Yesterday was Election Day, meaning a lot of people spent a lot of time talking about how important voting is. Voting is the cornerstone of democracy—it’s a cliché, but it’s true. And, as most of the Western world lives in a democracy, we hear a lot about the importance of voting. When President Obama went on The Daily Show last week, he made sure to remind viewers to vote in yesterday’s elections, and you can assuredly find countless celebrity videos and PSAs telling people to vote every November, or risk their corporeal demise.
It’s true that voting plays a significant role in our society, but that doesn’t make it good. There are plenty of things that are important but terrible: the Iraq War, cancer, the Tea Party, religion, the imperial conquests of the British Empire, terrorism, Dr. Luke’s contributions to pop music, infanticide, etc. Like all of these things, voting’s negative consequences so overwhelmingly exceed its positives that voting in democratic elections ought to be considered an immoral act.
The argument against voting can be broken into two separate arguments: the argument against democracy* in general, and the argument against casting a vote in a democracy. The first seems controversial but is actually relatively straightforward. The second seems like it should follow logically from the first, but it is actually far more complex and tricky. First, though, we have to start with a critique of democracy.
*The term “democracy,” like most important things, is very hard to define, but here’s a loose definition that should work for the purposes of my argument and avoid any controversy: A government is democratic to the extent that it derives power from votes cast by its citizens.
The Argument against Democracy
Arguing against democracy strikes some people like arguing against the wheel—an exercise in futility directed against something society has long accepted as thoroughly practical and beneficial.
In fact, though, it shouldn’t be hard to see why democracy, in all its forms, is a fundamentally flawed concept. By its definition, democracy puts governing directly or indirectly in the hands of people who are unfit to govern. We shouldn’t use popular elections to choose government leaders for the same reason we don’t use popular elections to choose our doctors, or lawyers, or travel agents. Heck, voting isn’t even an effective way of choosing an American Idol.
Now, there are a lot of normative, theory-based objections to democratic government, but probably the most important objection is this simple and mundane fact: Voters are, as a whole, terrible. Most voters are misinformed, stubborn, irrational, self-centered, or all these things combined. Many voters believe things such as “Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who wasn’t born in America,” or “George W. Bush was personally responsible for 9/11.” Such absurdities are believed by enough “likely voters” to actually influence the course and outcome of political campaigns.
It is, admittedly, a little unfair of me to point to the extremes as a way of characterizing something as diverse as the American populace, even if the vote of an extremist counts the same as the vote of a clear-headed, rational individual. Even looking at clear-headed voters, however, does not paint a portrait of people informed about a wide slate of issues. Your average voter may not think that America is becoming a socialist country or an imperial empire, but he also probably doesn’t know the difference between monetary and fiscal policy or, for that matter, the content of all ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. And yet we entrust decisions of massive importance to him….
Before you resort to charges of elitism, though, I should clarify that I am not trying to espouse some misanthropic “society is stupid” claim. I’m not trying to say, and I don’t believe, that the American people as a whole are “dumb.” Most people are smarter than we give them credit for, but democracy is not really about intelligence—it’s about expertise, or even just competence. Presumably someone would not get accused of elitism for claiming that most Americans could not install a home’s central air-conditioning system—we all understand that most people don’t have the time or interest in acquiring the proper training, knowledge, or experience for such a specific task. Instead, we give the job to a specialist, while voting, an act with far more repercussions than A/C installation, we entrust to everyone.
We like to pretend that Americans do get some kind of “training” for the civic act of voting, in the form of an education. This is naïve thinking at best. Even if every citizen were guaranteed a decent secondary education (quite a fantasy given the current status of American education) this would be misguided. For one, the issues at stake change every election. Even the recurring issues evolve and grow more complex, to the point where a basic education, no matter how good, is no longer adequate (even the best Civics course in the 1970s probably didn’t mention an issue like Internet privacy). More importantly, even smart adults forget stuff from high school and college that they don’t use on a regular basis. People forget the complexities of American politics for the same reason they forget the quadratic equation and the components of a cell: Remembering all that shit is hard and rarely necessary.
Many proponents of democracy acknowledge this gap in expertise and insist that this is why we elect representatives: “Of course the voting public can’t be expected to follow each issue closely. This is why we don’t have mob rule, or direct democracy. Instead, we add representatives to solve the problem. Elected representatives can put in the time and energy to be informed about complex issues, allowing the voting the public to use its time more productively.”
This is one of the worst arguments I’ve ever heard intelligent people make.* For one, it implies that elected representatives are more knowledgeable and informed about issues than the voting public, something I’m not entirely convinced about.** More importantly, though, adding a layer of separation does not change the issue. If voters aren’t qualified to make decisions about government, then what makes them qualified to choose the leaders who do make those decisions? Put another way, what are they supposed to base their choice of candidates on if not knowledge about the issues at stake?
*Most of the others have to do with religion.
**A good point raised by Josh: It’s probably not the case that politicians are, on the whole, as ignorant about issues as the public, but the need to appeal to the median voter in order to win elections means that candidates have to constantly present themselves as less informed than they actually are. Nevertheless, this certainly has the effect of making policies that appeal to and can be easily presented to the median voter, as well as ultimately allowing candidates who are genuinely stupid a chance to showcase idiocy as a political virtue.
This brings us to the candidates themselves and the other form of preparation voters get for an election, namely the various campaign slogans, speeches, publicity stunts, and other acts of electioneering detritus that make up a political race. These are probably what motivate the voting habits of most people: the various things said by and about the various candidates during the campaign. This, though, hardly makes for an objective and rationally informed populace—it’s sort of like saying that all the information you need for purchasing an automobile can be found in ads for GM and Ford. Political campaigns are essentially marketing campaigns—they follow the same logic and employ the same principles of persuasion. They rely on slogans, celebrity endorsements, and negative attacks.
One of the biggest drawbacks to electing representatives is that doing so invalidates the only viable argument for democracy, which is its supposed ability to represent the views of the people. As I’ve tried to make clear, I don’t think the feelings of the majority should have any real influence on government policy, but this is nevertheless the appeal of the democratic process. Almost every argument in favor of democracy essentially boils down to the system’s ability to represent the views of, if not the entire populace, then at least a majority or plurality. In fact, though, the existence of representatives replaces choices of policy with choices of people. An election between candidates reduces all the issues and tasks of government down to a choice of one person or another,* which essentially hides voters’ preferences about the issues themselves.
*And, in a two-party system, you’re usually only picking one out of a choice of two.
In other words, what does the 2008 election of Barack Obama say about the will of the American people? All it really says is that more voters wanted Obama to be president than wanted John McCain. It doesn’t say why it feels this way—whether it was because of the promise of more progressive legislation, or a reaction to the Bush Administration, or fear about Sarah Palin, or a general fondness for Obama’s speaking abilities, etc. It was probably all of these things to some extent, but the election couldn’t possibly indicate the public’s feelings about health care reform, or financial regulation, or terrorism—all it was good for was determining a winner. In order for democracies to truly do what they purport to do, though, the “why” has to matter. And yet a representative democracy makes the reasoning of voters not only insignificant, but also invisible. This is why the platitudes about voting being your chance to make your voice heard are so pathetic and hollow.
Instead of making the voices of voters heard, voting actually completely marginalizes the voices of individuals. In a democracy, the individual is reduced to part of a mass, either the populace or the voting bloc. A voter who supports Obama because of his tax plan and a voter who supports Obama because of his foreign policy are effectively identical. Further, a voter who supports a candidate for well-thought out reasons that can be articulated and supported by evidence is effectively equated with a voter who supports a candidate for completely irrational reasons or false facts. In other words, voting doesn’t make the voices of voters heard so much as it reduces all individuals to a simple and meaningless voice yelling the name of one candidate or another.
This is, essentially, why democracy would still be philosophically unsound even if it were better at selecting candidates. Plato called democracy a form of government built on “dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” At its most basic level, his use of “unequal” merely refers to the way democracy reduces the various opinions and sentiments of its citizens to a mass of identical votes, which is itself troubling. On another level, though, Plato is using “unequal” to refer to an unmistakable hierarchy of opinions and voices within the citizenry.
It is here that the argument admittedly gets a bit elitist, but it really shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that some peoples opinions and judgments are more relevant than others’. A sick patient does not trust everyone’s opinion equally—he would trust a doctor, because the doctor is the authority. The philosophy behind democracy, however, insists that large numbers of people that I don’t know and, in many cases, don’t respect have authority over my system of government merely because they happen to live in the same county, city, state, or country as I do. If you can’t readily assent to this principle, then you don’t support democracy.
Allow me to illustrate via a hypothetical: Suppose a large part of the country wakes up tomorrow and decides free speech is a terrible idea. Suppose enough people think this that two-thirds of Congress proposes, and three-fourths of the states ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that repeals the First Amendment, or at least the parts having to do with free speech. Following this, several states pass laws against certain types of speech, like outlawing certain racial slurs, criticisms of elected officials, curse words and obscenities, etc. Would you accept the will of your fellow citizens and abide the draconian laws they had imposed on you? Does the fact that a lot of people changed their minds mean that free speech is no longer an “inalienable right”?
This hypothetical may be highly unlikely, but it is theoretically possible in a democracy (even a democratic republic like the U.S. in which there are some checks on the democracy’s power). This is because the philosophy behind democracy believes that authority is derived from the voting public. If, however, you believe that the mutual agreement of your neighbors is not the highest authority there is, then you don’t endorse democracy.
The Argument against Voting
The argument against voting seems like it should follow logically from the argument against democracy. After all, if an institution is illegitimate, then we shouldn’t support or endorse it, and voting is obviously a tacit endorsement of the democratic process.
This is probably why there is so much propaganda that suggests all voting, of any kind, is a glorious civic act. Slogans like “Get out the vote” and “Vote or die” make it a point not to advocate for any specific candidates or positions. Nothing strikes me as more illogical that urging people to just vote, without regard to who or what they might vote for. I don’t agree with voting for any reason, but I can at least respect the desire to win—that makes sense to me. But why is voting a good thing in and of itself? Even if you believe in democracy, voting is clearly an instrumental activity—you do it to achieve an end, not as something that should be enjoyed for its own sake.
The only reason to hype voting for its own sake is because voting is in fact an endorsement of the democratic process. Valuing voting for its own sake helps to further the myth that a vote counts as something besides a point for a candidate. Of course, this is untrue for the reasons already espoused: Nobody knows why you cast your vote except you, so there is no sense in which your “voice” has been heard. All your vote can do is help elect a candidate.
What if, however, this is fine with you? What if you have no illusions about having your opinions represented in government, but you firmly believe that one candidate is much better suited for the position and you want that candidate to win? You think the election might be close and, and that even if the odds of your vote “mattering” are extremely low* it is still worth your time to vote. You don’t believe in the democratic process, but you still have a preference and you don’t care that you might be “tacitly endorsing” a corrupt system. After all, it’s not like a “tacit condemnation” by not voting would keep any politicians up at night, or even be read as anything but forgetfulness. Why shouldn’t you vote in that case?
*As they assuredly are: The odds of your vote actually being decisive in an election are lower than your odds of winning the lottery.
This is a much harder argument to make, but it essentially boils down to the role of government itself. A government is not a set of policies or a specific group of people in charge—these are temporary features of a government, but not the same as the government itself. Rather a government is the system of determining which people are in charge and, by extension, the policies they enact.
What this means, though, is that if a government has a legitimate authority, then it doesn’t cease to have it once its leaders or policies change. In other words, the laws still apply to you even if the guy you vote for loses. Basically, you can’t only play by the rules when they work out in your favor. If you did, the rules wouldn’t retain any legitimacy, and would therefore serve no function. Entering into a system of government is akin to agreeing to abide by the rules even when the outcome may not seem beneficial.
How, though, does one “enter into a system of government”? By merely being born in its geographical bounds? By paying taxes? By taking advantage of the services provided by the government? Well, standards may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any standard that does not count direct participation in the governmental system as “entering into” it. By this logic, then, a vote in an election is not simply a statement of preference, but an agreement to abide by the result of the election’s outcome. It would, after all, be ethically dubious to vote without such an implied agreement, since on the one hand you are expecting your vote to have authority over others while not respecting their reciprocal authority on you.
Beyond the ethical implications, though, are more practical concerns about the way votes legitimate governments. As previously stated, the odds of your vote mattering in the sense of being decisive are essentially nonexistent, but the odds of your vote “mattering” in another sense are quite high. That is, the more votes cast, the more candidates can claim to be representing the populace and, therefore, the greater the apparent “legitimacy” of their rule.* And, of course, the more “legitimate” a victory appears, the more emboldened the victorious candidate is to exercise his authority—an authority that is, ultimately, illegitimate and dangerous for reasons already enumerated.
*This is even true of votes for losing candidates since, A) a slim margin of victory has no impact at all on the actual power of an elected official and, B) winning an election in which a lot of votes are cast gives the appearance of a more energetic, hard-fought campaign, and thus makes the winner’s victory appear more substantive.
In other words, voting is not harmless and it is not insignificant, even if the odds of your vote being decisive are microscopic. A vote endorses an illegitimate system, obliges a voter to respect the election’s outcome no matter how much he or she might disagree with it, and gives elected officials a sense of unearned legitimacy. If you’re going to vote, then, you’d ought to be a firm believer in democracy (and if you are, see Part I…).
The main objection I hear when I offer my anti-democracy views is that my opinions are purely negative, and that I don’t produce a viable alternative. People usually quote something along the lines of Winston Churchill’s famous dictum that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” This is pithy, but it hardly makes for an attitude that is conducive to progress. It’s just this kind of reactionary logic that justifies any status quo.
Democracy is hopelessly flawed and the mere fact that nobody has thought of anything better yet shouldn’t keep us resigned to its inefficiencies. The principal problem with democracy is that same problem that plagues all forms of government: It empowers the wrong people to make decisions.
It is, however, pointless to propose any theoretical government that would eradicate a democracy’s flaws. Such a course would be doomed for two reasons: First, if the French Revolution taught us anything, it’s that you can’t construct political systems from scratch. It’s not like we can just radically eliminate every institution of American government that relies on voting—such a system would eradicate two of the three branches of government, and some of the third. Even if such a thing could be feasibly done, the consequences would probably not be desirable.
Secondly, such a proposal would be a purely academic exercise—it would offer no practical, short-term solutions to the problems facing society today. The main reason people do vote, other than the rampant propaganda that portrays voting as an inherently virtuous act, is to have some impact on political issues. Proposing a radically new system of government as the only solution would imply that the only way a citizen can have such an impact is through revolution—and we saw how well that works out.
The only real alternative is to gradually reduce the impact of voting and elections. This is obviously easier to say than to do, but there are some ways that social issues can be dealt with that forego the democratic process. Whether that means solving problems by using the judiciary, small community organization,* global charities, economic activism, or even private enterprise. When problems are addressed through other means, there is less of a need for a democratically-elected government to act.
*People have asked me how I feel about democracy on a local level, and my feelings are the same, but I suppose it must change on a hyper-local level. Consider, for example, the decision to see a movie with a group of friends. If there is no consensus movie, then we might leave the decision to a vote. The democratic process is tolerable in such situations because, presumably, all your friends are pre-screened, and you know their tastes in movies. This is why voting in amongst the members of a board of directors, or a newspaper’s masthead, or a judiciary bench, etc. is tolerable—the voters have all been selected for their judgment in the area being voted on.
One thing that certainly does not reduce the impact of voting and elections, though, is voting. Voting only furthers our reliance on democratic processes and emboldens elected officials to exercise the authority a vote endows them with. Even votes for losing candidates legitimate the entire process, which ultimately benefits the winners. So if you voted yesterday, make the 2010 elections be your last. Because no matter who wins, we all lose.