Don’t Vote   1 comment

Get out the vote.  Rock the vote.  Jay Z wants you to do it.  Errol Morris does too.

This is as close as America comes to having a broad and active civic culture.  Moving money is how we primarily express engagement in our communities, with charity concerts and commercials and ads giving a number to text to give a quick couple of bucks.  The news does its part by treating a billionaire showering tax-exempt gold on some project as the most involved anyone can ever hope to become with the people around them.  Even coverage of the most public and explicitly political causes, like the campaign for gay marriage rights, breathlessly tracks the movement of money while ignoring the details of the hard work and volunteer time that go in to them.

But come that sacred Sunday once every four years, ahh, everyone is recognized as having a solemn responsibility, as a citizen, to have their input into the process.  Fliers go up, signs sprout, ads from the campaigns and interest groups and corporations echo through the crisp fall air, everyone with a modicum of celebrity urges everyone who can hear them to do their part.

It’s bullshit.

Voting is the mechanism by which leaders are chosen, but as a way to express preferences for political issues it is completely inadequate.  Does a vote for Romney indicate support for lower tax rates?  Or a balanced budget?  Or a larger military?  Which one of those issues is going to be dropped when push comes to shove and they can’t all be achieved?  To say nothing of the many issues that the two parties agree on that a majority of Americans do not – nationalized health care, environmental protection, financial regulation, etc. – that voting cannot signal a preference one way or another.

Voting is less than useless at trying to control the political process.  Is a Grand Bargain which lowers the deficit by cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare more likely to happen under an Obama or Romney presidency?  Romney probably wants it more, but will be more constrained by public opinion since it re-enforces the notion of Republicans being heartless businessmen, but he’ll probably be more likely to work with the Republican House of Representatives, but he’ll be more likely to be driven to an extreme position by those same people . . . on and on and on.

As a way to influence the political decisions that get made, voting just doesn’t work, while it is universally treated as both the single occasion to think like a citizen and the single responsibility a citizen has to influence those decisions.  This deification of the voting process has interwoven itself into the American national myths.  America!  Founded on the premise that everyone should have a say in the governance of their lives, the noble experiment of self-governance, and the mere act of voting is enough to fulfill that ideal.  Instead, like so much else, in excessively fetishing an act we cause it to betray what we want it to uphold.  For self-governance to work ordinary citizens have to attend county-level party meetings, bitch to their representatives, to contribute time and effort to working with special interest groups, to contribute and raise money.  Voting is the most tenuous and inconsequential act of political participation, the most ineffective, the most worthless.  And yet it’s the only thing that gets talked about.

This massive cognitive dissonance shows up elsewhere, of course.  If indeed voting is something that is so sacred and so heavy a responsibility, why. the. living. fuck. aren’t Republican efforts at voter intimidation and restricting ballots and outright fraud more of a media story?  If the national myths about voting are true then attempts to interfere with it should be treated as a disgrace, as near-treasonous, or at least as something akin to shooting a bald eagle or burning books or other fundamentally un-American activities.  And yet, no, it’s just another “both sides do it” story that gets mentioned in the c-block after the latest tech stock news, if at all.  The careerist ambitions of people causing them to sacrifice accuracy and honesty in an effort to not rock the boat are definitely at work here, as they are in every other facet of national news media, but there’s also something else.

The national myths of voting are hollow and unserious, but they keep getting re-enforced through a complex web of interlocking interests and tendencies.  The campaigns themselves pump out metric tons of GOTV ads, many of which are dripping with guilt and civic responsibility.  (If not more . . . turgid . . . methods.)  Corporations, other groups and celebrities are guaranteed to at least get a jolt of public awareness as they try to bathe themselves in the backwash of civic responsibility with GOTV efforts.  But there are more subtle and abstract reasons, too.  The same trends which have atomized American culture into a frenzied rush of consumer choices and caused community engagement to atrophy are at work here, too; fetishizing voting is all that’s left, really, of a broad national sense of civic participation.  For people hoping to revive that spirit, or who just want to at least experience it, it’s probably the only game in town.  There’s a psychological factor there, of feeling good about participating in massive public civic functions that only voting can now provide, but also less noble motivations: feeling superior, shaming outsiders, etc.

The conspiracy-inclined might find that a public ginned to civic frenzy around the most vague, abstract and inconsequential political act and ignorant about the real ways to influence the political process suits the powers-that-be just fine, they can go around structuring things to their overwhelming advantage and marking the bounds of the politically possible all they want without much of a bother from the sleeping masses, all while presenting the illusion that they are actually controlling things, almost couldn’t draw up a better system . . . but we needn’t dwell on that here.

It’s understandable that the national hysteria around the act of voting exists.  But for fuck’s sake don’t buy into it.  Go out and vote, but do it with clear eyes and a full heart, as Mitt Romney would say, with full knowledge of what you’re doing.  Then after the election start actually engaging with the political process.

Posted November 1, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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  1. Pingback: It’s a Great Day For America, Everybody! « The Ann Arbor Review of Books

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