On Voting

November 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Will we put ourselves through this every four years, the anguish?  Study the policies or not, watch the debates or not, the outcome is the same: you vote for the one you’re least terrified of. The rest is just to argue with your family members and other imaginary opponents, or, more likely, to justify your vote to yourself as if it were the result of an actual choice. Not to mention the question of whether to vote at all, or ‘throw away’ your vote on a third party candidate in order to ‘vote with your conscience.’ In all these (and other) ways, we are led to transmute our subjection into ethical crisis. Of course there is much more to do politically than vote (and this fact often serves as additional justification for voting decisions), but I want, however belatedly, to concentrate on the presidential vote, and what it means, or might mean, in the America of today.

The other night I had a conversation with a group of poets. For the most part they talked about poetry and I listened, not really understanding what poets mean when they talk about poetry. When the more prosaic subject of the election came up, the focus was on language, on the seductive power of Obama’s rhetoric. As is true of all power, this is indeed fascinating. Interesting things were said about it. There probably would have been more if I hadn’t been such a buzzkill. “The trick,” I said, “is just not to watch.” Stop paying attention. Or if you must, read, don’t listen. With that out of the way, all the less interesting explanations and justifications came out: yes I know this vote doesn’t matter all that much, but; the vote matters a lot for women; the vote matters a lot for health care even though Obamacare is a Romney-inspired corporate giveaway; a Romney presidency would just be so, so awful. I didn’t get “I will vote for the lesser evil and be an activist” but I’m sure someone was thinking it — a few might even practice it. I want to affirm my sympathy for all these points of view, all of which reduce to the same, that of the mature, disenchanted voter. I agree that it is mature. I believe, too, that we are rational even as we are being seduced, and seduced even as we are being threatened.

But there are two things voting is not. It isn’t about maintaining a status quo, whether the white supremacist and misogynist Republican version or the Democrats’ rearguard conservation of the welfare state. Both are populist sops for their target audiences, nostalgic fantasies, and I think that’s true even if individual politicians truly believe their own rhetoric. They’re meant to pacify voters while both parties work together to advance the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a postnational ruling elite while immiserating and destroying most of the planet. The difference being that it’s easier to deliver on Republican promises while continuing this drive into an apocalyptic future than it is to deliver on Democratic ones, no matter how full of escape clauses they always are. This is the sense in which Republican fantasies are more realistic, despite all their frightening absurdities; the Democratic ideology is only more realistic in a politically utopian world that bears no relation to the existing balance of power.

The other thing voting is not, so long as we limit ourselves to voting for a mainstream presidential candidate, is political. If any definition of the political has to center on agency, as I think it must, in what sense could voting in a race artificially constrained to two candidates with only a few significant policy differences, in which only 5 or so swing states actually count for anything, be construed as political? A vote for Obama or Romney has vanishingly little role in determining the political orientation of the country; it might, at best, sustain our privileges in the short-term present, privileges which are won through ever-escalating American rapacity at home and abroad (the best progressive case against Obama that I’ve seen can be found here). What is tirelessly marketed to us as the most representative political act, whether we actually vote or not, is in fact an enforced exercise in lifeboat ethics. As voters on November 6th, our role as imperial functionaries is far more consequential than our vestigial identity as enfranchised citizens. The importance of our obedience, of continuing to legitimate the current radical trajectory the United States is taking, should not be underestimated.

The closest thing to a genuinely political vote for president available to us is an organized third party campaign (watch debates here). Obviously they have no chance of winning, but this would be the one official way to register our desire for a major shift in American policy. Taking this step (a tiny one, as defenders of lesser-evilism agree, but a step nonetheless), of course, involves the risk that your friends hold you responsible for the greater evil. To take what for me is one of the few truly compelling examples, if Romney wins, Planned Parenthood will probably take a funding hit, and American women of all classes will suffer. I consider it a fallacy to equate the forced choice between two professional actors with personal responsibility for their future actions, and the actual risks we run as voters to be primarily those of individual reputation and private conscience. At the same time, I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s real fears about the reactionary measures either candidate might take while in office. But in any case, if we can’t look the assholes in the eye and not blink, whether in the voting booth or on the street, then we can’t have democracy. And if we can’t start thinking realistically about our country’s future, we probably won’t have a part in it.

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