“When politics becomes fundamentally unreal, the nature of political decision-making changes. Everything is fiction, so voters can only choose the fiction that best suits their taste and aligns with their self-image. Thus politics becomes devoured entirely by personal aesthetics. […] Without any sort of fixed reality, we have no shared reference point we can use for political deliberation; and when my policy preferences are rooted entirely in what I conceive of as my self, there is no room for compromise.” — Ned Resnikoff after the presidential candidates’ first debate in 2016
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“Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them. [¶] The people advocating protest votes believe they deserve a choice that aligns closely with their political preferences.” — Clay Shirky
“Nobody’s vote makes very much difference, so people are happy to vote for signaling/psychological reasons rather than financial ones. If casting my vote to help the poor makes me feel like a good person, but losing money in redistribution schemes makes me poorer, well, my vote 100% determines whether I feel good or not, but only 1/300-million determines whether I get poorer.” — Scott Alexander
See also: “Most people discuss political ideas not in order to help other people, but in order to signal how concerned and intelligent they are, or as part of group bonding rituals.”
“I like that the electorate is able to vote against the establishment when they’re pissed off. But I don’t like it when they don’t seem to know who the establishment is (say, a third generation real estate scion with inherited wealth who appears to have squandered much of it) and that the most important decisions that we make as citizens require no real accountability on the part of the electorate — just a general impression of who the candidate is, based on soundbites and entertainment-oriented media constructions. […] People who can’t locate Benghazi on a map will invoke it while not being able to articulate what our Libyan policy was in the first place because it’s a meme at this point, not an actual event that happened with verifiable facts. […] People who flock to demagogues don’t exactly have an empirical bent in the first place.” — Elizabeth Spiers
Update circa November, 2015: I’ve changed my mind about this. But I still think it’s a good essay and definitely encapsulates how I felt at the time.
On November 4th, 2014, I didn’t vote.
People have two main perspectives on my choice.
The first view is that it’s my duty to vote, as an adult citizen of the United States. I am responsible for researching the ballot issues and the candidates. Once I am informed, I must register my judgments via the official “democratic process”. If I refrain from voting, then I can’t complain about the state of affairs, because I willingly relinquished my chance to have a say in how things go. This is the view held by most people over forty, including my parents, and plenty of younger people as well.
The other perspective is basically, “Who cares? Voting is useless anyway.”
Personally, I suspect that voting is at least semi-useless, and that’s part of why I didn’t do it this year. I suspect that lawsuits and fair-minded juries are more important than who sits on the local school board. (Unfortunately, recent events show that fair-minded juries are rare; they value some citizens more than others.) I suspect—no, I am determined—that when an issue makes it into court or is featured on a ballot, the ultimate outcome is still determined by money.
For example, California’s Proposition 47 demoted minor drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors—which is awesome! However, I don’t think the proposition would have passed if it weren’t projected to save the state a lot of money. (Click here to learn more.) Similarly, you’ve never heard of the would-be candidates for political office who don’t have funds at their command, because a person needs money to catch the public’s eye. People don’t vote for anonymous poor citizens, no matter how talented they may be. It’s very difficult for a marginalized person to gain a position where they can help protect other members of marginalized communities.
But how do I know that I’m right about these things? How do I determine whether I’m just being lazy? Furthermore, what amount of political engagement do I owe to my community? As I wrote previously for the Richmond Pulse, “Part of me feels guilty [about not voting], like I’ve shirked a responsibility, and part of me feels defiant. All of me feels angry that voting has been framed as mandatory—I didn’t choose to be born, or to be inserted into a political society, and yet I’m expected to participate in its organization. That’s a responsibility for which I am not prepared.”
I would prefer not to engage politically at all. I don’t mind paying taxes, but usually I don’t make enough money for the government to bother skimming a cut from my income. Except when I accidentally park at the curb on a street-sweeping day, the government and I stay out of each other’s hair.
Of course, I use systems built by the government: I mail things through the United States Postal Service, I drive on roads, and I take advantage of various other state-facilitated infrastructures. My parents’ property is theoretically protected by the county police force. America’s entire peaceful existence—relatively peaceful, that is—is theoretically safeguarded by the heinous military-industrial complex. Here’s the argument: “If we didn’t have a huge burdensome terroristic military, then some other country would invade us!” Depressingly, that argument has a point.
I was thinking about these issues on November 4th, and I misguidedly posted a Facebook status about my torn feelings. This is an excerpt from that post:
I didn’t vote. I’m not going to vote. I won’t go so far as to say that you’re kidding yourself if you think voting is effective, but I will point out that 1) money is what wins elections, and 2) America is not a democracy; it never has been.
Inevitably this post will get comments saying that I’m wrong, that I should participate, that I should have faith in the system and do my “civic duty”. I may be wrong—it happens often—but I really do feel disenfranchised.
Do you ever post something controversial on Facebook and then remember why it’s never a good idea to do that? Yeah, me too. The responses to my voting status were infuriating—but also enlightening. People were incensed by my pessimism and refusal to participate. Reading the debate would have been interesting if I could have detached myself emotionally. As it was, I felt attacked, guilt-tripped from several sides. I don’t think people meant to upset me, but I was shaken nonetheless. Eventually I calmed down enough to explain my position further:
I wrote this post from an emotional place, from a desperate and disconsolate place. I didn’t make that clear [in my original post]. What I wrote came across as a political statement, but I was looking for solace. Maybe it’s petty to make this all about my emotions—[but] this is my Facebook “status”, right?
I think [name redacted] is correct that not voting doesn’t accomplish anything. And yet I feel very mistrustful of the media/information sources regarding politics, the entire system of “democracy”, and even my own judgment. (In fact, something that occurred to me a few times yesterday was, “If y’all think I’m so wrong, why do you even want me to vote?!”)
I’m angry that I’ve been included in any of this at all, “any of this” meaning life and its tragic complexity. I didn’t ask to be born, and it’s hard enough just existing—now I’m supposed to have all this responsibility to participate in the organization of society? I can’t handle that. I don’t have the stress-dealing capacity to be involved.
It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about the potency of an individual vote. However, even if I felt convinced that my choices would be significant, I might still abstain. Is that selfish? Hell yeah. I can’t do anything but put on my own oxygen mask first, so to speak.
As I explained in my comment, the other part of why I didn’t vote was that I don’t have enough energy to do it right. Throughout the summer, I actively avoided news about Palestine and Ferguson, because the responsibility to be informed is too taxing. Being exposed to violent news, learning what’s happening around the world and in my own country, fills me with a sort of paralytic anxiety. It triggers a kind of despair that is very difficult to circumvent. I end up crying on the floor instead of being productive in any way.
Mental illness has greatly interfered with my ability to be “normal”, to behave in the expected ways and to accomplish what I’m “supposed” to have accomplished by this point in my life. I am twenty years old, two years past my legal majority, and yet I am nowhere near being a grownup. I don’t support myself. I still live with my parents and it’ll be a while before I move out, because even with all this help I am always on the verge of falling apart. Still, people want me to vote. Maybe I’m better than I think at concealing my dysfunction.
Luckily, there are people stronger than me. In light of the recent protests against police brutality, against the unpunished murders of Black men and women, of Black children, against the farce of our “justice” system, I’m proud to see that my generation knows how to be politically active, whether or not they vote. Protesters who march through the cities and block the freeways are showing with their bodies that they care, that they will not allow life to continue normally when it has never been “normal” for Black families.
To me, this is a more powerful form of community action than voting. Maybe one can’t exist without the other. Regardless, I have to figure out the best way for me to participate in society’s improvement. That’s something we all decide for ourselves, isn’t it?
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