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One morning years ago, as I entered the classroom for a course I taught on U.S. history, I found the students engaged in a discussion of elections. One of them, whom I knew to be a supporter of “progressive” causes and who had previously complained about student apathy, asked me in a despairing tone, “Why don’t people vote?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “To me, the more interesting question is, Why do they?”
Why do people vote? The individual voter does not choose the winner of the election; she chooses which lever to pull or which box to check on a piece of paper. Yet some people get angry at me and call me a shirker when I tell them I don’t vote. If you don’t vote, they tell me, you have no right to complain.
Why not, I ask. Where is that written?
Some point out that in the past people died for the right to vote.
That is true, I respond, but beside the point: people also died for the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, but no one calls abortion a public duty.
Clearly, something is operating here besides logic.
The only explanation I can come up with is that people vote for the same reason they cheer or do the wave at an athletic competition—it makes them feel part of a community. Now, I respect the desire for community. In the good old Hew Hess of Hay, “citizens” choose people to
represent them. To vote is to participate in a community ritual. It begins in grade school, when children elect who among them will get to clean the blackboards.
Rituals reinforce the society that gives rise to them. By reenacting the voting ritual people reinforce a system that ensures their powerlessness. This is true regardless of whom they vote for.
The New Society is based on people acting in concert to shape their lives. Representative versus direct democracy. The Paris Commune. The Flint Sitdown Strike. The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Tahrir Square.
As someone who believes in both the necessity and possibility of a New Society, my goal is to draw a clear line between it and all efforts to “work within the system.” In pursuit of that goal, I pledge not to engage in any discussion of whether one party or candidate is worse than another, whether it is advisable to work for Democrats, whether it makes a difference which Democrat one works for, whether activists should limit their electoral efforts to Socialist candidates, whether it is possible to be both a Socialist and a Democrat.
I promise to share no wisdom about primaries and swing states.
Finally, since I believe that for most people whether or how they vote is probably the least important decision they make every few years, and that most of them know it and will recover their sense of reality as soon as the “silly season” is over, and that they will do what they want regardless of anything I say, I also pledge not to argue with anyone about voting.
One more thing, which may seem to contradict everything I have said above: There are two classes of people who are excluded from voting: the first consists of those convicted of what the state calls “crimes.” Their numbers run into the millions, they are important factors in the economy of the localities where they reside, and their votes could conceivably swing an election; the second group consists of those not counted as “citizens,” who perform a large and increasing amount of the drudge work of the country.
Those who take voting seriously could do worse than undertake a campaign to extend the right to vote to these two classes. Interrogate the candidates. Demand that they declare themselves publicly on these issues. Carry signs. Interrupt debates and election rallies. Do as the Abolitionists – many of whom did not believe in voting – did when they brought the issue of slavery to center stage.
Noel Ignatiev is the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996). He blogs here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.