All throughout this interminably long presidential election cycle, which has been going on since at least 2010, I’ve had a laser-like focus on political news. You might even call it a death grip. Because I’m a politics junkie. It’s a disease, I know, I recognize I need help, and I’ll get it—after November 6th. As a politics junkie, I am subject to a certain severe irritation: profound exasperation with those mythical beasts called “undecided voters,” who are even more galling than third party voters are to hyper-partisans. “What?” I shout at the radio, when one of these crypto-zoological creatures calls in. “You dreamers, you oblivious blockheaded dreamers!” I shout, and other things. Yes, in my mania, I’ve shouted these things at the radio, because how can people not have made up their minds months ago, been glued to internet news and opinion for hours, pored over miniscule policy details, destroyed their eyesight, collapsed their spine under the weight of civic duty? How, indeed. But perhaps (and every politics junkie fears this possibility), the undecided voters aren’t idiots—perhaps they’re thoughtful, kind, trusting, truly… dare I say it, independent….
Now with all of our weird vitriol directed at the “undecideds,” preternaturally myopic junkies lose sight of a bloc with the power to bend, break, or shatter the scales altogether—non-voters. In a nation that has expended trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and quite a lot of international good will to give others the right to vote in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, we make a pretty poor showing at the polls every four years, with roughly half of us declining to exercise our fundamental right to vote for our leaders. Think about that: half. Fifty percent of Americans: when women only won the right in 1920 and after amending the Constitution. When African Americans fought for a hundred years and only fully won the right in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. These are significant–if significantly belated—achievements, and, to be sure, they’re the reason so many people treasure their vote as a precious token of political autonomy. But non-voters are an invisible enigma: no one talks much about the appallingly low turnout in this country, except to mention it in passing. So documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), provocateur and social critic, decided to discuss the issue with over 50 people under the age of 40. The result is the short film above, teasingly titled “11 Reasons Not to Vote?”
What Morris found confounds the faithful—the junkies scowling into their microfiche readers. Non-voters, and the undecided, can take a larger view; as Morris points out in his accompanying New York Times essay, non-voters not only comment on the fact that no major party candidate has discussed issues so many people care about—poverty, climate change, the drug war, the dysfunctional prison system—but non-voters realize that if no one’s talking, nothing will be done. Some of them may be cynical, but many more may justly say they’re realists. Perhaps it’s us, the voters, who are dreamers.
The 11 reasons Morris gives, with tongue lodged in cheek, are as follows (with my explanatory glosses in parentheses):
- You can’t depend on demigods (Hint: politicians aren’t demigods, even when they seem so)
- Like jazz, apathy is an American art form (slack, an appropriate response to political fundamentalism?)
- Florida (debacle, year 2000)
- The Electoral College (does anyone understand this thing?)
- Missed entrepreneurial opportunities (one vote, one price)
- Potential extradition (absentee ballot if under rendition?)
- Awkward family dinners (voting out of spite for family members)
- Traffic (accidents on the way to polls canceled out by dating opportunities at the polls)
- Forced analogies (warning: involves football)
- Overzealous advocates (carrots and sticks)
- Masculinity is underappreciated (The Man: stick it to him)
I come away from Morris’s exercise subdued, not cured, but perhaps ready to wean myself away enough to look at why we make elections matter so much, when they seem to do so little for so many. That said, however, I’m still going to vote. The comment that struck me more than any other was this: “If you don’t vote, you cancel your own vote.” Morris replies, “that’d be stupid.” And it would be, I think, damn it all.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.
12. no viable candidates fielded.
13. my state will go red regardless of what I do.
14. It is embarrassing for anyone with any knowledge of economics to be seen at the polls.
15. Wish I had never registered- that way I wouldn’t have to worry about getting called for jury duty.
16. Voting for a fool makes me feel like one.
17. (Almost a cliche by now) The lesser of two evils is still evil.
18. There is a strong possibility that the liars who pretend that they will do something I want might get scared and actually do what I want when they see they can no longer get me to the polls by just paying me lip service.
19. There is no way to vote against the war.
20. There is no way to vote against the bailouts.
21. It occurs to me I could continue on in this vein for quite some time.
August is right.
Indeed — I agree with August. Much, much better reasons are available in places where partisans never look, like a system currently being erected, by Republicans and Democrats alike, that allows a state of perpetual war against a noun, leading to the destruction of all civil liberties since we USA is now fighting a putative ‘war’ that is not actually a war at all, and that can have no logical end. America is not democracy when it’s at war. America is now perpetually at war with no end in sight (will terrorism ever be defeated? it’s like asking will lying be defeated); ergo, America is no longer a democracy, rendering voting pointless.
Well, if voting were the only right, responsiblity, duty then I might agree with you all. You also need to be vocal ie, call and/or your representives, talk with your neighbors. Be an active part of your community, as much as you can or want to be. I also try to work for change that I want to see happen even if I don’t think it will happen. I still have to try.
To me the three of you and many other Americans have fallen into the trap of Apathy. Which those in power (and I mean power in its broadest sense) want us to feel powerless.
August, CMStewart, and Laroquod: As a registered Independent, these are the kind of comments that absolutely infuriate me. Let me respond to August’s unfortunate ideas:
“12. no viable candidates fielded.”
Have you even thought about looking at the platform of the third party candidates?
“13. my state will go red regardless of what I do.”
As long as you don’t vote, it will. As long as you don’t take an interest in local politics, ballot issues, and momentum-building election cycles, it will.
“14. It is embarrassing for anyone with any knowledge of economics to be seen at the polls.”
I’m not really sure what this is supposed to suggest, so I’ll skip it.
“15. Wish I had never registered- that way I wouldn’t have to worry about getting called for jury duty.”
Again, I’ll skip this.
“16. Voting for a fool makes me feel like one.”
Then don’t vote for a fool. Seriously. If nothing else, write yourself in and focus on the other votes.
“17. (Almost a cliche by now) The lesser of two evils is still evil.”
It IS a cliche by now. Don’t vote for an evil. Find a candidate you identify with, there are more than two.
“18. There is a strong possibility that the liars who pretend that they will do something I want might get scared and actually do what I want when they see they can no longer get me to the polls by just paying me lip service.”
Really? Really? You think there’s a “strong possibility” of that happening? Find me a single instance of that ever happening.
“19. There is no way to vote against the war.”
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two candidates: Jill Stein, Green, who would massively cut the military and close dozens of bases around the world and promote the National Guard back to its role as our defense force. And Gary Johnson, Libertarian, literally said in a debate last week: “Bring the troops home TODAY.”
“20. There is no way to vote against the bailouts.”
See above candidates.
“21. It occurs to me I could continue on in this vein for quite some time.”
It occurs to ME that you could continue to be WRONG in this vein for quite some time as well.
Laroquod: “America is no longer a democracy, rendering voting pointless.”
I literally feel sorry for you for believing that. It blows my mind that people so completely write off third party candidates who hold almost identical views to their own. If the 90 million pessimistic Americans who don’t vote actually got up and did vote, then we’d see some changes.
Mike, if you are voting, then chances are, you aren’t fighting. If you think voting can work, then you aren’t looking for the alternatives. Saying we need more voters is somewhat akin to saying we need more drug addicts. A third party is held out as a dim possibility precisely to keep you mollified. Go ask some of these Ron Paul folks who participated strongly within the GOP whether or not they think the thing is rigged. Romney didn’t have to pull those gestapo moves- he would have won anyway and could have been gracious to people who tried so hard and played by the rules. But Romney revealed he can’t handle dissent. Neither major party will let another third party get ahead- at least one of them needs to be ended so that the current system is destablized. Perhaps a third party could manage then, but even then you are looking at a lot of politicians who’d just switch to the new party and start playing the same game. Change is much harder than it looks and will probably come mostly when things are so broke D.C. can’t keep up the charade anymore.
I think August makes a necessary point regarding third-party voters, and the horrible treatment of the Ron Paul caucus (who were, after all, trying to nominate a *Republican* candidate, it’s worth noting) is a telling example. The third party “protest vote” carries little more weight than the contrarian grousing of armchair activists on Facebook. I admire the sentiment, but don’t find it a useful exercise to vote outside the two-party system; as much as I wish it made a difference, it doesn’t.
And Laroquod’s point about the suspension of democracy is also necessary. A state of war is, in Nazi political theorist Carl Schmidtt’s infamous phrase a “state of exception,” a precondition for dictatorship, in which democratic rules do not apply. A permanent state of war is a permanent state of exception, and any and all liberties can be suspended in the interest of national security without popular recourse.
As I said above, I’m voting, for my own reasons–which I believe are very good ones–but I don’t believe that the electoral system alone will deliver anything resembling a just and free society, only small gains that nonetheless matter in our lifetime and should be fought for.
I don’t vote because I do not want to uphold a system that is bent of fucking us.