The politically conscious constitute a cult and their golden calf is the vote. The vote is something which is both said to have a 1 in 10 million to a 1 in 60 million chance of proving decisive and is also something which is said to be a civic duty. Could we imagine anything else which has a 1 in 10 million chance of proving decisive and is also a “duty,” a “must,” a “need to?” There is a sort of myopia in the politically conscious—or rather, the neoliberal politically conscious, that the vote is something worth doing—frankly, I do not think they even realize how small 1 in 10 million is!
But there are more justifications, more philosophical justifications. This is always a codeword for the fact that these justifications have absolutely nothing to do with material conditions and everything to do with autocratic value-judgments and lofty ideals that do not even entertain the possibility of their being wrong or recognize their dogmatism. What are these justifications?
On one hand, we often hear the mutilated, decomposed corpse of Kant saying “one should will their action be a universal law.” This justification often comes in the form of “if everyone chose not to vote like you, we’d be in a worse off position!” Well, I am not everyone! I am me! My choosing to vote or not to vote does not shoot magical thought beams into my neighbors making them think, “I was going to vote, but I thought better of it.” The fact that this argument is not taken more seriously is a sign that we are utterly obsessed with keeping everyone “in line” with the rest of society alongside a narrowly picked set of values. We, every single one of us—just one little dot of perspective, value, degrees of intelligence and wisdom, always wish to “choose for all of humankind.” As an ontological principle, this sounds good, as a way of life, it’s nothing but an inflammatory bigotry.
On the other hand, there’s this sense that your voice can only be heard by voting. For one, why do we even want our voices to be heard? Whose voice is worth being heard? If we were to have a one on one conversation, sit in a courtroom, etc. then maybe our voices are worth being heard. But in a massive election, with two distinct parties that have curved the shape of human thought in this country—are these opinions really worth being heard? Who tells people to vote, to make their voices heard? One, the government, two, political parties, and three, people who do not realize that the first two told them to vote. Why would the government want votes? Because it keeps them running without any real dissidence or questioning. It is a easier to ignore a ballot with a few checked boxes than to ignore a voice screaming at the top of their lungs. Americans are unsaveably ignorant, group-minded, and somehow still selfish. The voice of the average American is the voice that burned the witch. Emma Goldman is often said to have uttered, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Not only is this true on one count—that your vote will almost certainly not change anything (and really try to think about the odds in a meaningful way), but on a deeper, more insidious count—that your voice cannot change anything because your voice is the same as the status quo’s. The voter only guarantees that the world will be the exact same way it is. If you think you’re the exception, that you have somehow blazed a new trail in human intelligence and thought, you’re wrong, and somehow if you are right, good luck not being assassinated or hanged.
Voting is a low-risk, low-reward activity: and is that not the motto of a neoliberal democracy? To stay away from all risk, to try to live as comfortably as possible in your cordoned off estate with flatscreen TVs, leather couches, and liquor to keep you dazed? “Live dangerously!” is the voice of a future that is not realized and may never well be able to be realized.
The golden calf of voting is an illusion that is propagated every single election to give people the mere feeling that they are doing something valuable, that they are good-minded, thoughtful people. But what is concealed, what is never actually realized, is a radical commitment to thought and care, to real empathy, to understanding, to a meaningful life. Who will smash the tablets? Who will bring this fraud to light? Who will be able to overcome our conditioning, our incapacity for critical thought to convince us that we are just as stupid and selfish as the people who do not vote? What would happen if, one election, nobody voted? Would that not be the greatest alarm clock?
I am not suggesting that we do not vote. The vote is an individual choice that may bring about short-term changes for the good. But it cannot bring structural changes or the level of radicality we need to live more free and honest lives. Further, the choice to not vote should not be regarded with evangelical eyes, eyes that condemn and moralize. There are other avenues of action that are more valuable than voting. My goal in writing this is to provide a much needed critique of the establishment of voting—something which is venerated without any eye of criticality. Above all, I wish that the most profound form of political action becomes not voting, or even speaking, but thinking.
Gelman, Andrew, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin. “What Is the Probability Your Vote Will Make a Difference?” Economic Inquiry 50, no. 2 (April 2012): 321–26. https://doi.org/10.3386/w15220.