Thursday, September 27, 2012

Not voting

In a break from all-Occupy posting, I thought I'd address a recent discussion about whether people on the left should or shouldn't vote for Obama as the lesser evil, which started with Conor Friedersdorf writing in The Atlantic here, and continued with Henry Farrell, Jim Henley, Scott Lemieux, a link back to Daniel Davies, etc etc. And for an extra-special bonus,the comment thread on one of those posts has Walt going off on the vapidity of Le Guin's Omelas story.

Many good points were made in the course of this discussion. Yes, Obama's record of killing people is horrible. Yes, it's easy to reject Obama if you're a conservative who doesn't value social insurance anyways. Yes, it's a form of privilege to be able to not care about how much differentially worse Romney would be for people of color. But Henry Farrell's first post footnotes that it's abstracting away whether a single vote makes a difference in any case, and that's where the whole thing goes wrong.

Voting, outside those few and limited geographic areas in which your vote may actually matter, is primarily social signaling. No one doubts that just sleeping through election day because you don't care is being apathetic. But the people who don't vote and say that they're not voting are signaling something else, that they believe that the system has failed.

People all over the area where I live are talking about politics right now. I always have to drop in something like "I'm an anarchist, and I'm not voting because I think that people shouldn't support the American state." This makes me a jerk, especially when I say it to my daughter's third grade teacher who is teaching civics. But although it has almost no effect at all, it still has more actual effect than my going quietly to the voting booth and pulling the lever for Obama would have. Of course, I do some forms of political activism other than just talking to people as well, although they really have little more effect than this kind of thing does.

People on the left who don't vote and who say so are doing something. They are telling other people on the left that the system isn't working well enough. Not just the system of the corporations and the buffoonishly Randian right-wingers, who serve as easy targets for left-wing mockery. But the Democratic Party in America and whatever other supposedly left-of-center organizations still exist. The threat of exit may cause the people who run those things to eventually take notice.

And the question of what would happen if people on the left generally did as I did is nonsensical. If half of America believed what I do, the state would not exist in its current form. If just Democratic Party activists believed as I did, a candidate would have been chosen in the primary -- I don't know who, it would have been someone who is presently invisible -- who would not be blazing new trails in legal assassination. People don't believe as I do, and people in general don't believe as any of the people in this discussion do. The number of people who actually care about Obama's war and civil rights record is a tiny minority.

So we might as well act as a tiny minority, and not have discussions as if we were of any direct importance within electoral politics. Honesty is freeing. If I thought that my vote would actually affect the outcome, I would have to dutifully pull the lever for Obama, because yes Romney would be worse. But no one is going to be hurt whether we vote or don't vote, so any of us might as well loudly decline to if that's what they think is best.


  1. If half of America believed what I do, the state would not exist in its current form.

    They might well: voter turnout in presidential elections has been only a bit more than half the eligible population for years now. It kind of dilutes the effect of not voting when you realize that most of those non-voters are pretty poorly informed on issues and could well decide to vote anyway.

    Seriously, though I can see that from the perspective of an actual anarchist like yourself that statist corporate candidates are hard to distinguish, but unless you believe in a "heighten the contradictions" model of change, there's still more value in a stronger liberal movement for you than in a rising tide of Republicanism.

    But then, I'm of the opinion that citizenship carries obligations, which makes me weird.

  2. God I fucking hate that story. It the same genre of outrageous authorial fiat as the "torture to stop a ticking nuclear bomb" scenario beloved of torture defenders. What if we don't abuse that child, then every other child in Omelas will have its brain devoured by worms? And what if the child is actually Hitler, who had his brain transplanted into a small child's body? What if?

  3. I basically agree, Walt, although I'd put more of the emphasis on the cheap reader identification with the brave people doing nothing than on the thought-experiment quality itself. I don't think it's the stupidest story ever -- people remember and react to it, which has to count for something -- but I think that Le Guin was trying to write about something important and failing badly. More at the older blog post that I linked to above if anyone cares.

    Thanks for your comment, Ahist, but I think you're misinterpreted what I wrote. I didn't mean that the candidates are hard to distinguish. On the contrary, I wrote that if I thought my vote would make a difference in who won, I'd feel obligated to vote for Obama. But since my vote will in fact make no difference, I should point out that not voting does not equate to doing nothing. Scott Lemieux is badly wrong about most of this, I think. If you agree that an individual vote is meaningless in terms of electoral outcomes, and that even if all of the people who broadly agreed with you voted as a bloc that would be meaningless, then talking to people can't be of moral significance if you do it in favor of this symbolic act and self-indulgent posturing if you do it against.

  4. Consequentialism is a great tool for sadistic, manipulative bullies. You just work people into a position where they don't like any of the possibilities, and then tell them that they MUST choose one of them, the lesser evil (which often enough is to you a positive good).

    What I'm finding is that no one cares about my single vote, and not merely because in Oregon it will be inconsequential. What they care about is my public stance. They don't want me to discourage others, and they don't want me to badmouth Obama, and by and large they want me to publicly affiliate with whichever particular instantiation of lesser-evilism that they're selling. A trip to the ballot box to silently vote for Obama would not make them happy.

    But we're really both arguing about the same thing. The public affiliation is what I object to. I can easily-enough do the consequentialist thing and silently cast my vote without affiliating or taking a public stance. But consequentialist voting is not really what they're asking for, it's the affiliation and identification.

    Or you could say that there are consequences of two kinds here, one of them the consequence of the vote and the other the consequence of the public stance. But the latter, besides having public consequences, also has a private consequence: it colors my whole life, and my life is the only thing I have.

    The assumption is that the public consequence of my voting and my public stance is the only thing that is important, and that the private consequence -- the way it colors my whole life, who I am, and how people know me -- is really nothing, so it's selfish of me even to think about it at all. Yet the private consequences are the only ones that I can ever be at all sure of; the public consequences of my vote and my stance are vanishingly tiny, to a considerable degree unpredictable, and quite possibly unknowable even after the fact.

  5. Quibbling philosophically: my private (secret) vote has a public consequence (effect on the election). My public stance has a public consequence (encouraging or discouraging other voters) and also a personal consequence, coloring my whole life, who I am, and how people know me. The personal consequence of my public stance is both private and public, defining the way my real private self is integrated into the public community.

    And to have any concern at all with the personal consequence is ridiculed as the search for personal purity.

    You really have to have some threshold beyond which you will not go, and this threshold varies from person to person. Most lesser-evilists deny that this threshold should exist at all.

  6. Thanks, John. What became clearer to me, reading through this latest iteration of this 4-yearly argument, is that no one really cares about the public consequences. Or rather, perhaps they do, but it's rather like caring about whether an asteroid is going to hit the Earth. No one in this discussion can actually do anything that will have a reliable and effective public consequence. So the people most strenuously arguing that others must vote for the lesser evil are really grasping for what you call a private consequence -- trying to define who they are and how people know them. I don't see anything wrong with this per se (although I'd prefer that they didn't want to define themselves via scolding). But until someone can come up with a mechanism for action, it does leave the lesser-evilists and the objectors is a very symmetrical situation. And the lesser-evilists don't seem to be very conscious of this.

  7. It's funny that Naderites have been punished, not by being expelled from the party, but by being told in the most insulting language that they MUST STAY IN THE PARTY. I occasionally point out the problem with this to Democratic hacks, and they accuse me of being too emotional and thinking only about my FEEEEELINGS like a girly sissy.