I have been thinking about voting recently. About what it means to cast a vote, what voting means in our society (I mean the US), and why some people choose to vote and others do not.
In my experience, the people who the most invested in equality and justice and social change, and who have the least to lose, are the people who are most marginalized. Those who are winning the game have little reason to change it, and so are not likely to be radicalized. So I find that poor people, people of color, women, trans people, immigrants, young people and queers or people with several of these identities are where you find those most dedicated to a just society—they are the ones with something to gain from it.
So I began to do some critical thinking when I noticed that to a certain extent, people with marginalized identities are less likely to vote. See this Pew Research Center study for the numbers. I thought, wouldn’t those most motivated to change society be more likely to vote? Wouldn’t those who feel the most comfortable with the status quo be complacent and likely to skip voting? That’s what I would have expected.
A common theory about why the marginalized don’t vote as much as those who feel mainstream is that they are stupid and/or ignorant and/or uneducated. The numbers do indicate that people with less education tend to vote less, and people who are marginalized tend to have less access to education. However, as individuals out struggling in the real world without the comfort of a self- or media-constructed façade, I have noticed that the marginalized often have a better grasp on reality than those with money, education, and advantageous skin colors. Without an ivory tower, cubicle cloisters, suburban self-segregation, or much mobility, marginalized people can’t escape the more depressing realities that anyone with advantage would escape from. So the claim by mainstream people that marginalized people don’t vote out of ignorance doesn’t ring true.
People with money and comfortable lifestyles often assume that poor people make inscrutable choices because they are stupid. This is of course pure self-serving prejudice, because it sets the comfortable up as the ‘smart’ standard bearers to whom everyone else must be compared. Perhaps the marginalized are also rational decision makers. Perhaps they too make the best choices given their options, and it is the comfortable who don’t understand the options they face. It is a safe assumption that people, regardless of income, sexuality, race or other such distinctions, make their choices out of rational self-interest. So when a marginalized group, such as poor people, decides to a large degree to abstain from voting, perhaps they have a reason.
I started to contemplate this reason. Assuredly, for different people the reasoning behind the choice to vote or not will be different. But perhaps there are some trends, or over-arching patterns that lead certain people to vote less than other certain people.
That brings us back to my question: why would those with the most to gain from social change choose not to exercise the most highly touted way for the common people to enact change?
What if some of us don’t believe that voting is an effective way to achieve social change? If we take the assumption that marginalized people’s brains work about as good as mainstream people’s brains, that means their choice not to vote is motivated by rational self-interest as much as the choices of mainstream people.
And if, as I suggest, marginalized people are compelled to deal with the harsh realities of our society more often than mainstream people, than their decision not to vote is potentially based on better information than the decisions of mainstream people. For example, when Indians were granted the right to vote in 1924, Chief Clinton Rickard of the Tuscarora declared that he had no interest in “white men’s elections”.
What does that say about voting as a tool to enact change?
It is possible then, that voting is a bad way for marginalized people to achieve positive goals for society, at least in the American context. Why might that be?
First, consider whether voting has led to positive social change historically, as opposed other forms of civic activity. Have our American leaders tended to come from, and act in the interests of, marginalized groups? Or have they continued to come from and serve those who already have a disproportionate share of the power? I would say the latter. And though some would say this is a failure of our system, I say that it is a success for the system, because I believe the system is very good at doing exactly what it was set up to do.
Grade school textbooks reverentially teach us about the pure motives of our Founding Fathers and how they came to devise the Best Government on Earth. Many people don’t trouble themselves with more than this fairytale when it comes to identifying the founding ideals of the USA. But look at who these men were: wealthy, white businessmen with economic and political interests to protect. Look at who they deliberately disempowered, while at the same time making poignant statements about equality and balance of power: women, people of color, laborers, and poor people. Their words sound nice, but the on-the-ground reality of the situation looks a lot like it does now. These Founding Fathers knew what they were doing. They set up a system where they, and people like them, would be able to continue protecting their interests from the rabble.
Any improvements that have been made can scarcely be attributed to voting habits, because the marginalized started off with no vote, due to the decisions of the Founding Fathers. They had to agitate outside the system and essentially force the privileged to give them rights out of fear for social stability.
So what kind of rights have the privileged given to the lowly? The most highly touted one is the right to vote. Even the marginalized have celebrated their victories in achieving the right to vote. But did the powerful actually present the marginalized with a tool that they could use to reign in the powerful; a tool that the marginalized could use to share power with the elites? Or has the vote simply been the most effective way control dissent by giving it a largely impotent safety valve? When people express discontent, they are urged to Go to the Polls! Punish the scoundrels with a loss of office, reward the virtuous with the continued opportunity to serve the public!
Martin Luther King Jr. had a lot to say on this topic, which can be found in his later writings and speeches. For example:
We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.
There is much to be said about placating the population and diffusing dissent with a toothless semblance of a ‘say’ in politics. But right now I would like to focus on one aspect: A vote means a choice between two or more options. What is the quality of the options we are presented to choose from?
On November 2, 2010, I have the opportunity to vote for either a Democrat or a Republican for various offices. I have yet to hear of a race in this country with a competitive third-party candidate who is not simply a Dem or Repub running as an Independent because they are angry they lost their primary. So, Democrat or Republican. As Gore Vidal said:
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party…and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt—until recently… and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
It has often been pointed out by political scientists that the US is basically a one-party state — the business party. with two factions, Democrats and Republicans.
I find it hard to believe the political theater that goes into making it appear that these are parties who actually oppose each other on any matter of substance. And I find it dispiriting, to say the least, to find myself always facing the same choice between Bad or Worse. Neither party has made a serious move to address the structural problems that thwart justice and perpetuate inequality in America. That is because both parties are equally invested in those inequities and have no motivation to change what keeps them in power. Being periodically asked to give my assent to this power which is tossed back and forth good-naturedly between two players on the same team does not feel like an activity likely to create social change.
I am beginning to tire of being complacent in this tool designed to manage my anger at the present state of things; this tool meant to confine my dreams of a better way. Voting for one corporate-backed privileged person seeking personal power over another has lost its shine. Now I’m left wondering: is it better to vote Third Party or to abstain from voting?
As MLK said, “[L]et us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.” “