do, one cannot decrease one’s level of pain, and so one gives up trying. If a society’s electoral process promotes learned helplessness, it is not a democratic society.

While Mitt Romney is another Republican “senseless wars/corporate control” candidate, what is President Obama’s record here? Military spending under Obama, as a percentage of GDP, has been higher than it was during any year of the George W. Bush administration. And under Obama, there has not been a single prosecution of a high ranking Wall Street executive or any major financial firms for their criminal practices that helped produce a worldwide financial meltdown. There are differences between Romney and Obama, but not when it comes to democracy activists’ helplessness around stopping senseless wars and corporate control.

To extricate from learned helplessness, does it make sense to vote for a third party that opposes senseless wars and corporate control? Because of the power of money in the U.S. electoral process—even worse now because of Citizens United—third parties have no chance of winning. And so voting for a third party that opposes senseless wars and corporate control means that either the Democrats or the Republicans still win, and Americans continue to get senseless wars and corporate control. And more learned helplessness.

There is of course another choice—not voting at all. That’s the choice for 40 to 50 percent of Americans in presidential elections (and even more in off-years when the presidency is not contested). George Carlin’s case for not voting rings true for millions of Americans:

“Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. YOU DON’T. You have no choice. . . . Good honest hard-working people . . . continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them. They don’t give a fuck about you, they don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care about you. AT ALL. AT ALL. AT ALL.” 

However, not voting doesn’t change the fact that the Democrats or Republicans still win, resulting in senseless wars and corporate control. The bottom line is that regardless of what we do or don’t do in the election booth, we continue to get senseless wars and corporate control.

Dropping One’s Arrogance about a Voting or Nonvoting Stance

While both the Democrats and the Republicans are the parties of senseless wars and corporate control, there are differences between them. And these differences can mitigate real suffering in some people’s lives. And this makes it difficult to walk away from a political party that one essentially does not respect.

Obama’s capitulation to health insurance companies was an excruciating blow for single-payer (Medicare-for-all) activists. Even before the presidential campaign began, Obama abandoned his personal belief in single payer. And then after his election, Obama reneged on his presidential campaign promise to fight for a public option to insurance companies (despite the fact that single payer was favored by a slight majority of Americans, and the public option was favored by a large majority of Americans).

Ultimately, Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) could well provide insurance companies with more loot than it exacts from them. Specifically, ACA’s perverted use of the mandate—originally meant to make single payer health care work—is retained in ACA, guaranteeing insurance companies millions more customers and billions more dollars, making them even more powerful and difficult to contend with. If the corporatocracy truly opposed ACA, then the corporatocracy-controlled Supreme Court would not have okayed it.

However, the reality is that very real suffering for some people has been mitigated by ACA.

I know one young man who, because of ACA, was not forced to choose between destroying his college grades and career plans or financially devastating his family. In college, he got cancer and needed a lengthy leave for treatment. Prior to ACA, in order to stay on his parent’s health insurance, he would have had to remain enrolled in college, which would have meant missed classes and F’s that would have killed his grade point average and trashed his career plans; or he could have dropped out of college to save his GPA, lost his health insurance, and amassed medical bills that would have financially devastated his family. And with either choice, prior to ACA, his “pre-existing condition” would have made it unlikely that he could get affordable health insurance once on his own. The good news is that not only has this young man survived cancer but, because of ACA, his health crisis has not destroyed his college record, his parent’s finances, or his future chances of getting his own health insurance.

It’s easy for people who are unaffected by an issue that an election can actually decide to urge others not to vote and argue that participating in national elections maintains the illusion of real democracy.

Voting for Obama, a cheerleader for the military-industrial complex, expanded drone killing, nuclear power, corporate hegemony, and the surveillance state means that I lose some self respect; but to not vote for Obama feels like a betrayal of loyalty to that young man and his family. And so with respect to voting, I’m not sure yet what I will do, except that I’m not going to get stuck in the voting versus novoting quicksand. 

Extricating From the Quicksand 

First, voting versus nonvoting democracy activists need to be more respectful of one another. U.S. national election results may in fact make no difference in terms of senseless wars, corporate control, democracy and real power, but results can increase or decrease real suffering for some people, which matters a great deal if you are one of those people or you care about them. When voting and nonvoting activists recognize the legitimacy of one another’s positions, they can unify on other democracy battlefields.

Extricating from this quicksand means recognizing that electoral politics is a narrow part of democracy. The major strategic problem in focusing on electoral politics is in the overfocus on a battlefield where the elite have such an advantage. This results in a lack of focus on democracy battlefields where we have a better chance of winning.

While a case can be made for voting to alleviate certain suffering, much bad can come from an exclusive focus on electoral politics. The bad is that people:

(1) buy into the elite notion that democracy is all about elections;

(2) give away their power when they focus only on getting leaders elected, becoming dependent on those leaders;

(3) forget that the power ordinary Americans have won has not been so much in the voting booth but on the streets, on the picket lines, in boycotts, and by other withdrawals of cooperation with the corporatocracy.

(4) lose sight of the fact that genuine democracy means having influence over all aspects of their lives;

(5) forget that if they have no power in the workplace, in their education, in their buying and selling of goods, in their entertainment, or in all their institutions, then there will never be democracy worthy of the name.

“If you can control a people’s economy, you don’t need to worry about its politics; its politics have become irrelevant. If you control people’s choices as to whether or not they will work, and where they will work, and what they will do, and how well they will do it, and what they will eat and wear, and the genetic makeup of their crops and animals, and what they will do for amusement, then why should you worry about freedom of speech? In a totalitarian economy, any ‘political liberties’ that the people might retain would simply cease to matter.”

Wendell Berry

In war, intelligent combatants attempt to force the fight onto the battlefield of their choosing, seeking the battlefield that takes advantage of their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. So, in the class war, the elite, who are very small in numbers but very large in cash, try to make the battlefield something they can purchase with their money. It turns out that an American election is easy to buy.

Keeping the struggle on a battlefield where money is so influential is an important reason the corporatocracy wants us to believe that national elections equal democracy. These elections keep many Americans thinking that they have a democracy when they don’t, and they are a relatively inexpensive way for the elite to control that which appears to be democracy. Perhaps most important, these elections distract people from thinking about other democracy battlefields.

There are other democracy battlefields not as easily controlled by big money as is the U.S. electoral process. Historically, on these battlefields, Americans have—with persistence, courage, and solidarity—gained power. And having a fair share of power is what democracy is all about. Real power in the workplace is being fought every day by worker cooperatives, labor unions, and the self-employed. Battles for power over housing are being fought by housing activists such as City Life and the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America. Battles for power over who controls the food supply are being fought by family farmers and others. And other battles for power are being fought in health care, education, and in nearly every other arena where the corporatocracy reigns. These real battles for power and democracy are being fought—and sometimes won—and unpublicized by the corporate media.

So, instead of voter and nonvoter democracy activists arrogance over their position, and instead of them flailing out at one another, let the ruling class tremble at unified voter and nonvoter democracy activists who, instead of overfocusing on electoral politics, join together on winnable battlefields.

Bruce E. Levine is the author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). His Web site is


Bruce E. Levine,  a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect.  He is the author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). His website is

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