To Vote or Not to Vote (Part Two)

In Part One of this series, I sketched the outlines of the argument against Christians voting. The goal was to give a defense of principled non-participation, and should not be confused as advocating apathy and/or laziness. Likewise, in this post I won’t address silly, specious arguments for voting, such as ones from civic duty or obligation.

To kick things off, I want to quote Ran Prieur:

A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That’s like not watching any commercials because then you won’t be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don’t think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

Prieur hits on two things I want to highlight. The first is this idea of “healthy mental distance” and “cold tactical decision.” All throughout this essay I am going to continue assuming that politics is corrupt(ing), that power plays are unChristian, that our electoral process is beyond embarrassing. So everything henceforth operates under the assumption that if (big if) we vote, we vote with terrible fear & trembling. We’d be voting with acute self-awareness, reflexivity, humility, and perhaps even with a prayer of forgiveness.

The second idea in Prieur’s paragraph is this idea of purity, in which non-contamination becomes an idol for the leftist Christian (Note: Prieur is not one, just FYI). This is the same problem the fundamentalists have: if I don’t hang out with thieves & prostitutes & rock ‘n rollers, I won’t be tainted by their sin. The principled non-voter is saying something similar: if I don’t participate in xyz, I won’t be complicit in the system. Now I have, over the years, shifted to more institutional notions of sin & depravity, so I certainly think there’s something to “opting out” as much as possible. The confusion is in thinking it is a) wholly possible, and b) a sort of salvation in its own right. Right now, as I write this, wars are being fought in my name and, worse, in the name of my God. Hear this: not voting does not change this fact. My complicity in that violence is not entirely contingent on whether or not I punched a ballot. Furthermore — and I here I love Prieur’s line about the “precious flower” — the fact that those we vote for are fallen is not itself a reason to abstain. There has to be something more here (and in aggregate, perhaps the arguments in Part One do add up convincingly). In my “anti” arguments I appealed to “symbolic weight” as a reason for abstention. Yet I think it could certainly be argued that I attributed much too much weight to that symbol. Is it really the case that I am now “defiled” for casting a vote, yet reliance on the state in hundreds of other ways is less defiling? On one hand, because I want us to live more attentive, more attuned lives I think we ought to weight more decisions more heavily, avoiding the flippant, thoughtless consumer culture around us. Yet we have to avoid over-burdening things — avoid “false equivalency” — where anything less than total, absolute (I’d argue, impossible) purity is seen as the only option.

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America’s Political Cannibalism

Today’s Nader Newsletter gave prominence to a column by Chris Hedges entitled “America’s Political Cannibalism,” mostly because of this paragraph:

This is a defining moment in American history. The next few weeks and months will see us stabilize and weather this crisis or descend into a terrifying dystopia. I place no hope in Obama or the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is a pathetic example of liberal, bourgeois impotence, hypocrisy and complacency. It has been bought off. I will vote, if only as a form of protest against our corporate state and an homage to [Karl] Polanyi’s brilliance, for Ralph Nader.

The whole thing is worth reading, including the comments. One “Eric J-D” seems to nail it:

My concern about Hedges is that his so-called “radicalization”–if that is what he is currently experiencing–looks a whole lot more like dystopian, nihilistic despair than a truly radical diagnosis of and engagement with the situation obtaining in the present. The former tends to greatly overestimate a number of things: 1) the present “weakness” of the capitalist system, even in moments of systemic crisis; 2) the extent to which the mass-imposition of a neo-fascist order is possible; and 3) the revolutionary possibilities of the present moment.

As someone occasionally guilty of doing all three, I concur. Also, several commenters rightly point out that the greater Karl (Marx) anticipated Polanyi’s comments by nearly a century (dehumanization, man-as-commodity, etc). 

Mostly though, I think Hedges is right. Voting for Nader is probably the right thing to do. But look at it this way: voting for Nader and deliberately not voting are both symbolic gestures, whereas voting for Obama is an effectual gesture. Both symbolic gestures are largely ignored (in the case of conscientious non-voting, ignored simply because it’s indistinguishable from apathetic non-voting). I’m voting for Obama based on this principle: an effectual gesture, even one less than ideal, ought to be preferred over a purely symbolic gesture.