The problem with voting
There is tremendous energy wasted on electoral politics. At best it is a distraction, at worst it serves to suffocate any alternative.
To clarify, this isn’t an attack on voting per se, it’s an attack on what large scale political elections in the United States have become.
We are beaten over the head our entire life with the notion that change begins at the ballot box. That’s false. The reality of change is that it’s uncomfortable. Voting will never yield substantive change because it is designed to prohibit the very discomfort which is a necessary prerequisite to substantive change.
In the civil rights movement blacks that sat at segregated lunch counters did not wait for an election to create change — and that’s exactly why they were successful. When we look back, we think of those sit-ins as righteous and assume they were popular. They weren’t. Forcing change never will be.
Lunch counter sit-ins were effective because they disrupted business as usual and forced people to look at what many would have preferred to avoid. Change happens when the discomfort of its success is less than the discomfort of the present. That means that the push to create a better future will almost always be unpopular in the present. The great tragedy of voting is that it tricks us into believing we can have progress and comfort.
‘Voting is the most important thing you can do,’ they say. Another lie.
That attitude encourages us to neglect our real power, which is our everyday life. When we are told that voting is most important, by default that means all else is less so. It sends an unconscious message that we can neglect other avenues of change and minimizes their appeal.
Voting takes away the burden of responsibility. You did your part, it tells you, you voted for someone to make decisions on your behalf. It allows us to see injustice in the world and think it’s not our role to change it; or worse it allows us to become blind to it completely.
We have arrived at the present because of voting. If we want to stay on this path, then voting will keep us here. If we want to make a substantive divergence, then voting will never take us there. When you vote you are doing so twice, once for the candidate on your ballot and again for the system that placed them there.
We tend to think of elections in negative terms. We vote against people and causes as much as we vote for them. We are always trying to avoid pain and bad consequences. But it cannot just be about slowing the bad, it has to be about speeding the good.
Our power is not which politician you vote for, it’s what you do every day. It’s how you treat people, it’s where you spend your money, it’s what you do for work, it’s what you eat; it’s who you are.
The root of the problem is the concentration of power. Voting for president represents an entrenchment of that imbalance. The system encourages behavior that makes it more likely for certain traits to emerge. For example, the candidate that raises the most money is overwhelmingly likely to win and the candidate with the most money most often is the one that large monied interests prefer. At each rung up the ladder of political power these systemic biases that favor certain behaviors over others become stronger. Still, there are always exceptions and it is possible to elect a candidate that doesn’t fit this broad mold, but once in office they would be an island and have to choose between acquiescing to the dominant system in which they exist or being ineffective.
Voting isn’t necessarily bad. We can delegate others to take charge in areas they understand better than us. We should listen to expert advice. In the ideal, the experts would inform rather than dictate and we would be capable of using that information to make our best individual choices. This would require critical thinking skills, the ability to recognize our own shortfalls where we most need to default to experts and empathy for others to avoid a tragedy of the commons.
In our current state we are not capable of this — but strengthening the status quo by voting makes us even less so. Political parties act as tribes which make us less able to recognize our shortfalls, less open to admit mistakes and has tarnished the neutrality of experts. It also makes us less capable of critical thought as we don’t use that muscle much in a system which tells us to let others decide on our behalf.
Power will always exist, but it doesn’t have to be so concentrated. Our present system is top-down, it could be bottom-up.
This is an ideal and one that won’t come tomorrow. But the longer we hold onto the notion that a better world will ever come from the ballot box the farther away that future becomes. The goal isn’t to burn down this system, it’s to make it irrelevant.