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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To Vote or Not to Vote (Part One)

“I think Jesus would have a really hard time voting in America today.” — Anonymous [still voted anyway]

Though elections were a week ago, I still want to discuss something I’ve thought about on-and-off for the last 25-30 months. In a way, discussing whether Christians should vote seems pretty anachronistic in this day and age. 50 or 60 years ago, suggesting Christians stay out of politics would probably not have been a very controversial position. Today, post- Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, this seems a little less popular. I still haven’t made my mind up on this issue either: like the anonymous friend quoted above, I have in the past been loathe to vote and yet done it anyway (Obama, Nov. ’08). This time around I’m not going to tell you whether I did or didn’t, and let you figure it out from reading my pro/con arguments below.

Certain presuppositions: I’m starting from the viewpoint of Christian anarchism, or “Christarchy” if you’re Greg Boyd, and I’m not willing to defend this at the moment. What this means, in this particular context, is roughly this: given that Christianity is about non-power, about solidarity with the marginalized, about opposing the principalities of this world; given that the state is impositional, hierarchical, primarily concerned with consolidating power, and is itself one of the chief principalities of this world; therefore, there can be no relation between Christian & state than that, fundamentally, of conflict. So the “standard” anarchist position, whether confrontational (e.g. Ellul) or quietist (e.g. Eller), almost always recommends not voting. Let’s consider this first.

The most generalized argument against voting is that doing so gives credence to a corrupt, ridiculous game that we play out every few years. Elections — and the ever-lengthening electoral process — are both fetishized & ritualized in ways I want no part in; this I wouldn’t dispute even if I did ultimately vote. I am unsure how any Christian can justify the lying, slandering, gossiping, backstabbing, and greedyass money-grubbing that are part and parcel of all elections. Opting out of this mudpit is simply conceding defeat, plain and simple (see: Russ Feingold). The thing is, virtually everyone admits to all this. The baffling thing is that believers see all this and still decide to participate (a similar paradox attends capitalism itself). It’s not just the process; the outcome, regardless, offers even bleaker options. It is absolutely guaranteed that whatever politicos gain/hold power, violence will be a key, if unspoken, plank in the party platform. It’s true that our present options in America are especially bleak, but our sordid past provides all sorts of examples of warmongers & imperialists from every party and affiliation.

Secondly, non-participation holds enormous symbolic weight. This, in two key ways: politically and theologically. In the former, abstention is a public, visible gesture of the church’s separation from the worldly powers — a distinct people set apart. It’s part of the rejection of nationalism and patriotism (“In Christ there is neither…”); we are not a) citizens of this world, let alone b) of this particular country. As aliens in this land, not voting is a key reminder that this world is not our home — don’t get too attached: to its possession, to its games of power, to its leaders, to its ways of relating to each other. Our approach (and this is just a teaser for another whole essay) ought to be that of missionaries: global missions as paradigm for modes of anarchist being. The error is in thinking that because some government has granted us the legal ability to vote that we then should exercise that option (is/ought fallacy). I mentioned the theological symbolism too. The idea, and I take this to be Eller’s chief reason for not voting, is that it’s akin to a spiritual discipline in which we remind ourselves, as a body, that what the world does is really of no concern to us. Ignore them. “Render unto Caesar” is not simply about taxes: render emotionally and intellectually what is Caesar’s. Stop pretending that true religion is in any way whatsoever dependant on who’s in the White House. It simply does not affect our mission: do good, love mercy, walk humbly with our God; care for the widows, outcasts, poor, downtrodden, the least among us. Your focus is all wrong if you think a 35% tax rate will hinder your chances to live out your faith more than a 25% tax rate will.

[Part Two forthcoming]

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.