"If you don't vote, then you can't complain." So goes a refrain that is reflexively regurgitated to anyone who questions the efficacy of voting. Generally it's accompanied by a smug look, indicating that in their eyes you're hopelessly out of touch with reality. But after cutting through the hype, are elections really worth the enormous amount of attention, energy and money they consume?
In explaining why he stayed home on election day, comedian George Carlin flipped this dictum on its head. "I believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain," he argued. "If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent people, and they get into office and screw everything up, well you are responsible for what they have done. You caused the problem. You voted them in. You have no right to complain."
And Carlin wasn't merely directing his ire towards Republicans. "This country was bought and sold and paid for a long time ago," he acknowledged with disgust. "The shit they shuffle around every four years doesn't mean a fucking thing."
That may be a bit overstated, but the idea that pulling a lever every few years is actually going to bring about real change is delusional. How exactly is this supposed to happen, when the corporate media and wealthy campaign contributors filter out any candidate who may rock the boat long before the public is ever asked for its opinion? Just look at what has become of Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards for challenging the status quo. Despite espousing views on numerous issues that polls show are far more in line with public sentiment than either major party candidate, they are branded as out of touch. The media ridicules -- or more often, simply excludes and ignores -- them until they are forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.
In contrast, Barack Obama has made it clear that he would not ruffle any feathers. To take just one example of his orthodoxy, when asked September 7, on ABC's "This Week" which issues he would break with his own party on, he replied, "I've said that we need to increase the size of our military." Apart from the fact that cutting military spending isn't even a position held by his party, Obama's response implicitly approves of the Pentagon's already enormous baseline budget, which has increased by more than 60 percent since 2001, not including the more than $800 billion that has been wasted on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, he could slash $200 billion a year from the Department of Defense and it would merely bring military spending back to where it was under the Clinton Administration. Moreover, such a belligerent position is not even in line with public opinion, as a recent poll showed that 43 percent of Americans thought we spent "too much" on the military, while only 20 percent said "too little."
Thus, while the predictable drama around the nefarious schemes used to exclude voters unfolds, few note that the system was effectively rigged from the start. No matter who wins, a friend of the corporate interests that actually run this country will be installed in the White House. And everyday folks will once again be fleeced by an election -- and a political system -- that remains little more than theater.
So, if not voting, then what? Hinting at the answer to this conundrum, Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience: "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority."
Granted, some actively push for the policies that they believe in year-round in addition to casting their ballots. But for most Americans, voting constitutes their sole act of civil engagement. Looked at in this light, going to the polls on November 4, is the absolute least you can do for something you believe in. It is a cop-out. By voting only once every four years, people put hope in someone else to bring about "change" that, in reality, only the people themselves - through continuous organizing, direct action and personal sacrifice - can make happen.
As radical historian Howard Zinn explains, "Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war."
And the truly existential threats that humanity must confront today are arguably only more trying than those faced by previous generations. Climate change, nuclear proliferation and corporate power run amuck will not be stopped with just a vote. There is no easy panacea for our predicament. If we are to have any hope of salvaging the world for our children, we must put our bodies on the line and radically change the way we live to an extent that most people have never considered.
Perhaps we could learn what such a life might look like from Ammon Hennacy, the steadfast anarchist, pacifist and member of the Catholic Worker. From refusing military service in both World Wars to fasting for up to 45 days against the execution of prisoners in Utah, he led an exemplary life of nonviolent resistance to the injustices of his day. Despite abstaining from elections, Ammon saw his body as his ballot. "Cast that body ballot on behalf of the people around you every day of your life, every day," he argued. "And don't let anybody ever tell you you haven't voted."
Eric Stoner is a writer based in New York, whose articles have appeared in The Nation. He can be reached at: email@example.com.