On a short visit to Austin, Texas in June, I heard that one of my favorite one-hit wonders from the long-ago British punk-pop scene, Wreckless Eric (“(I’d Go) the Whole Wide World”), was playing at a local club. I quickly bought tickets.
Wreckless gave a tremendous show. The songs from his new album were terrific, angry and political, and he interspersed them with acid, dead-on comments about the Trump administration and America’s descent into racist right-wing populism.
Then he let us have it. “You know, if you didn’t vote, you might just as well have voted for him.”
That would include me. I’ve heard a lot of this kind of thing in the months since.
On Tuesday, millions of people will vote in a midterm election that’s touted as one of the most consequential in decades. This is perfectly understandable. Depending upon the outcome, America could effectively re-endorse President Trump and his party. Or it could reject the celebritician in the Oval Office and re-embrace the party of the Obamas and the Clintons.
Millions of people, perfectly eligible to do so, will not vote, however. Once again, I’ll be one of them, and I’m happy to explain why.
Non-voters are this year’s pariah class, much as Ralph Nader and Jill Stein voters were in past elections. Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, we’ll be criticized for not doing our part, for putting principle over practicality, and for helping entrench the Republican Right in power.
But this entirely misses the point. It’s easy to shoot the messenger when you don’t like the message, and non-voters have been sending an increasingly loud and consistent message for at least 50 years now: we’ve lost our faith in electoral democracy. A Gallup poll in January found that less than half of Americans have confidence in the presidency, only 8% in Congress, only 29% in the Republican Party, and only 36% in the Democratic Party. The media, which plays an important role in legitimating our political establishment, rates only 30% approval.
This shouldn’t be news, either. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, public trust in government in the U.S. declined from around 75% in the early 1960s to 18% in 2017. Almost half (45%) of adults—more than 100 million people—didn’t vote for anyone for president in 2016. And this shift isn’t confined to America. According to a recent World Bank study, voter turnout worldwide declined from about 80% in 1945 to about 65% in 2015.
The message, in other words, isn’t about the candidates, their platforms, or the way they’re covered in the media. It’s a deep disillusionment that’s been growing for decades with an electoral democracy that becomes less democratic all the time, a sclerotic and highly institutionalized two-party system that suppresses radical voices (unless they’re from the right), and a (predominantly white, male) political and economic elite that’s expert at deflecting and neutralizing opposition to its leadership but conveniently tone-deaf when it comes to understanding and addressing in honest and effective ways the issues that opposition raises. Millions of people, at least tacitly, have concluded that the system doesn’t need change from within, it needs to be changed.
The burden is on the people who hold the reins of government and party-political power to prove to us why we should bother voting, not on us to explain why we don’t. As Mark Twain and Emma Goldman are variously rumored to have said, “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” To understand how right this still is, just consider the ongoing voter-suppression efforts in Georgia and other states, the mammoth Pentagon budgets that pass year after year with “bipartisan” support, and the budget-cutting economics that keeps the richest country in human history on track to become the most economically unequal as well, no matter which party holds power. Consider the persistence of racism and the marginalization of people of color, despite decades of alleged government wokeness.
Or consider possibly the greatest emergency in human history: the rapid warming of the planet after two centuries of energy reliance on fossil fuels. Democratic lawmakers and candidates would have us believe that unless we put them in power, the Trump administration will continue to undermine international efforts to stop global warming. But the best the governments of the world—led by electoral democracies like the U.S.—have been able to agree on is feel-good gestures like the carbon tax and business-friendly half-measures like the Paris Accords, which substitute “market-based solutions” for the fundamental changes in industrial production needed to alter our course.
Global warming represents a supreme test for electoral democracy. If it can’t address this clear and present danger, whichever politicians are in charge, then what reason do we have to stay faithful to it? Aren’t we better off looking for—experimenting with—new ways, outside the State, to organize our response to a problem that threatens to annihilate us?
Let’s turn that question around: In the face of the evidence that voting doesn’t work, when we vote, who benefits? Why do “they” want us to keep going through this exercise (as long as we’re not black or brown or immigrant)? Voting is not the popular exercise of political power, but the surrender of our power as equal members of a human community. Voting affirms the present system. It signifies our assent. It keeps us hoping against hope that the next statesperson-hero—the next FDR, the next JFK—is just around the corner if we go to the polling place, play our assigned role, and pull the lever. It maneuvers potentially revolutionary social movements into unthreatening political channels (the best decision Black Lives Matter ever made was to not endorse candidates). It nudges us to blame specific policies and politicians, rather than take a desperately needed hard look at electoral democracy itself.
There’s something more we give up when we vote: the ability to say “No.” States, governments, and socio-economic orders crave legitimacy: it’s the one thing they need from ordinary people, in some ways even more than obedience. The right to say No to the whole damn thing is the most powerful political weapon we have as members of this or any society, because it denies the State legitimacy. When we vote, we give it up—just for today, perhaps, but if we do it over and over, pretty soon it becomes forever.
There’s a plausible argument for voting I hear a lot: that, flawed as it is, electoral democracy gives us a chance to perform triage when a serious threat like right-wing nationalism looms, and buys us the time to pursue bigger changes. Perhaps—but haven’t we been through this exercise too many times already? How many more years will we decide to fix the roof when the building’s foundations are rotten?
“Form’s survival conceals the disappearance of content,” the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar wrote of the political culture of the later Roman Empire; doesn’t our participation in the increasingly empty ceremony of elections represent a desperate hope that we can still find content where it no longer exists?
All too often, progressives are presented with a false choice between our current, failing electoral democracy and the hard-right, xenophobic, exclusionary nationalism represented by figures like Trump, or perhaps some resurrected form of Soviet Communism. This is wrong both historically and as a matter of practical, day-to-day reality. Human beings have always experimented with different ways of organizing themselves to fulfill their needs and desires as a community. From self-governing urban and agricultural communes during the Middle Ages to today’s worker-owned enterprises, cooperatives, and indigenous forms of organizing like Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, we’ve been proving for centuries that we have the capacity to formulate alternatives that could lead to a more directly democratic, more economically equal, more sustainable society: one that can squarely confront an existential problem like global warming.
And that’s the worst thing about voting: it distracts us from the need to explore, collectively, without mediation by governments or politicians, how we can manage our future. Electoral democracy is not the end of history. No political system is, or ever will be. Devising the next one won’t be easy. But rather than distracting ourselves with the increasingly tired show the Democratic and Republican parties repeatedly trot out, we urgently need to get started. If not now, when?
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist, activist, and the author most recently of The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort (AK Press, 2018).