Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Rite of Consent

Some conversations I've had -- both online and in physical space -- since November 2 cause me to think I should lay out a substantial case for not voting. As I try to do so, please don't think I'm being smug: I myself am a very recently reformed former voter. Worse yet, it wasn't so long ago that I held an elected public office; not only am I a voter, I'm a candidate, and a winning candidate at that. (My shame multiplies.) So let's think of this as the equivalent of an AA meeting: "Hi, I'm Jim, and I'm a voter."

That said, here goes.

Voting as Communication

We're often told that our vote "sends 'em a message." The message that is sent, and to whom, varies considerably from one voting-exhorter to another. When Denise Democrat defeats Rick Republican for a congressional seat, what message did a particular voter (say, Vince Voter) send? He wants an increase in Social Security benefits? He's against the war? He likes legal abortion? He thinks Denise is a goddess of government, or that Rick is slimy? He thinks Denise is dead horrible, but Rick's even worse? He wants a better Republican than Rick in office, and voted for Denise based on a strategic calculation that it's more important to reform the Republican party through the cleansing fire of defeat than to win this particular election, this one time? He votes alphabetically, and "D" comes before "R?" Out of these and a thousand more possibilities, it's quite hopeless to decipher Vince's "message."

Voting is a bad way to send messages because of the information deficiency inherent in the mechanism: a "multiple" choice between two (or, rarely, three or four) alternatives. The information content is nearly zero. It's similar to displaying a flag -- what do you mean: you like America, or you hate everyone else? Or wearing a cross, which might mean that you love Jesus, or that you think Madonna was really, really hot when she wore one.

Want to send a message? Voting is an incredibly ineffective way to do so. Depending on the size and proximity of your audience, consider having conversations, giving speeches, or writing: a book, an essay, a blog, comments to someone else's blog, or letters. In these ways, you can -- with effort -- say exactly what you want to say.

How Does Your Voting Affect Others?

I argued above that voting is a poor way to communicate. When you vote, though, you do tell government something: that you buy into the state's basic scheme, and that any disagreement you have with the state concerns only the small details -- which is the kind of disagreement that's easy for them to live with. You tell them that you're engaged in their game. And that's fine with them: the nominal two parties (one party, in reality) have arranged things so that no third party, even a sellout like the Libertarian Party, will ever be relevant to the way in which business is actually done. No matter whom you vote for or against, your vote tells your supervisors that you're a happy camper ... or, if not actually happy, that you're at least going to continue camping on their campground, by their rules.

Secondly, when you vote, you add peer pressure to the general pressure exerted by the respectable media on your fellow-subjects to vote. You're serving as a bad example.

Thirdly, your voting lends a spurious legitimacy to the state. The more people vote in an election, the easier it is for the victor in that election to claim that his or her ascension to power is the Will of the People. Imagine an election in which 99% of the eligible voters don't vote. Sure, one clown or another will receive a larger share of the 1% than the other clown, and will therefore be awarded the driver's seat in the clown car. But he'll certainly sound silly -- even more so than usual -- when he talks about having a popular mandate for his particular brand of buffoonery. As the number of voters increases, so does the clown's plausibility; and that's not good.

How Does Your Voting Affect Yourself?

I'm assuming here that I'm talking about the reluctant, nose-holding, lesser-of-two-evils voter: someone who realizes that things have gone badly wrong in American political life, and is considering his or her vote as a mitigation, a limitation of damage, an effort to salvage something from a bad situation. To the cheerful person who can wholeheartedly "get behind" a major-party platform, I have nothing to say, really; that person is dealing with a version of reality that I'm not familiar with.

First, voting uselessly consumes your time and mental energies. It requires that you become familiar with the mechanics of politics at a tactical level, as you will often be deploying your vote in some indirect way; voting for an unusually-egregious clown in Party A's primary in order that Party B's candidate will find it easier to win the general election is a classic example of this. (I say "uselessly" because the probability of a single vote changing the outcome of any election at a higher level than Assistant Township Dogcatcher is negligibly small.) It requires that you study the chicken entrails endlessly, trying to divine the true intentions of candidates who will try hard to prevent you from doing so accurately.

Secondly, the effects of tactical, nose-holding compromises are cumulative. What you repeatedly do, you incorporate within your mind; to an extent, you become what you do. Compromise becomes a habit. Eventually, your very ability to think and act in a principled way has to be compromised, along with everything else.

Finally, there's the "Stockholm Syndrome." A hostage, held at gunpoint, is compelled to compromise, accepting the wrongful status of prisoner in order not to be shot. After some time, he tends to start identifying or sympathizing with his captor. Similarly, if you cast enough lesser-of-two-evils votes for Congressman Doe, you're apt to excuse, or at least to overlook, some of his misdeeds. Having voted for him so many times makes you complicit, to a degree, with those misdeeds -- so they must not be so terribly bad. Your thinking has become distorted, and that's not good.

What's the Real Meaning of Your Vote?

In the Declaration of Independence, we read:
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying that voting makes you a party to an explicit legal contract. I do claim, though, that in most people's minds, when a group decision by voting is embarked upon, the expectation is that each person who votes expresses, through the act of voting, his or her willingness to abide by the outcome. The "consent of the governed," as the text of the Declaration puts it, is signalled and marked by the performance of some action by the people.

What is that action, that consent ritual, if not voting? Commonly-understood expectation makes it that; and I would suggest that there isn't really any other thing that we're urged to do that would qualify. Voting ratifies the state's claim that what it does, it does rightfully in our names, with our consent. "You've had your say; now, let's get on with it."

And it's a bad bargain that we get: exchanging our consent for an entirely illusory voice in the process, an entry ticket for a fully-rigged game. Look, objectively, at what actually happens. Republican "conservatives" in power, Democratic liberals out? Government gets bigger and more powerful, and our liberties shrink. Throw out the Republicans, and vote in the Democrats? Government gets bigger and more powerful, and our liberties shrink. Let one party control Congress, and the other the White House, in so-called gridlock? Government gets bigger and more powerful, and our liberties shrink. Sensing a theme here? As Emma Goldman said, back in the day: if voting actually changed anything, it would be illegal. Instead, it's recommended to us as a solemn duty by those who certainly would not welcome fundamental change. Obviously, it's sublimely harmless to the powers that be. With apologies to that great philosopher, Bob Seger:
Ooooooh, they love to watch her ... vote
Ooooooh, they do respect her but
They love to watch her vote.

The Bottom Line

To sum up, voting doesn't "send them a message" -- at least, not the message you may have had in mind. It's bad for your fellow citizens, and worse yet, it's bad for you. Voting is used by the state to bolster its own spurious claims of legitimacy. It's a bad habit, and one that we'd all do well to break.


Mimi said...

A powerful post, Jim! This was the year I also resolved to discontinue voting. It's depressing that those who believe themselves to be anti-war and "liberal" keep buying into the lie that this farcial action is somehow a moral duty. It isn't, and we shouldn't do it because it's wrong and it's bad. Why? For all the reasons you so clearly set forth here--bravo!

Phil Marx said...


Very well written, and deserving of a proper reply - which will take a couple of days to put together.

Jim Wetzel said...

Many thanks to you both. Phil, I'll look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

Phil Marx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Marx said...


My manifesto is complete. Please remember to put on your tin foil hat before reading or you may become infected by it.

Also, regarding a previous discussion, I did not mean to imply that government is all there is to consider. Family, friends, church and other individuals and groups are very important to our society.

The point I was trying to make was that when someone threatens you with force, you must either submit to them or fight. If you submit, then you've appointed them as Sheriff. If you fight, then you've appointed yourself.