Representative democracy is not ideal. The Electoral College is faulty. The two party system stymies political innovation. Both Republicans and Democrats cozy up with dubious sources of funding. You are right to condemn the disingenuousness of politics— the unremitting hedging and double-talk, the pandering and outright silliness of both parties. You are wrong to believe that participation in electoral democracy legitimizes a hopelessly flawed system. Despite everything, voting remains the most powerful non-violent method of effective political action.
Voters elect the president. The president appoints Supreme Court justices and a host of other judges. Voters elect state and national representatives. These people work in concert (or conflict), with or without your permission, to arbitrate legal reality. Whether you like it or not, we are all subjects to their decisions. To say otherwise is foolish. To say that Democrats and Republicans pursue comparable domestic policies is a departure from reason. To say elections don’t affect you is, at best, to delude yourself. At worst, it disavows other people’s civil rights and empowers the most reactionary and destructive forces in our society.
Which political party advances women’s and minorities’ rights, gay rights, the rights of the poor, and sounder drug and environmental policies? In general, who does more of that, Democrats or Republicans? In the broadest strokes possible, which of these parties and their judicial appointees will enact and uphold laws to improve and protect the lives of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised citizens?
Your abstention facilitates Republican victories. I understand that you abstainers have personal convictions that make it difficult for you to vote for the Democrats. You certainly have a right to your conscience. Indeed, individual rights and freedoms are a cornerstone of our democracy. However, you take these precepts too far by elevating your desire to simply express them (by not voting) over seeking their full realization for all Americans. In other words, expressing your conscience comes at the expense of women’s access to safe, effective family planning services. Your conscience gets in the way of equal marriage rights for all. Your conscience has far less to struggle with than single mothers denied vital social services by Republican policies. Your conscience is of no avail to citizens imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. Your conscience is merely self-righteous.
Self-righteousness disguised as conscience or personal conviction is the worst kind of American individualism. There are convictions and then there is trenchant unwillingness to acknowledge any reality beyond the frontiers of your own experience or circumstance. That is solipsism, not a conviction. Citizens of a democracy have a responsibility to share struggles that are not their own. This admonishment applies equally to those of you who would “vote your conscience” by supporting unelectable independents. Until you have succeeded in implementing instant run-off voting in your community, or unless this nation becomes a parliamentary democracy, someone will be elected and it won’t be your candidate. Compromise is the reality of politics, except in totalitarian states.
Progressive and radical citizens who refuse to compromise elicit comparison with the Tea Party and their debt-limit intransigence last year. Their refusal exemplifies the most anti-intellectual strain of American politics. But to say that I am arguing for all of us on the left to fall in with a party line is to utterly miss the point: we need votes not for the sake of Obama and the Democrats but for the sake of the most vulnerable people— women, children and the elderly—who will benefit from their policies.
Voters defer to reality. We shape it. We criticize and castigate. We honor those who are maimed and killed fighting for this right. We remember that not so long ago women and African-Americans in this country struggled in this way. Nonvoters must certainly remember such history as well. Perhaps today’s struggles seem less dire. Perhaps current candidates fail to excite you.
Make no mistake, the Democrats may be nothing to get excited about this year. Who cares if you’re excited? Your excitement is of great concern to no one (except possibly to you, which in itself is a luxury). The unemployed, the marginalized and unprivileged know that reality dictates acting for reasons other than excitement. Least-worst choices are all we have for the moment. There is no time to transform America during a presidential election. To say it another way, there is no time to re-make America in your own image this year. That’s what every other year is for. Realistically, though, all I hope for is a defense and perhaps a gradual advance of progressive domestic policy. It seems that only non-voters have lower aspirations.
Indeed, what are the politics of inaction? What do you hope to rectify with your power of inertia? What is the message of civil discourse that says nothing at the national level? Before you opt out, think about what’s at stake. And remember your awesome power: nonvoters make up a greater part of the potential electorate than either Democrats or Republicans and almost as much as both of them combined. If you persist in your abstention, you persist in subservience to a ruling elite: voters.