Should anarchists vote?
It’s a perennial issue, and this year with a man who seems to be a fascist strongman advocating for war crimes and repeatedly demonstrating contempt for freedom running for office it seems especially crucial to decide on. While this year has demonstrated that we can be handed the two candidates with the lowest approval ratings in Presidential history even in a contentious primary, it also has demonstrated how much electoral politics can scare up the ugliest parts of society when they are done badly.
I’m surprised at how poorly my position on the issue is represented. It’s astonishing to see people like Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, and others so rarely acknowledged in many of those screeds against voting.
The fact is that anarchists have a duty to vote.
There’s lots of ways of approaching the issue, but the fact is that the other side is essentially bankrupt, based on an absurd ethical metaphysics that they don’t believe.
Participating In A Process With No Legitimacy Is Morally Benign
An anarchist who says that we shouldn’t vote might say, “The system is fundamentally corrupt. Why participate in it?”
The counter-argument is, “The system is fundamentally corrupt. Use everything you can to stop it”.
What we have is not just. The state isn’t just. Corporations aren’t just. Free markets in a specific context might be just (though I believe participatory planning would be more just), but that specific context has never once existed. Racism isn’t just. Sexism and patriarchy isn’t just. Homophobia and heteronormativity isn’t just. Human history has never once been just.
Because I view the system as having no legitimacy, participating in it says nothing. I do not concede that the system has any legitimacy. I’m simply attempting to minimize harm and maximize positive outcomes within the context of an illegitimate system I did not create and refuse to acknowledge.
If someone forces you into a crooked game of poker, it’s not sensible to refuse to raise. One could make an argument for leaving the game, except doing so doesn’t end the game that others are still being forced to play, even if you can somehow avoid the punishment for failing to play.
Similarly, not voting isn’t not engaging with the system. It’s simply refusing to use one tactic to engage with the system, and in fact it’s refusing to use one of the best tactics and the most noble outlets the system provides. Think of how many people who might booze it up, attend rock concerts, and work in crappy wage slave jobs who will insist that they shouldn’t vote. Even a lot of anarcho-capitalists, who believe in the free market, are perfectly willing to make a business even in an environment they admit is destructive crony capitalism, and yet won’t vote.
Someone who committed to being a complete hermit and tried to disengage from our society would have some argument to be made. Of course, the realities of global warming, nuclear war, terrorism, and other issues ultimately are not going to discriminate or accommodate someone who wants to “check out”. More importantly, not everyone has the ability to “check out” of society. It is moral cowardice to flee while others are being oppressed.
Once we’ve accepted that we will be living in society, voting is one of the absolute lowest-cost mechanisms to create social change that is positive. It’s the height of hypocrisy to insist that the system is corrupt, pay one’s condo fees or one’s taxes or set up a business or drive one’s car on highways and public roads, and not vote.
The only two arguments left for the anti-voting crowd is “It confers apparent legitimacy to the system, no matter your intent” and “It’s an endorsement of the system”. Both of these arguments are fatally flawed.
As for the first: It is the case that any politician or pundit who wants to defend the system will say, “Hey, these people voted! They participated! They consented to what they got!” If, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton is far worse of a nightmare as President than we anticipated, propagandists will say that anarchists in swing states voted for her and therefore have no right to complain.
But this argument is stupid on its face. No one ever said that democracy ends after election day. If your candidate does something you don’t like, you have every right to complain, and call them, and write them letters, and protest against them, and ultimately deprive them of a vote.
More importantly, propagandists will take any choice you make to reinforce the system, because that is their job. Anarchists break windows in Seattle? They are thugs and vandals! Anarchists protest peacefully? Well, things can’t be that bad if you’re not breaking windows! Trying to anticipate how your political opponents will spin what you do is madness.
And in fact a lack of participation is extremely conducive to anti-anarchist arguments. When people refuse to vote, those who are against greater freedom, justice and participation can say, “You’re giving people who don’t care and don’t take the freedoms they have seriously more freedoms. They already can vote and they’re not doing it. They’re apathetic and poorly informed”. If 100% of Americans voted, and publicly expressed progressive positions, and yet standard center-right policies were made, no one would have an excuse: the system would be exposed as not working.
Is it possible that refusing to vote sends a stronger message and signal than voting? Yes. Is it possible that refusing to vote sends a weaker signal than voting? Yes. No one has any compelling data either way. It certainly seems ludicrous on its face that saying nothing communicates more information than saying something. Even though voting as we currently have it is a very muted and distorted way of communicating preferences, since people routinely are voting for candidates who don’t agree with them on most issues in order to fight for a few, it’s at least some statement. Refusing to vote at all says nothing. And it’s possible to read anything into nothing. Someone who refuses to vote is like the victim of the old “silent treatment” gag where you say, “Say nothing if you want me to borrow your car!”, only the consequences are far from a joke.
And even if you could decisively demonstrate that not voting was harder for the system’s defenders to spin than voting for a flawed candidate, it’s a false dilemma, because neither scenario is palatable. Unless anarchists are powerful, vocal and have their own media enough that they can describe what they want and what they are doing, it’s actually totally moot whether or not some particular scenario is harder for the media to spin. Voting is absolutely not harmful to the cause of building leftist and progressive media; in fact, voting is an important mechanism to insure such media survive!
So the only remaining argument would be that participation in an unjust system, no matter the actual consequences of that specific participation, somehow taints you. It’s a metaphysical argument that there’s just something intangible and ineffable that comes from being involved with the system.
This idea is ludicrous on its face. It pretends that you can be neutral on a moving train, as Howard Zinn famously taught generations. It pretends that if you just don’t actively participate in the system that somehow you’re not part of it and its outcomes don’t trace back to your inaction. That’s the opposite of reality. And where does this metaphysical contamination end? Does someone who seeks to work at a wage slave job to feed his family get contaminated by the system? Does someone who uses the Internet or any technology created by the government (or by racists or sexists or bigots of any kind) give some kind of ex post facto justification to these systems? Why does this arbitrary invisible ghost spirit that you might catch by pressing a button or filling out a piece of paper trump the very real consequences of not voting?
Of course there are lines in the sand we should refuse to compromise on. Of course there are times that trying to work within a system to improve it can instead maintain its logic and its existence. Voting is not one of those. If every single person didn’t vote besides the candidates themselves and their cohorts, someone would still be elected into office. Not voting doesn’t do anything to the system. Making it the line in the sand that someone refuses to cross is petty, unnecessary and morally cowardly.
In fact, it seems to me that, if there is some moral contamination from voting, taking on that contamination would be a worthwhile sacrifice to take such a pollution on in order to minimize the chances of war and death.
The Republicans Want It
How can anyone who refuses to vote be comfortable with the fact that the worst reactionaries in our society actively want to suppress voter registration and turnout? It’s not a hard and fast rule, but generally speaking, when you’re on the same side of the issue as the Republicans, you’ve done fucked up.
The most reactionary sectors of society will always vote. The people who don’t want anything to change, or want things to get far worse, will vote. Corporations will make damn sure that their core supporters vote. If voting did nothing and posed no threat to the system, there would be no efforts to suppress the turnout. The fact that a large portion of the elite, the part that is less conducive to progressive causes and agendas, wish to suppress the vote should be a reason to vote in and of itself, if only out of spite and to tell them that their efforts won’t work. But it’s also a clue that the elite are in fact terrified of this democratic system that they use to give an imprimatur of legitimacy to their decisions being turned against them.
Solidarity With Those Whose Concerns Can Be Won Electorally (A Nickel’s Worth of Difference Counts When You’re Broke)
Not voting risks being racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and risks supporting Christian hegemony and supremacy.
This is a tough pill to swallow. I suspect it’s part of why many of the people who push the hardcore “disengage from society” argument end up being so retrograde on any issues that don’t have to do with the state or the economy. But it’s true.
The fact is that women, people of color, gay folks, atheists, Muslims, non-Christians of all stripes, and dozens of other groups can accomplish huge improvements within the electoral system, and the electoral system actively threatens them. Maybe people don’t much care as workers if Tweedleedeedee or Tweedledeedum are in office, but gay folks certainly care if the Supreme Court will continue to defend gay marriage and push against anti-gay discrimination, blacks certainly care about the stupidity of letting the Voting Rights Act cease, atheists certainly care about the constant efforts to constrain their rights, Muslims certainly care about the risk that they may be put onto a registry or deported or prevented from traveling out of or into the country, and so forth. (Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but you can ask a lot of Iraqis if they think that Al Gore really would have been identical to George W. Bush).
Even if you don’t care at all about the needs of a huge majority of the population, the fact is that any anarchist social change will require solidarity across race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religious lines. Out of all of the things you could do to show solidarity with dozens of groups, what are less
And I’ve always found it hilarious when any white radical dares to tell black folks that they’re being naive about oppression or are misunderstanding the system. It’s not altogether impossible, of course, but does anyone really think that you need to inform the African-American community that the state and corporations can suck really hard? They got that memo, thanks. They’ve lived that for hundreds of years. Native Americans can tell you plenty about the brutality and hypocrisy of the state. So the fact that African-Americans as a group loudly support the Democratic Party should tell any radical something: the Republicans are a real threat to them.
Howard Zinn used to say that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. But the fact is that, when you’re broke, you don’t spit at a nickel. Any gain that can be gained from voting is worth the several hours at most that it takes to do it.
It’s Basically Risk-Free
What is the harm of voting?
Imagine that you vote for the Green candidate (or, if you lean more anarcho-capitalist, the Libertarian Party). These parties aren’t going to win a major election any time soon.
Heck, imagine that you vote for the Democrat. What’s the real likelihood that one vote will change the entire dynamic? Oh, sure, it’s happened: In 2016, it happened to Sanders several times that a vote in a particular district was literally tied.
Voting does not in and of itself pollute, or drop bombs, or give tax revenue to unjust institutions. It expresses an opinion between choices that by and large you did not pick. Even those who oppose it offer harms that are intangible and arbitrary.
It’s The Society We Want to Build
You can’t build a better society without acting in a way that makes it come about and acts within that society’s better norms.
Would a just society have voting?
Yes. A just society would have more voting. People would be able to choose to create communities with complex democratic norms and with direct democracy.
How can we indicate that our values include civic participation and self-management without actually doing either?
And this is actually where the real disagreement tends to be among anarchists. There’s actually two types of anarchists: those who care about liberty and justice for all, and those that care about liberty and justice for themselves. I know that that sounds harsh, but after fifteen years of being an anarchist, it is a reality that I think is inescapable.
The kind of anarchists who hold their nose
Trump Is A Dumpster Fire
Trump is of course more of a symbol for the reality of white supremacy, homophobia, Christian supremacy, and generally ugly reactionary politics. But he is an object lesson and a good example as to why it’s moral cowardice not to vote.
If Trump wins, it sends a very clear, unambiguous signal to Americans and to the world: “This kind of politics is tolerated here. We accept when someone intentionally stokes white supremacist resentment. We accept the politics of fascism”.
Sometimes, a vote is about more than some abstract principle of a future society. Sometimes. it’s about the very real circumstances of the country you live in. Trump is that circumstance. He must be beaten, indeed crushed, in every state, in order to loudly indicate that we will not tolerate a society where the state and private actors collude in order to propagate racism, crush the living and working opportunities of the poor, and where we tolerate the murder of civilians.
It Promotes Paying Attention to Politics
How many of those who refuse to vote are wonks who are aware of what their Senator, their Congresspeople, and their local politicians are doing?
You can’t be aware of the impact of a decision that you’re refusing to make. Anarchists may not like it, but in an unjust system, you must be more aware of the politics than under a system we would prefer.
It’s Part of a Strategy
Voting, letters to Congressmen, protests, demands for improvements within the system, boycotts… none of these are revolutionary in and of themselves. Even an individual battle isn’t a revolution.
If you just vote, yes, you will not accomplish real social change. But the same is absolutely true of any other tactic. No tactic on its own is going to win a better society.
Movements must come together to create a coherent strategy for change. We have to consider the full trajectory of how we will come from the unjust society we live in to the society we want to be in.
If an anarchist doesn’t want to do that work, they have no business calling themselves an anarchist.
Choosing the politicians that are least likely to do harm and most likely to promote policies that will promote liberty, happiness, equity, solidarity and justice is worth the time and debate. It’s worth the challenge and the disagreements.