Electoral voting is the sacred cow of The United States. When one refuses to partake in the ritual they are often hit with a plethora of insults and rash arguments. The most recent target of these attacks has been the so-called “Bernie or Bust” demographic. This faction, as its name suggests, is on the left of the political spectrum (Bernie supporters) yet refuses to settle for the lesser of two evils; that is support Clinton over Trump. For these soon to be labeled social-deviants, once Hillary Clinton wins the democratic nomination (it is fair to assume her victory barring an improbable catastrophe) they will refuse to participate in the electoral process.
This type of political withdrawal is not simply unique to the present election. Over the past 20 years voter turnout has been on the decline, reaching 53 percent in 2012 (with some projecting it to reach bellow 50 percent in 2016). Congressional approval rates were as low as 9 percent in 2013 and distrust in government currently stands at 19 percent. Majorities of people express indignation and resentment at the current political process. Increasingly citizens feel rejected and unrepresented by an elite political class.
Mainstream media and pop culture, however, have meticulously denied this sentiment any legitimacy. Non-voters seldom receive airtime or any public-forum to openly debate their position. Popular American slogans are “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain”, “it is your duty to vote”, “vote or die”, and so on. It is almost impossible to watch any news segment or public address about politics without it ending in the classic platitude: “whatever you do, just make sure you get out there and vote”. The consensus is unparalleled: from celebrities, to public intellectuals, to mainstream and even “alternative” news sources, as well as both political parties.
Although non-voters and movements like #BernieorBust receive criticism across the political spectrum, the critiques themselves are rarely subject to scrutiny. The very core of the democratic process is, hypocritically, often closed to democratic questioning. Instead the non-voters are treated like ignorant children to be educated and brought into the “enlightened” system of voting. The question asked is always “how do we bring the non-voters into our political process?” or “how can we engage voters?” but rarely “why are these voters not engaged” and never “is their disengagement correct? Should we join them in solidarity?”
Not only does the condescending attitude towards non-voters only further alienate them but such an attitude is also un-democratic. In the place of logical discussion are patronizing platitudes. The injunction Vote!” as an obvious, self-evident, truth masks the fact that there is no evidence to support such a claim. When every statistical indicator tells us that majorities are not happy with the state of democracy it is alarming that such a position is never taken seriously.
(1) Debunking the voting myth one by one
(1) #BernieorBust comes from a state of privilege. People who refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton on principle may be able to ride out the storm of a Republican administration. Many of us can’t.
The opposite is true: People who can afford more years of neoliberalism are in a privileged position. It is crucial to keep in-mind that living a normal, everyday, life is extremely violent. The United States, for instance, consumes 8 worlds worth of resources each year. Things continuing the way they are is catastrophic for over 1 billion people who live in abject poverty. (More if those who feel underrepresented and excluded from the system are counted).
It is simply ethically irresponsible to act as if Clinton is a viable option for those who face the brunt of everyday neoliberalism in the form of starvation, lack of access to medicine, human rights violations, totalitarian dictators propped up by the west, and so on.
(2) Hillary Clinton is the lesser of two evils.
When the alternative to right wing neo-fascism is left neoliberalism the right-wing is empowered. The reason for this is simple: if the leftist alternative does nothing to represent the majorities who feel slighted by the system then where do they go? The answer is clear—to right wing populism and racism. As journalist and historians Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank, and Howard Zinn, among others have carefully documented, when an authentic left fails and succumbs to corporatism the right prospers and gains supporters. (Early polling of Sanders supporters show that many may turn to Trump before voting for a systemic candidate like Clinton).
Obama invigorated the tea party, passed permanent Bush-era tax cuts, deported millions, engage in drone warfare with over 90 percent unintended casualties, while previous right wing administrations would not dare to enact such policies (the Bush Tax cuts had to include sunset provisions).
To avoid possible confusion, the point is not that Trump and Clinton have “essentially the same policies”. Rather, it is that Clinton and the policies of neoliberalism represent a system that constitutively excludes and exploits large segments of the population (both local and global). Those who feel dismayed and rejected by the political system are in-fact correct. Neo-liberalism does not care about the bottom 90 percent —it is only beholden to the needs of corporations. Alternatively right wing populism does in fact seek to address the concerns of the underclass (albeit in a racist and displaced way). Trump, by promising these segments inclusion in a (allegedly) different system picks up the voters neo-liberalism leaves behind. In the same way that Trump is a great recruiting tool for ISIS, Clinton (even if she wins), is a great recruiting tool for Trump and the right wing.
Clinton is thus not an alternative to neo-fascism; she in-fact facilitates it. This means that it is incorrect to say that it is possible to choose the ‘lesser of two evils’. They are two sides of the same coin; one directly fuels the other.
(3) My vote makes a difference
No, it does not. One vote is statistically insignificant and will never determine the outcome of an election. Thus a vote, in reality, is simply a symbolic affirmation of the system. It is a gesture of consent to be ruled, a declaration that the system is legitimately established. This means that if one does not consent to the current system, that is, if they do not think it is democratic, then they should not vote. So does the electoral system warrant consent? Does the United States have a democracy? A Northwestern and Princeton University study asked this exact question. It found, looking at over 20 years of data, that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”. Corporate opinion, in contrast, had a direct impact: if the vast majority of the top 10 percent of income earners opposed a policy, it had a near-zero chance of passing. The paper concludes that the U.S is a “civil oligarchy” where money-interests dominate policy. So, if voting is a symbolic act of consent but the system is oligarchic and not worthy of said consent, then, there is a democratic duty not to vote. There is an obligation to reject and reveal as illegitimate a pseudo democratic system.
If such a view seems extreme then lets look at an example from American History: during the dark ages of McCarthyism, the exceptionally heroic were those who mocked or refused to testify to House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In so doing they rejected the core of the committee –its status as a legitimate authority that commands even an inch of respect or adherence. Author Dashiell Hammett, called to testify before the HUAC, was asked if he was a trustee for a fund that the Communist Party USA organized to protect its persecuted members. In reality, he knew nothing about the fund, but he refused to testify and was resultantly sent to prison. Hammett was heroically shrewd in this gesture; testifying implies some form of recognition and even that would be conceding too much to totalitarianism and the committee. The true defenders of democracy were hence those who refused to testify to a supposedly democratic institution. The situation is parallel today. If the political system is oligarchic then there is an obligation to democracy to call it out as such. To cast a vote and to treat the political system as if it is legitimate, as if it is responsive to the concerns of the people, is to concede too much. To vote in a pseudo democratic election is to betray democracy.
(4) If everyone thought like that and refused to vote the situation would be worse.
In essence the claim that “if everyone else did X then Y would happen” (where Y is usually something catastrophic) stems from philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. In layman’s terms, if I cannot universalize my action, if everyone could not do the same as I did, then the act is morally wrong. Yet this simple formula is largely outdated in philosophy. Benjamin Constant, for instance, famously argued that according to Kant’s ethical system, if a known murder came to your house asking to kill your wife and if she were home, you would be forbidden to lie (since if everyone did so, lying would become impossible).
Yet even if one did accept this outdated standard of morality, the argument would still fall short. If everyone refused to vote, someone like Trump would not simply be able to take power, rather the entire legitimacy of a corporatist system would be called into question. The truth of its undemocratic nature would be put on display. It may create a risky situation but there is no reason to assume the results would be bad especially if those refusing to vote did so on the basis of democratic ideals.
(5) If all the Bernie supporters and those on the left refuse to vote the right will take power.
What justifies this level of specificity? The advocacy of non-voters is non-partisan. See also point (2)
(6) It is our civic duty to vote. Those who refuse take for granted the greatest system in the world-liberal democracy; they insult all those who died fighting for your right.
No. It is civic duty to uphold democracy. Many who died fighting for The United States under the pretense of “democracy” were, unfortunately and tragically, manipulated to fight for an anti-democratic system. If their sacrifice means anything it is the continuing struggle towards an authentic democracy. If democracy means anything it also means the right not to vote and consent to undemocratic conditions —the right to reject a system that has proven to be a farce.
(7) What is the alternative? There is no better option?
The alternative is simple: do not vote for, or give consent to, pseudo-democratic systems or neoliberalism in any way.
Consider one final example: slave owners vs. slave owners who were kind to their slaves. Should one have supported the lesser of two evils here? NO. There is no ethical decision in this dichotomy. As Oscar Wilde has argued, being kind to slaves served to justify the unjust practice of slavery (it prevented the rotten core of the system/institution from being brought to light). The only option, and the only way the U.S got rid of a fundamentally unjust institution, was to call out the false choice —Slavery, as such, much be banned. It is only by insisting upon this demand that the U.S achieved an actual ban on slavery. The same will be true of the choice between neoliberalism (kind slave owners) verses neo-fascism (mean slave owners). The only way to save democracy is to insist on the falsity of the choice at hand. You are allowed NOT to vote!
(8) Change will never occur from apathy or resignation.
This is empirically and theoretically false. Anti-colonial struggle from the Haitian revolt to modern civil disobedience relied upon an analogous move of withdrawal. Refusal to engage in the system’s demand to participate was constitutive of the change generated. If one bases dissent (in the present case, opposition to oligarchy) on the unjust structures and institutions they are supposedly dissenting (oligarchic voting, elections, and so on), then change will never occur. Authentic change alters what counts as change in the first place. Thus those who continue to vote, knowing that the system is unresponsive, are the real lazy, apathetic, and listless, while the true defenders of democracy are the honest and attuned non-voters.
Jason Goldfarb is a Ph.D. student at Duke University.