While discussing Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton with a friend the other day – a friend who thinks Clinton would be a “solid president” – I was surprised to be dismissed with a charge familiar to marginalized radicals: it’s all just talk unless you vote (and perhaps even work on behalf of your candidate of choice).
Before even considering the underlying vote fetish in our civic culture that sees the act of voting in-and-of-itself as legitimizing political opinion, the dismissal ignores the political reality American citizens aren’t the only ones with a vested interested in who occupies the Oval Office. Given the United States’ global influence, the entire world has a stake in American presidential politics; their interpretation of US policy is surely more than “just talk.” More directly, permanent residents (e.g. non-citizen green card holders) who pay taxes have as much of a directly vested interest in the country’s governance as citizens do. After all, their tax money goes towards funding the government just like an American citizen’s. So if you’re going to take my money in taxes, you’re going to take my opinion on how it’s being spent – and if you don’t like hearing my opinion you can give me my money back.
There’s more than taxation with and without representation to consider, however. The decision to vote or not vote relates to the decision to become a citizen or remain a permanent resident, which is a political decision in and of itself. Political chauvinists may denounce the non-voter, like the non-citizen, as politically irrelevant but that’s a self-serving way to avoid the uncomfortable truth that declining to vote, like declining to become a citizen, is a considered and purposeful response to political realities in the United States.
To unpack the voting issues, I’d direct you to CounterPunch, where Jason Goldfarb ably dismantles the arguments levied against non-voters.
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?”He then takes on several myths about not voting, many in the context of the 2016 presidential election. The piece is well worth reading on its own, along with others written from a specifically anarchist perspective over at infoshop.org, but the general point is that the decision not to vote is just as much a political decision as choosing to vote. While it can be an act of protest and an expression of political ideology, it can equally be a manifestation of indifference to a system undeserving of validation through participation.
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.
For Bonus Points …
To provide context, however, it’s worth considering the fundamental quality of being a citizen as represented by voting. Underlying the injunction that voting isn’t just a right to be exercised or not at one’s discretion but a responsibility, nay, a sacred duty is the assumption that citizens have given their consent to the system. And by system, I refer to the entire apparatus of government-driven social organization – the nation-state. Lysander Spooner’s treatise No Treason comes to mind, calling into question the right of any nation to exist beyond the consent of the governed and pointing out how governments both democratic and despotic do not actually rest on consent but rather force.
Spooner is rather long-winded, so here’s a key idea in regards to the US Constitution:
The necessity for the consent of "the people" is implied in this declaration. The whole authority of the Constitution rests upon it. If they did not consent, it was of no validity. Of course it had no validity, except as between those who actually consented. No one's consent could be presumed against him, without his actual consent being given, any more than in the case of any other contract to pay money, or render service … The most that can be inferred from the form, "We, the people," is, that the instrument offered membership to all "the people of the United States;" leaving it for them to accept or refuse it, at their pleasure.And therein lies the point: if people haven’t consented to the electoral system in the first place, then by what justification can refusing to participate in it (for whatever reason), while nevertheless discussing and critiquing it, be considered politically illegitimate? Therein lies the rub for the system’s defenders, and why it is important for political skeptics to be steadfast in their critiques even when pressured to conform.
Furthermore, those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could thereby bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves. They had no more natural right or power to make political contracts, binding upon succeeding generations, than they had to make marriage or business contracts binding upon them. [Emphasis added.]
So vote, if you like, and vote for whoever you want for whatever reason. If Hillary Clinton is your candidate, vote for her. If you remain suspicious of establishment politics in general and Clinton in particular, for your own sake check out an alternative like the Green Party (or the libertarian party, if you skew conservative). But don’t buy into the psychological manipulation telling you that refusing to vote isn’t a valid political action. After all, when we don’t like a company’s product, we don’t buy it. And if we seriously object to a company’s business practices, we agitate for a boycott. So how shall we respond to a political system that is so clearly broken?