(It's just one of the many forms of civic participation)
***This article was originally published at: The Subversive Scrivener***
In a perfect world, voting would be just another form of civic participation, rather than the apex of democratic virtuosity.
Disparate factions seek to interpret what is often incorrectly termed the “national” vote in ways that seek to command victory and augment the strength of their position in their electorate. What are really fifty-one separate but simultaneous elections, influenced by state and local races and ballot initiatives, become something more centralized and amalgamated: a mandate for the presidential victor to implement sweeping policy changes; a sign that a particular issue has been definitively decided, allowing ongoing dissent to be dismissed as illegitimate.
Voting rationales get winnowed down and the fact that there are few and imperfect choices on the ballot, which often forces people to bargain between the values they seek to promote in civic life and the people who represent them, is ignored. A vote for a candidate becomes an enthusiastic endorsement of that candidate and all their positions and statements.
But that’s rarely what it is. Most fundamentally, a vote says “I like this person more than I dislike his or her opponent or opponents.” A vote may be a strategic consideration: “I don’t want Candidate A to win, so I’ll vote for Candidate B, even though I really agree more with Candidate C on policy.”
It may also be about a particular issue: “I believe taxes are the most important issue and Candidate A’s positions on tax reform most closely reflect my own, therefore I’ll vote for him. Even though I disagree on other issues.”
It might be about ideology: “I’m a firm believer that libertarian values are the ones that should influence public policy. I’ll vote for the libertarian candidate, even if I don’t like her views, because I want the party’s support to increase.”
The point is: voting rationales are infinitely varied. A candidate’s victory rests not on the behavior of a bloc of the electorate, but on the sum of the actions of the plurality or majority whose independent decisions had the same outcome and resulted in victory.
The whole is the sum of its parts: the end result doesn’t change the motivations of the actions that led to a result. A victory for the Republican candidate, or for the candidate of any other party, does not become a statement of support for him and his ideas simply because his campaign was successful. All the hesitations, reservations and motivations that went into a vote—invisible on the ballot though they be—remain.
The constraints of a republican system of government are not erased because someone won a decisive victory. Bad ideas remain bad ideas. Dissent remains an important check on the majority governing faction. Restraints on government are not weakened.
Nothing useful actually happens in an election.
Yes, people are elected to office and those office-holders vote on policy and appoint bureaucrats who set regulations.
But the change in public policy priorities that accompanies an election wherein the majority party chances hands isn’t instantaneous.
Public policy is rarely on the ballot. People with ideas are. And there’s very rarely an resemblance between campaign promises and the legislative agenda that follows a victory on election night.
Grandiose ideas make for stirring cinematic campaign ads. But they don’t make good policy. Turns out the Constitution expressly prohibits sweeping changes; there are processes specifically designed to slow-roll the implementation of new ideas. The document’s authors recognized that election victories don’t wipe away conflicting opinions or the rights of those who hold them because America is not, in fact, a democracy where the majority can run roughshod over its dissidents.
Elections give candidates accesses to seats in various branches of the governments. That’s all.
Everything else that follows—the drafting of new legislation, the appointment of judges, and the reorganization of executive cabinets—is a process separate from elections.
And that means a vote is not the end-all-be-all of participatory government. Elections don’t bind office holders to particular courses of action. They give them access to power: and if the people who elected them aren’t paying attention, exactly what incentive do they have to behave as they promised? In a word: none.
The same people who are so invested in ballooning voter turnout are rarely interested in measures that ensure voters don’t default on their responsibility to hold elected officials in check. Writing emails or calling your representatives, attending town hall meetings, volunteering for your chosen political party, starting citizen ballot initiatives: all these things are just as important as voting, maybe more so. Individuals only get to vote once: that’s one chance to make sure their interests are represented. And they often don’t have perfect choices.
Outside the voting booth, there aren’t any such limits on the ability of individuals to express themselves: agents from the government aren’t going to arrest you for sending emails to your representative on a daily basis. They will if you try to commit voter fraud.
For people who don’t fit neat into the two-party system, or even who belong to a majority party but disagree over policies or how best to implement them, elections are just a reminder of their outsider status.
Political participation outside of elections is of far more importance: it’s a chance not to be boxed in, a chance to control the political narrative; elections don’t do this for ideological minorities. They present a couple of choices in a pre-made framework and hold people’s ability to speak hostage. Don’t vote? Well, you lose the chance to complain. Support a candidate we don’t’ like? Well, our interests are more important—so important the soul of the nation depends on our candidate winning—and if you don’t recognize this, you’re the problem.
Elections and the rhetoric surrounding them are often extortive. To try and condense people’s interests down to a performative activity that happens only every couple of years is ludicrous. It’s disrespectful to the idea of individual sovereignty, which is at the heart of representative government.
So, yes, vote if you feel like you have options. But don’t feel pressured to vote if you feel you don’t have options. Better to not vote than to betray your values by electing someone who will act to degrade them.
But don’t sit back on your laurels and revel in moral smugness because you made a few marks on the ballot. That’s only one part of the political process. Governing is a lot harder than elections, especially when the people represented by elected officials signal their indifference to good behaviour by tuning out until the next election.