He wrote it five years ago, and it’s still worth thinking about today:
Vote or Die
23 October 1999 — On American politics, the social contract, and why not voting is a civic cowardice
Make no mistake. No matter who we elect next year, they will at some point disappoint us, disillusion us, or even betray us. This is the context in which we must face our decision. This is where American politics stands today.
But to not make a decision at all is the height of civic cowardice. Don’t misunderstand — there are sincere and principled reasons (both conscious and not) for staying away from the polls altogether. There are serious and compelling reasons to distance or even entirely separate ourselves from the American political process.
So why not do precisely that? Because it is ultimately self-destructive to do so.
No, listen, what happened was this: they lied to you, sold you on the idea that it isn’t our current brand of politics that’s battered and broken and useless, but politics itself. They took advantage of all that’s wrong with American politics today and helped you to believe that the very idea of politics is a sham.
They don’t want you to vote. It greatly simplifies things for them. As the percentage of potential voters who actually participate shrinks dramatically, those who remain are those strong only with money or ideology. And having to respond solely to large sums of cash or simplistic doctrine is far, far easier than trying to truly serve the people’s varied and complicated interests.
So they help you to believe that there is no point.
And all that does is allow Money and Ideology to use American politics for their own interests, instead of ours.
But what is American politics really? It is the process by which the People breathe life into these words:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
There are some keywords and phrases in this, the Preamble1 to our Constitution, that need to be kept firmly in sight whenever we get down to making political decisions as citizens: union, justice, tranquility, common defense, general welfare, liberty, posterity.
[Note to libertarians:2 The Preamble explicitly suggests that government exists to actively secure and protect, via a social contract amongst all Americans, our liberty and our security -- not to get out of the way and let private interests run roughshod over the social, political, and natural environments of the nation.]
So as we race headlong into the latest Presidential election cycle, we must ask ourselves first off which of the available candidates best reflects the aspirations of the Preamble, of those keywords, of our social contract?
In fact, pretend you have a few minutes with each candidate. The short route to beginning to get a sense of where he or she stands? Ask them this simple, six-part question:
What will you do to: form a more perfect union; establish justice; insure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?
Imagine, if you can, their replies (if they’re able to get past their shock over an American citizen actually throwing the text and meaning of the Preamble at them).
Or don’t imagine. Just pay attention. At this point in history, there is surely no shortage of information or ways in which to obtain it. With whatever spare moments you have to put to work on the task, pay attention to what the candidates say, about any issue at all, and see how their statements do or do not answer the above six-part question.
Forget, to begin with, whether the candidate in question matches your party affiliation, or whether you happen to agree with his or her positions. Focus at the outset just on finding the correlation, or lack thereof, between their statements and the six-part litmus test of America’s social contract.
It’ll whittle down the list of truly legitimate candidates in no time. And that’s the point at which you look at who remains and determine if you actually support the specifics of their positions. You’ve cleared away those candidates who clearly do not understand the mission of the Presidency. Now you see if those left standing are deserving of your political support.
For the sake of argument, let’s say none of them deserve it. Let’s say that in all civic honesty, you now find yourself faced with the well-worn choice of the lesser of two evils. The choice that often makes Americans disgusted with the process, sometimes enough to provoke them into staying home on Election Day altogether.
Understand something about the dangers of not voting: the politicians, the pundits, and the press will all come up with their own explanations for what the non-voters represent, construct to their own ends the message that non-voters are sending. By not voting at all, you are in reality sending no message whatsoever, because the groups above will co-opt your not voting and turn it into a message that assists them and only them.
We need to do some number crunching here, based upon the 1996 Presidential election. We need to perform a thought experiment. Some numbers for 1996 from the Federal Election Commission:
– The voting-age population was 196,511,0004
– The number of registered voters was 146,211,960 (74.40% of the voting-age population)
– The voter turnout was 96,456,345 (65.97% of registered voters, and 49.08% of the voting-age population
Some additional numbers from the 1996 election:
– Bill Clinton received 49.24% of the popular vote, meaning 47,402,357 votes
– Bob Dole received 40.71% of the popular vote, meaning 39,198,755 votes
– Ross Perot received 8.40% of the popular vote, meaning 8,085,402 votes
So what about the thought experiment? Pretend everyone in the voting-age population had voted in 1996 (meaning that, instead of 96,456,345 people voting, 196,511,000 people had voted). Further, pretend that all of those who did not in reality vote, voted (in this thought experiment) for candidates other than the 3 above. In this scenario:
– Bill Clinton would have received 24.12% of the popular vote
– Bob Dole would have received 19.95% of the popular vote
– Ross Perot would have received 4.11% of the popular vote
And in this scenario, if all those of voting-age population who in reality did not vote had in fact voted for a single other candidate, that candidate would have received 50.92% of the popular vote.
Think about this. Presume for the moment that all of those of voting age who do not vote are making this choice because they don’t want to vote for any of the available candidates (this makes for a figure inflated beyond the actual and varied reasons for not voting, but this is all hypothetical, so let’s just stick with this approach) — meaning that their refusal to vote is in fact a civic indictment of candidate quality.
Now suppose rather than not voting at all, these people simply went to the polls and voted for anyone other than the main candidates. What would happen?
We’d end up with election results which would look more like the above hypothetical returns than the ones we actually saw in 1996. And there’s no way in the world any politician, pundit, or member of the press could distort the message behind that vote.
We’d have an election in which a candidate was elected President with something like only 24% of the popular vote.
Understand. If you choose to not vote, your opinion on the election and the candidates is not being recorded at all. Your opinion is up for grabs, and every conceivable individual or group who has something to gain by creating your opinion for you will do so.
This is why not voting is a civic cowardice. It’s the reason why, ultimately, there truly is no valid political excuse for staying away from the polls.
There is always some option on Election Day. Vote for a candidate who would never win. Vote for a candidate with an amusing name. Write-in your own name. Write-in “none of the above”
The point is to not under any circumstances let them rob you of your opinion on the election. It isn’t theirs to take, but they will do so without a second thought or a moment’s pang of guilty conscience.
They’ll do it because you let them.
You don’t have to like a damn thing about your options. But you do have to tell them what you think.
Vote. Your ballot may indeed have no impact whatsoever on who is elected. But by voting — for something, for anything — you make a statement about the process, if nothing else.
Because if you don’t vote at all, they don’t care about you.
When it comes to American politics, if you’re one of those 100,054,655 who didn’t vote in 1996, I’ve got news for you: you don’t exist.
So if they don’t serve your interests, they have no reason to give a damn.
American politics is battered and broken and useless. But it isn’t just them who made it that way.
1 link to Preamble
2 “There is nothing particularly innovative about short-sightedness and lack of compassion. Nevertheless, the way libertarians combine these elements is innovative.” — Malcolm MacLachlan, In Formation, Summer 1998
4 According to the FEC: “The actual number of eligible voters, those that are legally entitled to vote, will always be less than the VAP because of the inclusion of resident aliens (both legal and illegal), as well as convicted felons who are either institutionalized or who have not yet had their voting rights restored under the various State laws, persons declared non-compos mentis by a court of law, or those persons otherwise ineligible to vote.” In 1994, about 13 million persons over the age of 18 were not U.S. citizens, and in 1996 about 1.2 million were institutionalized felons.