Lately many people I love and admire have said either, 1) They refuse to vote, or 2) They have decided to vote for a 3rd Party candidate. Let me first discuss the issue of voting. The rationale for refusing to vote, is that “voting doesn’t matter” as expressed by the Facebook meme “If voting made a difference, it would be illegal”. While I am sympathetic to the frustration and disillusionment with the system as articulated (Citizens United, etc), I would like to offer evidence that voting does matter precisely because Republicans are going out of their way (and have been for many years) to make voting illegal. The recent Voter ID laws are simply the latest in a string of tactics designed to disenfranchise voters. In addition to more overt attempts to marginalize voters, we’ve seen some of the same disinformation and threatening tactics used in the past, resurface in Wisconsin. Recent examples in Ohio include attempts to curtail early voting, which was thankfully overturned. We have seen ‘creative’ tactics used in “swing” states to suppress the vote. For instance, mailers sent to voters that usually vote Democrat, that have the wrong voting date or polling place. These and the billboards in Milwaukee are just the latest, in efforts sustained over decades, schemes to keep folks away from the polls. Not to mention those disenfranchised by virtue of their criminal history.
It is hard to believe that “voting doesn’t make a difference” with so much money and effort being spent to disenfranchise voters. With such abysmal voter participation rates already (Presidential elections see the most voter turnout, with the 2008 election being decided by 56.8 of the electorate, while only 37.8 voted in the midterm election of 2010), someone(s) must think it is worthwhile to further discourage voting among target populations. Perhaps voting would make even more of a difference if more people voted, not less.
Bear with me, discussing the 3rd Party vote promises to be a bit more long-winded. The reasons most often expressed for voting 3rd party include, 1) “I cannot in good conscience vote for the lesser of 2 evils” and 2) “Until things get really bad, no one will wake up”. Let me preface my comments by saying I think a viable third party would be just grand. In fact, I would love to see even more viable parties. However, we work with what we’ve got. Let me also suggest, that I am just about as idealistic as one can be. My research, activism and teaching reflect my ideals. I make no claims to being neutral, because as Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”. I long for a just world. I believe it is possible. I believe it will take a lot of work and I’m willing to engage in that work. Most of my friends could say the same, because I have great friends.
“I can’t in good conscience vote for the lesser of two evils”. Let’s discuss this one first, because I think it is so illogical. There are two important pieces to this statement, the part about conscience and the bit about the lesser of two evils. They overlap of course, but I want to tease them apart a bit. I think most folks acknowledge that the two presidential candidates are quite different. Romney wants to move the neoliberal project along as quickly as possible by privatizing everything- in other words, profit over people. He has made this crystal clear. He doesn’t care about 47% of the population-they are disposable. He wants to rip up the last shreds of the social compact. He will repeal “Obamacare” if given half a chance. He wants to wrest from the earth every last drop of profit, climate change be damned.
Obama is no progressive, but his vision is fundamentally different. He actually acknowledges climate change. He is the first president to be able to get some sort of health care reform passed, no mean feat in this political climate. Some folks suggest he used all his political capital on this venture and that it was a waste, since we didn’t get universal healthcare. Those in need of health care, that are now gaining coverage, probably think differently. Obama assumes that government plays a role in protecting its citizens, not just through the military (I know, this one is a sore spot-I hate drones), but also through social welfare programs and education. I am suggesting that there are many ways in which he falls short of what I would describe as progressive, but he is most definitely the lesser of two evils. I think all of us who would describe ourselves as some sort of left of center are in agreement on this point. So my real confusion with this statement, “ I can’t in good conscience vote for the lesser of two evils”, is that knowing that one candidate is “less evil” than another, we can somehow describe this as a calculation based upon good conscience. Particularly, when any alternative candidate that might be more closely aligned with our ideals and goals has no hope of being elected? How is that really different from voting for the greater evil or not voting at all? Wallerstein (2004) conceptualizes voting as defensive action, because “The world’s populations live in the present and their immediate needs have to be addressed” (p. 272). But, he reminds us, we don’t engage in electoral action to prop up the existing system, “but rather of preventing its negative effects from getting worse in the short run” (p. 272). We can hold a different vision for the world and still vote for “less evil”.
This brings me to the final point. “Until things get really bad, no one will wake up”. This argument, this one, makes me splutter in indignation. I wonder whom “we” mean when we say things have to get bad. Get bad for whom? Whose son or daughter? Whose parents? Things are already pretty bad for too many people. There seems to be this desire to rush the “revolution” through human misery (see, http://revs4romney.org/, for instance). Really? How is this different from Right wing propaganda suggesting we all take our lumps for the good of the market? Sure, they argue, some folks will have to tighten their belts, but that’s the price of progress (remember the applause for, “some will die”?). In other words, how are we any different from the ‘other’ side if we make this sort of argument? The hard-line adherence to a radical philosophy is one of the critiques of the Occupy movement I find relevant to this discussion. Journalists, primarily, have criticized the OWS movement for being too theoretical, or too ideologically rigid, for caring more for theory than for people, for eschewing praxis in service to process. It is certainly worth consideration in relation to voting or voting third party.
So here is where I lose my radical credentials, I suppose. Letting my emotions get the best of me (Because of course emotion is bad/feminine, and rationality is good/manly). However, I am not willing to sacrifice my brothers and sisters to any cause, with the knowledge that is exactly what I would be doing! Chomsky argues, for the same reasons as Wallerstein, that if we live in a swing state, we should vote for Obama.
In a recent interview, Cornell West argues similarly, despite his repeated and pointed critiques of the Obama administration, “We have to prevent a Romney takeover of the White House. No doubt about that. It would be very dangerous in terms of actual lives and actual deaths of the elderly and the poor. Those people who are dependent on various programs would have to deal with the ugly damage of the further redistribution of wealth from the poor and working people to the well off” [emphasis added]. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. I must, in good conscience vote for the lesser of two evils.
Voting matters. Voting, while not direct action, is defensive action. Voting is an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a sort of praxis. Voting is not where it ends, however. Voting in and of itself is not enough. To have a true democracy, we must work, shift, push, from outside the system as well, toward the world we would like to see (A third party, economic democracy, etc.) These scholar/activists also make this clear. Voting is but a beginning. But it is a beginning.