Voting is a sacred, taboo, and perplexing subject in the American political experience. Shirking one's civic duty draws the ire of all citizens who proudly denounce your “right to complain.” Simultaneously, people hold their vote close to their hearts as a private matter while other proudly proclaim and pester you to support their candidate with yard signs, bumper stickers, and ringing doorbells and telephone calls.
So arises the question many – liberals, occupiers, and even ordinary folks – are wrestling with as the spectacle of democracy climaxes, as it does every four years, with the presidential election on November 6: for whom to vote? A wide range of pundits have weighed in on the lack of real choices offered between incumbent President Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney have accompanied anarchist critiques and discussions on the merits of not voting.
In fact, some of the critiques have come from unlikely places – like the discussion that erupted over at The Atlantic thanks to Conor Friedersdorf's editorial “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama.” The mainstream discussion on the ethics of voting starts from the assumption that, as a progressive or a liberal or someone committed to social change, Mitt Romney must not be elected to office. Therefore, when a fellow campaigner for social justice finds out that this person or that person will not vote for Barack Obama, the response is typically an indefatigable lecture on civil responsibility.
Bruce Levine criticizes the “arrogance” and “learned helplessness” of nonvoting democracy activists while advocating for more respect between voting and nonvoting activists in other “democracy battlefields.” Recognizing the importance of a vibrant labor movement, housing associations, and food sovereignty, Levine pleads his case:
So, instead of voter and nonvoter democracy activists arrogance over their position, and instead of them flailing out at one another, let the ruling class tremble at unified voter and nonvoter democracy activists who, instead of overfocusing on electoral politics, join together on winnable battlefields.
It's hard to argue with that. In fact, he's pretty spot on in his analysis. Unfortunately, he is missing the point that many nonvoting democracy activists – and Christian anarchists – are trying to make: we want something different.
Underneath all the panderings about the efficacy of voting lies a sleeping beast of a question that the Left has not yet dared to fully articulate: is representational democracy really the best we can do? The fallacious thinking of liberal commentators like Chris Hayes would have us believe that it is, with the only alternative being “violence, war, death, and bloodshed.” Hayes' enshrining of the American process of democracy – perhaps historically correct, maybe – ignores the oligarchic tendencies and hubris of American politics and lacks the kind of political imagination that created representational democracy as a possibility (as opposed to monarchy) in the first place.
The emergence of the Occupy movement last year is indicative of widespread – if not a fully articulated – malcontent with the current political structures that govern the country. The Occupy movement's anarchist and socialist influences of participatory and direct democracy were breaths of fresh air in a stale political climate, but that energy, for now, has subsided.
But can we frame the 2012 elections as a referendum on representational democracy? Has it evolved in collusion with capitalist interests so much so that it cannot be a form of governance that reflects the will of the people rather than the interests of capital?
And, more importantly, does voter apathy confirm that critique? Recent polls indicate that elgible voters are more likely to stay home than voter for either Romney or Obama combined. That is almost 90 million voters who are disillusioned with the political system. But apathy and resistance are not the same thing. Nor does it mean that there are not actual consequences, short and long-term, from any given election.
So absent a truly revolutionary movement that could transform the American political structure towards more just and equitable forms of democracy, what are the ethics of voting for radical activists and organizers. Is there even a frame to ask the question of what will it take to transform representational democracy into something more truly democratic, equitable, and just?
The choice not to vote is a protest against a system that cannot be revolutionized without first relinquishing power from the hands of representatives. Representative politics perpetuates itself to consolidate power within the system, passing it from politician to politician to bureaucrat to bureaucrat. Having careerists within politics ensures that system will continue, because there is no incentive to work oneself out of a job. The challenge for a social movement that truly desires to change the way politics is done must come to terms with the fact that voting – in and of itself – is not going to change representational forms of government. Some choose a total boycott of elections for that reason.
Does individual participation in electoral politics – or any kind of voting – preclude social movement action or revolutionary social change? Probably not, as Bill Moyers indicates in his study “Eight Stages of a Social Movement.”
But collectively, the cultural attitudes bent toward representational democracy as being inevitable has likely led to the mainstream apathy and lack of a real vibrant resistance movement in the U.S.
There may be some efficacy in boycotting elections to send signals across society that the governance system is not considered legitimate. There have been organized election boycott efforts in Mexico and South Africa but with limited effect. Of course, such action does not necessarily change the status quo of the power structure in place, but it can be a useful expression of solidarity that activists and organizers can utilize in long-term movement building. Low voter turnout can be used to erode the institutional pillars that prop up illegitimate power won through a fraudulent or semi-fraudulent system.
But, right now, that kind of widespread dissent – and analysis – has yet to coalesce in the US and those who do advocate boycotting of elections lack serious support.
Beyond election boycotting to make a statement about the lack of choices within the current political system lurks another troubling peculiarity. Investigative reporting has really called into question the legitimacy of the American election system itself. Two recent investigations – one from muckraker Greg Palast and the other from Victoria Collier for Harper's Magazine – are an evidenced-based analysis of a privatized and manipulated voting system.
The facts Palast and Collier unearth are stunning yet the notion of systemic voter fraud is something most Americans believe to be a problem in emerging democracies in places like the global South. Shouldn't we be concerned that Tagg Romney, Mitt's son, can buy voting machines – through the controversial Bain Capital – in Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington and Colorado? Can we reform our way out of this one?
Yet, particularly at local levels, there are policy initiatives on the ballot. Some are mundane: budgets, tax increases, zoning ordinances. Others are more politically-charged: same-sex marriage and voter identification laws. These referendum act as a mandate for the public officials charged with enacting their proposals and upholding their laws. Voting in this way, while not perfect, can be a more direct form of participation in governance in one's community.
The perspective above calls to mind the way my friend Carolyn Griffeth, from the St. Louis Catholic Worker, talks about an ethic of solidarity when it comes to voting.
“Why wouldn't you do all that you can to end injustice and oppression?” she asks passionately and without judgment. Eschewing notions of purity and ideological commitment, Griffeth takes a practical approach to voting, recognizing that certain representatives may be easier to work with than others. It's a short-term strategy, no doubt, but no less valid. And for Griffeth, it doesn't negate her anarchist or Christian values.
Similarly, Cornel West has signed on to Roots Action's campaign for strategic voting to “Defeat Romney, without illusions about Obama.” In a recent interview, Cornel elaborated on strategic voting in a corrupt political system:
“I’m strategic. We have to tell that truth about a system that’s corrupt—both parties are poisoned by big money and tied to big banks and corporations. Speaking on that is a matter of intellectual integrity. American politics are not a matter of voting your moral conscience—if I voted my moral conscience it would probably be for Jill Stein. But it's strategic in terms of the actual possibilities and real options available for poor and working people.”
The mainstreaming of a discourse on whether one should vote or not is a positive thing. It means perspectives and analyses are growing deeper and more radical – getting at the root of a problem.
Within some sects of radical Christianity, withdrawal or refusal to participate in state structures is a constitutive element of an expression of faith. To be “in the world but not of it” is justification many Amish use for their non-participation in much of the electioneering. Furthermore, Christian anarchist groups like the Catholic Worker and others have often eschewed voting in favor of direct action because of the state's militaristic and capitalist underpinnings that are never up for a referendum. Recent essays on Jesus Radicals (here and here) make these points. But, for the most part, those decisions are an act of conscience more-so than revolutionary defiance or a tactic in a social movement.
Lastly, it may be worth considering, for Christians, representational democracy as a form of idolatry. The refusal to give consent or participate in choosing someone to make decisions for us – rather than with us or out of a mandate derived through some form of consensus – is a question demanding theological and scriptural study. The campaign culture, media glitz, and exorbitant sums spent to elect a representative to government – at almost all levels – borders on insanity at best and idolatry at worst. Here, the myths perpetuated and believed about Obama, Romney, or the 2016 candidates as savior should be a deeply troubling experience for Christian soteriology.
As autonomous human beings – created in the image and likeness of God and saved by grace – do we fully honor all that we were created to be when we cast a vote for false prophets? Or are we voluntarily giving up our political imagination and moral conscience in exchange for someone else to legislate so we can enjoy the luxury of complaining about the politicians on the evening news?
Outside the context of an organized campaign that has proactively chosen voting as a tactic to achieve its immediate strategic goals, it seems to me that the decision to vote is not a very weighty moral issue. So long as radical activists and organizers don't give up on direct action, if voting suits your fancy, so be it. If not, in the long view, no big deal.
Social change – let alone revolutionary social change – is a complex phenomenon that each of us participates in in an incomplete, imperfect manner. Recognizing the very really challenges facing communities and ecosystems around the globe, it is clear that historical forms of governance and decision-making have proved inept in confronting the realities of poverty, violence, and climate change. But they are still there. Governments continue to legislate, corporations continue to produce, and, on a mass scale, we continue to cooperate. For better or for worse, it is our complicity that keeps such systems of power in place. Our task? Building movements powerful enough that can change the day-to-day realities of injustice and inequality – possibly by engaging in these imperfect systems in a variety of way, which could including voting – but not at the sacrifice of the long-term revolutionary visions of the new world that we already know we are capable of articulating and building.
(Author's note: For the record, I live in Minnesota where there are proposed amendments to legislate strict vote id laws and to define marriage between one man and one woman. I will vote no on those policy issues while refraining from electoral politics as a matter of my own conscience to be consistent with my critique of representational government).