I used to be a good little progressive. I was out stumping for the vote, actively pursuing participation by everyone, doing my best to get everyone to work for change. After the 2008 elections, I partied for Barack Obama, I cheered in the streets with millions, certain his election promises would be just what everyone had been waiting for. In spite of some obvious problems staring me right in the face, I believed.
It wasn’t long before my illusions firmly disintegrated. From minute one Obama began bargaining from the right of where most progressives wanted him to be and conceded from there. I joined my friends in making excuses, but finally decided the gig was up when he maintained the tax cuts for the rich and after months of half-assed “negotiating” on healthcare and maintenance of the war machine. I started looking back at his actions and at criticisms of him that I had ignored before the 2008 election. I discovered the “Change” advertising campaign had won awards for being just that, an ad campaign, a means to an end to sell us all on a system that works very well for the war machine and a small minority. Small epiphanies grew to major shifts in my thinking. Yes, there would be a few bones tossed our way in the guise of equal gender rights or legalized marijuana at the state level, but in many ways things were business as usual and worse. No bankers were jailed for causing the economy to collapse, and in fact the disparity between rich and poor grew and grew. Those who were part of the prior administration were appointed to the new one. The wars continued and expanded. Individual rights and freedoms continued to be challenged. The executive branch kept pushing for and getting more power. Corporations acted with impunity and were able to procure their exact desires after decisions like those in Citizens United.
What had changed though were the reactions of my friends and other “progressives” to these actions. Anything that under Bush would have resulted in apoplectic convulsions by my progressive friends resulted in…nothing. Instead of outrage and objection, they made excuses. Americans were murdered without due process and they shrugged. I published the names of foreign children murdered by American drones on social media and no one batted an eye and in fact, some criticized me for being too empathetic. Too bad—collateral damage. Environmental regulations were ignored or overturned and they blamed Republicans, the Tea Party, everything and anything but the Democrats and Obama himself.
On the other side, those I knew who had supported Bush reacted in rage and frustration when Obama did the exact same thing Bush had done, simply because he wasn’t the person they had chosen. They fixated on nonsense like Obama’s birth certificate or whether or not he was a Muslim in disguise while ignoring the fact he wasn’t much different than his predecessor. More and more I realized that not many seemed interested in what was really going on but in maintaining the polarization of the battle, ensuring that their team won and leaving it at that.
This frustrated me to no end, but in many ways it was the catalyst that shoved me out of the allegorical cave and into the cold, bright light of reality, and during the present election cycle, in spite of everything, I would rather be where I am than participating in the charade that is American “democracy.” I have always been a researcher, but in recent years my studies have taken me in new directions. I have found authors who describe succinctly and articulately what I have been feeling for some time. This has led to more discoveries on numerous views about civilization, and the earth and humanity’s place in it. I have gradually found myself so far out of that metaphorical cave that I can now barely participate in conversations on current events and our culture with most of my old friends. They cannot see where I am, and my unwillingness to vote usually draws the greatest ire, particularly with the possibility of Mr. Trump looming in the distance.
“How can you possibly give him the chance at the presidency?” someone will say to me, wringing their hands in desperation and fear. I shrug and tell them what I believe to be true: Mr. Trump has no chance of winning. He never did. He is a foil to drive the likes of you to the polls to ensure that you vote in order to maintain the legitimacy of this government so that it can continue what it has been doing and will do as long as you allow it by voting. Bernie Sanders wasn’t enough to get enough of you there. It took the likes of Trump to ensure those who would not have touched Hillary Clinton with a 100 foot pole will vote for her in November. He ensures your participation and consent.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that he does win? What then? I still think this is preferable to the mass complacency that is sure to ensue should Clinton become the next president. How many were murdered under Obama while America shopped and watched television, content in their way of life and certain that since we “elected” a black man and a woman, all must be well and good? How many patted themselves on the back for a black president while black citizens were assaulted and murdered in the street as the black president did virtually nothing? Regardless of which of them is appointed, I don’t believe that anything we do at the polls, except refusing to participate in this “democracy,” will do anything more than legitimize it.
So many have said to me that not voting is not going to change anything and that it is simply giving up. I disagree with this. Not voting is a legitimate non-violent means to proving a government is not sanctioned by its people. South Africa endured many years of violence under the Apartheid regime. Many people and countries worldwide boycotted Apartheid, yet in spite of this, the US government insisted on supporting Apartheid, saying that while the US abhorred Apartheid, the regime was the legitimate government of South Africa. After an Apartheid election where no more than seven percent of South Africans voted, suddenly things changed. The world could no longer accept that the regime was legitimate because so few of the governed participated in the election process. The ANC, which prior had been treated as a terrorist group trying to overthrow a legitimate government, became freedom fighters against a government that did not have the consent of the South African people.
In another example, in Cuba, Fidel Castro and his supporters hid out while the dictator Fulgencio Batista held an election (at the suggestion of the United States). Only ten percent of the population voted. Realizing he did not have the support of 90 percent of the governed, Batista fled. Castro, knowing he had the support of that 90 percent, proceeded to bring about a true revolution.
And in Haiti, when the US and US-sponsored regimes removed the most popular party from the ballot, in many places only three percent of the population voted. The US had to intervene militarily, kidnap Aristide, and withhold aid after the earthquake to continue to exert control in Haiti, but nobody familiar with the situation thought that the US-backed Haitian government had the consent of the governed or was legitimate.
It is a common argument by those who believe I should vote that not voting is doing nothing, yet I do not believe that this is true. It is withdrawing my sanction of people who can’t be held accountable after devastating the economy. It is refusal to consent to wars that have resulted in the murder of millions of innocents so that a few may profit. Voting in this country means that I am allowing the government on my behalf to operate for major corporations and the super wealthy, not individual citizens. I am not doing nothing in not voting, I am making an active choice to stop legitimizing our government. If I am doing something that is self-destructive or hurts others, I am going to stop doing it. Voting in this system is self-destructive and hurts others so I stopped doing it.
The argument that holds the least weight with me is that if I don’t vote, then only bad guys like Trump will win. When do the good guys ever win? I voted and Obama won. I could write ten pages describing all of the things that Obama has done that I find reprehensible, from murdering citizens without due process, to expanding the rights of Presidents to make it even easier to use lethal force abroad without congressional approval, to appointing officials who were part of the prior administration and helped to tank the economy.
The constitution was written to ensure that those who owned the country would always rule it. Popular vote can be (and is) overruled by the Electoral College, Congress, concession, or the Supreme Court. Even if we had accurate and verifiable vote counts, and everyone who could voted did vote, the Electoral College, Congress, and the Supreme Court have to agree with what the populace says (and the Supreme Court cannot be overruled by anyone so they really do have the final say). If the population doesn’t make the choice those in power want them to, they can make whatever choice they want through other means.
Saying that if I don’t vote only the bad guys wins to me is the same as the belief that voting for the lesser evil is not evil. I completely disagree. Voting for the lesser evil, someone like Hillary Clinton, who has a murderous record miles long is essentially sanctioning acts I find morally and legally reprehensible. My refusal to vote for her has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her policies. Voting for her is voting for a bad guy and voting for the war machine. Yes, Trump is despicable, but in many ways, I find Hillary Clinton even more so.
One guy I know told me that if I don’t vote, then I can’t complain about the ways things are. This is a pointless argument. Even if you vote, complaining does nothing. It has the effect of those online petitions where you feel like you did something useful, but really just did nothing at all and ensured that really nothing gets done. When successive administrations of both parties tell you that they will not allow public opinion to influence policy decisions, you can complain all you want and it won't do you any good. In addition, you don't need to vote to have the right to complain. The Declaration of Independence is a long list of complaints against a king by colonists who were not allowed to vote for him. The right to gripe is one of those unalienable rights that is not granted by governments or kings. If you're treated unjustly, you have the right to complain, but complaints are about as useful as votes in the United States. A lot of people who voted for Obama are now angry with his policies and are complaining loudly. He could not care less and his successor won’t either.
I do believe that if your vote counts, if you are a part of a true democracy, then yes, it is your responsibility to vote. If you don’t vote when your vote counts, then you must accept what comes. However, in the United States, our votes do not count. As has been reiterated several times here, it isn’t our votes that determine who wins but the Electoral College (and sometimes concession, and sometimes Congress, and sometimes the Supreme Court). There has been a great little video going around by JP Sears that describes in amusing detail how little our votes actually amount to anything and explaining the process of the Electoral College. Americans keep getting the message that their votes don’t count and they keep ignoring it. Look back at Bush v. Gore for the biggest example. Even the venerable old guard mainstream media mainstay The New York Times admits that it isn’t our votes that determine the winner, but the Electoral College.
When you have been told and told and told, over and over, since you are very young, as part of your earliest education and on into adulthood that you should do something like voting because it is your obligation, your right, and your necessity, it can be very difficult to accept that maybe what you have been taught is not what you should do. It becomes a conditioned response to believe that the way you were taught is the only way to be. I have had conversations on numerous occasions where the person I was talking to admitted that they agreed with every argument I had made, but that “it just feels wrong” to see not voting as a viable alternative. Basically what these people were feeling was a disconnection from their conditioning. This can be extremely difficult to overcome. Yet we do have the option to examine a choice and determine whether we agree with how we have been conditioned and see whether we are making a choice based on conditioning, or whether it is based on what we truly believe in. It is possible to ascertain whether your voting is truly your civic duty, or whether you are doing so because you have been told that it is.
In a truly democratic form of government, your vote is speaking for what you believe in. In direct and participatory forms of democratic government, the citizens vote on budgets, wars, and other major issues. Doing so is a citizen’s means of participation and having a “voice.”
The United States is a “representative” government, which means that there is a middle man. People vote for representatives who may or may not act upon their interests. These representatives cannot be directly held responsible by those who elect them during their term in office. If someone has been elected and they kill millions in a war based on lies, destroy the economy, remove your civil rights, ignore or destroy the environment, and act in their own self interests rather than the interests of those they theoretically represent, it is a little late at the end of their tenure to alter the damage that has been done. Your vote was not your voice, but your voice hoping that the person you chose would act in your interests. And since the president and Supreme Court aren’t actually chosen by the citizenry, they aren’t the citizens’ representatives, so your vote is utterly meaningless as far as they are concerned. They are not representative of your voice.
The same guy who told me that if I don’t vote I can’t complain also told me that if I don’t vote, the result will be that the minority fringe will run the country. Assuming what we have isn’t a minority fringe lunacy, the fringe lunatics represent a very small minority. Presuming the world would react as it did with the Apartheid regime, Cuba’s Batista, and the government in Haiti, if turnout in the US elections were under 10% and produced a government run by the minority fringe, it is unlikely they would be taken seriously by legitimate governments.
It is not apathetic to choose not to vote; choosing not to participate in a system that protects a very few and commits horrendous crimes against nations it is conquered (and even those it hasn’t) does not constitute apathy. Voting when your vote isn’t counted so that you can feel like you have done your civic duty, and then ignoring or wringing your hands about what is being done in your theoretical name is truly apathetic. When you vote you are granting your consent of those governing you. That's what voting is all about. If you knowingly vote for people you can't hold accountable, it means that you don't really care what they do once they're in office; all you care about is your right to vote, not whether or not you will actually be represented or if the government will secure your rights. THAT is apathy.
Prior to the 2008 election, Obama had already joined McCain in supporting the bank bailouts that most people opposed. He had expressed his intention to expand the war in Afghanistan. Yet peace activists and progressives (including me) voted for him anyway. In 2012, after Obama created the healthcare law that protected the profits of insurance companies and lined tax coffers, had continued the unnecessary tax cuts for the wealthy, had expanded executive power, was killing citizens without due process, hadn’t closed Guantanamo, and on and on, progressives (not including me) still voted for him. That is apathy. Even worse, it sanctions such actions. There is no integrity in voting just because you have the right to do so.
When you participate in the process by voting even when your vote doesn’t count, even if you’re choosing a third party candidate, writing in “None of the Above,” or “Bugs Bunny,” or anything else, you’re sanctioning the process. You’re telling the world that the process itself matters even if your voice does not. If there is 50 percent voter turnout, it means that at least half of the populace believes in the process, consents to the system, and legitimizes it. The Department of Homeland Security (under the authority that voters delegated to the government when they voted) purchased 450 million rounds of hollow-point ammunition that cannot by law be used in combat and therefore can only be used against US citizens. Citizen ballots authorized those bullets. Do you want to sanction this? Because when you vote, you do.
Choosing not to vote is not actively fighting, but withholding consent. This has the result of delegitimizing a government that does not represent your interests. It demonstrates that this government does not have the consent of the governed. It is a legal, non-violent, effective means of non-compliance. Non-compliance can take other forms such as not paying taxes (illegal) or creating alternative systems, but these do not delegitimize the government. Since governments derive their powers from consent of the governed, withholding consent is the only non-violent, legal means to delegitimize a government that fails to represent us.
Some would argue that because powerful people who only act in their own interests spend a fortune on voter suppression, so voting must be worth something. While corporations spend millions of dollars pushing through ID laws and other voter suppression legislation, they spend billions funding “get out the vote” campaigns for the major political parties so they can claim the consent of the governed for their political puppets. If they didn't want people to vote, those proportions would be reversed and they would be spending more suppressing the vote than getting out the vote. Voter suppression efforts are aimed at trying to get us to believe that just because somebody is trying to take their vote away, our uncounted, unverifiable votes for oligarchs who won't represent us must be valuable.
More than any other argument given to me as why I should vote is the contention that “people have fought and died for the right to vote,” so the vote must be valuable, yet no one fought and died for an uncounted vote. They fought and died to be a part of the process, to be considered worthy of participation. From the beginning it was recognized that voting meant participation. It meant that someone could make a choice rather than having that choice foisted upon them. Being left out meant that one was not worthy of participation, that they could be governed without their consent whether they liked it or not. They fought and died for the right to participate in the governance and to choose whether or not to consent.
Being left out of even making a choice is quite different from having the ability to make a choice and actively withholding it. In choosing not to vote, I recognize my right to participate, and I’m grateful for the women who fought for that right as a woman. However, my not voting is choosing not to consent to more of the same. It is letting the world know that I do not agree or consent to the actions of my government.
(The ideas for not voting are not my own. I had decided not to vote because I knew my vote meant nothing, but the concept of the vote as consent came from the work of Mark Smith. It is with his consent that I publish this essay, and I give him credit for the origin of this concept.)