Voting, Cynicism, and the Right to Complain

This post is related to this article, the basic idea of the disenfranchised non-voting public of America.

Recently, I had a pretty passionate discussion with a close friend about the merits of voting in our country, and the reasons to vote and not to vote. Every argument I heard from this is present in the article linked to above, but there is one other which undercuts my most immediate response:

Defending non-voting in bars across this great land, I often hear the ultimate "shut up"—that if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about politics or society. The reality is the exact opposite: By voting, you are playing a game whose rules are that the majority vote winner gets to control the reins of government, in all its unspeakable power. If you complain about the results of the game you chose to play, you're just being a sore loser—or winner.

Interesting! I hadn't thought of it in that light previously. However, let me take an opportunity to respond to this and the other arguments posed in this article. To this one directly: We live in a country which holds itself to be a democracy (in reality, it is a democratic republic, but that's not the point). As such, our government is meant to be representative of the population in a very direct way - the decisions of the body Congress are meant to be decisions made BY US, via proxy. Granted, the satisfaction ratings with both president and congress have been dismally low for years, so it is still fair to say we are a democracy? Maybe they're not representing us very accurately, but the fact that they represent us is still the idea of our system, and while I am often known to tout some pretty socialist ideas, it's the best one we've got right now.

The point to this is: if you live in America, whether or not you like what our government is doing, you are represented by it. Choosing not to vote does not remove you from the American population, and more importantly, it does not spare you the burden of guilt for the decisions ultimately made in your name. Moreover, I'm not sure I would even go so far as to say voting for an alternate candidate than the one who ultimately creates that burden of guilt frees you from it either - as Abraham Lincoln said: "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it."

We must recognize, however, that in any group there is going to be division on how people believe the choices should be made. Voting is our way of supporting an IDEOLOGY by which we think those choices should be filtered. Perhaps single person that we place into power is not perfect, and the weird American idea that our leaders must be flawless angels handed down from above like some sort of divine God-King (or, potentially, God-Queen) seems like an obvious fallacy in and of itself. However, what we are voting for is not necessarily a person, but a person as an avatar of a certain philosophy on how the world ought to be. (Presumably, this is why we expect them to be perfect - these philosophies do not involve adultery or accepting bribes.)

So let me restate in short form: If you are American, and you take advantage the rights and privileges afforded to you by being American (which is inevitable if you live here), then you are also a part of the government system whether you like it or not.

By no means am I trying to pitch that old rhetoric, "If you don't like it, get out". I just want this to be recognized: Our government is what provides us the American lifestyle (and our economy, but that is regulated and tended to by government), and if you are living in the American lifestyle, in American borders, on American soil, call yourself an American, or even are subject to American law, then you have a stake in how that lifestyle is dictated, how that law is laid down, and what is done in our name. Abstaining from a vote does not remove this burden, as this burden is one that we accept implicitly by accepting those rights and privileges as a citizen. What abstaining from a vote DOES, however, is give a nod to the government, and to the voting body of the population. It is saying, "I trust you to go ahead and make my decisions for me." It is putting your name down for a thumbs up to whatever happens, be it good or bad.

On the other hand, even if your single vote doesn't necessarily decide the contest, it does mean that you recognize your responsibility. It says that you are doing your best to direct the massive, unwieldy body of our country in the right (from your own perspective) direction. Obviously, all political parties think they see the right direction when others do not, but what's at stake at THIS PART of the discussion is simply the right to complain if the overall body of the government doesn't listen to you. What are the odds of the entire body politic listening to your single voice? Very slim. But it still purchases you the philosophical justification to complain when things don't go your way, and to at least say that you stood up and played the voice of reason. If you are too cynical to even take a few moments out of your life, stand up, and try to take your say in a system that you are a part of whether you like it or not... well, I'm not saying you don't have the right to be disappointed when things go badly. But if someone who DID take the time to try tells you your bitching doesn't hold a candle to theirs, I don't think you have a leg to stand on.

Let's step back a bit, to the idea of the government listening to a single voice out of the 350-millionish of us in the country. While it may be true that my single vote does not make the deciding difference in the presidential vote, it is also true that the whole mass of voting public is composed of those same single votes. If ALL of those were not cast, then it would make a hell of a difference. If anything, this argument seems to be very short-sighted and shows a major weakness of the human rationale when dealing with big numbers. It is an old philosophical problem, the problem of the heap. If a single vote does not make a difference, then my adding one vote does not make a difference. So if one vote doesn't make a difference, then if I add one more, still no difference is made. If I add one more, still no difference is made. If I add one more, still no difference is made. Follow this train up to 300,000,000 votes, and the argument would still maintain that they would make no difference. It's also an argument that can be turned around: If 300,000,000 votes make a difference, but removing 1 vote won't make a difference, then 299,999,999 votes also make a difference. If I remove one more, then 299,999,998 votes make a difference. Follow this all the way down, and you can see why it's a fallacy to support.

And no, my vote does not inspire 5000 others to vote the same way, but saying that harboring the type of cynicism that inspires one to avoid voting does not have an overall impact on the population is flawed even in its very statement: This article was written to explain why people do not vote. In it's form, it argues why people SHOULD not vote, and in doing so is becoming a vocal form of that cynicism, which can then inspire others to take the same stance. Additionally, the take-away message of this form of cynicism seems to be "If you don't try in the first place, then you can't fail." And really, who wants to support the idea that trying is just the first step to failure?

Now to nail a final point down on the topic of the "mathematical miracle if our vote actually decided the result of an election". It would be a far more incredible miracle if a LACK of vote decided an election. If given the choice of whether to vote and have a minuscule chance of making a difference, or having an absolutely 0% chance, I think any rational being will choose the former. The math just makes sense... .0000001% is always going to be more than 0%. Moreover, if you have a genuine fear about the future of our nation, and our ability to shift to a more sustainable lifestyle, taking even that .0000001% chance is going to do more than the alternative.

Lastly, I can certainly appreciate a push to get people doing something more directly good with their days: Pick up a piece of trash, or call your mother (for goodness sake), but are these things mutually exclusive with voting? Of course not . The real cost of voting is quite low - a few minutes of your time. And while I'm not one to argue that a few minutes of any person's life is without value, do we as humans really spend all of our lives doing things with even the most remote possibility of making a difference on the scale of a national election? The religious right turn out in droves to enforce their Christian views in this country - if you want to stand up against this, then show up just for the sake of showing up, and for god sake encourage others to do the same. If nothing else, the internet should show us how important a single person can be when they try to get their message out to the world. It is a massive body composed of individuals - the power of the individual is small, but the gestalt of millions of individuals is more than the sum of those individuals.

So the next time you're considering whether to sit down and watch a few minutes of TV before you go somewhere, why not spend that time paying a couple bills and purchase yourself a couple minutes of your time in the future to get out and show that you haven't lost all faith in humanity.

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