Archive for category Res Publica
So here is an idea for voting reform. What do you think? [Hat tip to my student Scott K. for making me aware of CGP Grey‘s thought-provoking videos.]
I read that thing on not voting.
What did you think?
It raised issues for you?
Yes. For instance, what about the senate race in Virginia? It was won by about 17,000 votes. That’s not a lot of votes.
Sounds like a lot of votes.
Well, it’s not in a state the size of Virginia. And what about the Maryland gubernatorial race? In the weeks leading up to the election the eventual loser was leading in all the polls, in some by double digits. So maybe what happened is that people who supported the leader in the polls took that advice in the article…
It was not meant as “advice.”
…took that advice to stay home, thereby allowing the other candidate to win. Isn’t that a great argument in favor of voting? Every vote really does count?
The article did not argue that one should never vote. If there is a close race with candidates with clearly different views on issues that matter.…
Yeah, but the article implied that if a race looked already sewn up that voting doesn’t matter. Well this race looked decided according to the polls, but, as they say, there is only one poll that matters. And the result was very different when the votes were counted.
You cannot say with any kind of certainty that the reason the loser lost (after being ahead in the polls) is that only those people who supported the eventual loser decided to stay home because of their candidate’s lead in the polls. It is entirely possible that the eventual winner (despite being behind in the polls in the run-up to the election) made a big advertisement push, or that the polls seemed to concern those people who supported the eventual winner and so motivated them to make sure they voted. There could be a number of reasons for the outcome.
Okay, what if the race would have been won by exactly one vote?
Then if I voted for the person down by one, there’d have to be a run-off (after what I’m sure would be very, very expensive additional vote counting, law suits, etc.). If, on the other hand, I had voted for the person up by one, that person would’ve won by two.
So there’s just no reason to vote?
I did not and have not said that. I am just trying to get us to look at what is going on with voting in all its complexity. So, for instance, I am also asking whether in the Maryland or the Virginia race or any other, whether there is a real difference between the candidates. If, to give another example, you voted for Obama because you didn’t like Bush’s war mongering, you had to be sorely disappointed. There turned out not to have been a dime’s bit of difference between them in the real world.
You’re making me not want to vote.
Well, that’s not my intention. I hope what I’m making you do is to think a lot more about voting than you probably do. You might still vote (even if I don’t). And in the future I might vote in some election in which you don’t. What I’m opposed to is mindlessness in voting (and non-voting, for that matter).
I just heard a guy on the radio say that in his “political manifesto,” he’d make it mandatory that people vote.
Okay, the argument that it be mandatory to vote (but not, evidently, mandatory that the voter be educated, that the candidates be clear on their positions, that the dissemination of views not be skewed by money, and so on), is that if everybody participated we might have a different looking country. The guy implies that he thinks it is solely a moral failing on the part of non-voters (the lazy bastards!). But is that accurate? Is there a real, legitimate, justifiable reason that people have for not voting? I think there is. I think a large part of the electorate has those reasons. I do not think it is the case that those who vote are more informed and more civic minded than those who don’t. The non-voters’ engagement with their communities might take a much different and, in the current conditions, much more effective form.
I heard that two-thirds of the electorate did not vote on Tuesday.
Yes. And my point is that that must be concerning to all of us, but we ought not to jump to the conclusion that non-voters are just lazy, that voters are more informed than non-voters, that voting must be made mandatory, etc. It is a sign of disease among the citizenry, but the patriotic scolds have almost certainly misdiagnosed it.
So, to everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.
— President Obama, press conference, November 5, 2014.
Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to be heard.
I did not vote on Tuesday. I willfully did not vote. I specifically, purposefully, intentionally did not vote. I want to explain, but what follows should not be taken to be an argument against voting per se nor is it meant to be a criticism of your decision to vote (if in fact you did vote).
First things first, however. I have no intentions of being moved by those patriotic scolds out there who are about to chastise my not voting, nor will I accept their proposed punishment that I keep silent, that I have no right to complain about the government. That is blatant nonsense. I was endowed by my Creator with a right to express my views, an inalienable right, an irrevocable, unconditional right, accorded me by the very fact that I’m a human being. To quote the philosopher M.C. Hammer: “U can’t touch this!” I’ll not be silent (and neither should you be).
I have asserted elsewhere that my not voting does not nullify my right to vote. A right to vote is not an obligation to vote. My right to vote is not contingent upon my actually voting. It is not “use it or lose it.”
We know that some people had to fight very hard for the right to vote — women, for instance, and people of color even today in the face of the sham voter id. rules. It was a great and noble fight, to be sure. But consider that the right had to be fought for. What does that mean? It means that there was some person or persons who had the power to deny that right to the disenfranchised. But what does that tell us? That the “right” to vote is really — in actuality, not in theory — viewed as a privilege. People worry, then, that their privilege could be taken away. That is part of the reason so many people get evangelical about voting: they consider it a “use it or lose it” privilege.
But it is not and ought not to be viewed as a privilege granted by somebody to others. It should be considered a simple offshoot of the right to freedom of speech. Voters and non-voters alike have, in my view, an inalienable right to have a say in the governance of their lives, and no one has the right to view voting as a privilege that could possibly be revoked.
I admit to anarchist tendencies, and anarchists tend to be critical of voting. But one can be a principled anarchist (and that is not an oxymoron) and still vote — in certain circumstances. While the midterm elections were going on, my neighbors were out campaigning. Not for a gubernatorial candidate but rather for their positions on two referendum questions pertaining to our neighborhood alone: whether we should allow ourselves to have motorcycles and whether we should allow ourselves to install invisible fences for our dogs. My neighbors have been going door-to-door, circulating arguments, and so on. Residents are taking two weeks to hold the vote (ballots being accepted at any time during that period). I am certainly going to vote on these two issues. Notice that I said this issues concern our “allowing ourselves.” We are not supplicants to somebody else in those matters. We deliberatively and collectively are determining for ourselves how it is best for us to be. Of course, not everyone will be pleased with the outcome, but given that reasonable people can disagree, this kind of deliberative democracy, though imperfect, is about the best we can do. I’m all for it. It is not that anarchists must be opposed to order or organization; rather, the argument is about the forms of that organization.
The voting that was going on down the street at the polling place is much different. I have no fear of contradiction when I assert that most of the voters had no idea of the actual policy positions of the candidates (and that’s not entirely the fault of the voters, by the way). Even the candidates for local office are simply names on yard signs to most voters. People, I’m sure, tended to vote their party affiliation without any real understanding of what it means to be “Democrat” or “Republican” at the local level, and I expect they don’t have a very clear idea of the actual (and not simply the rhetorical) difference between the parties at the national level.
In addition, I am confident that most of the voters exhausted the entirety of their civic engagement in those few moments in the voting booth. They equate democracy with voting. They equate voting with being a patriot. They equate voting with civic responsibility. And when they’ve pulled the lever, they are done with all that.
Now these are the scolds who are very quick to criticize anyone who chooses not to vote in a particular election. I’ve spent more time on just this present set of reflections (one of many) than most people did “performing their civic duty” on election day. And it is a fair question whether this humble essay will have more or less (positive) effect on the world than one voter’s vote. For instance, the incumbent governor of Pennsylvania effectively lost his chance at reelection two years ago. The result was a foregone conclusion, a done deal. The governor-elect barely had to break a sweat. He even declined to dole out the customary “street money” ($340,000 in this case) for greasing the wheels on election day. Why? He claimed noble reasons (“I don’t want to pay people to vote for me”), but in reality he simply did not need to spend the money. We all knew he won before the polls even opened.
You might say that if everyone had my attitude, the outcome might have been different. But not everyone has my attitude, do they? Not everyone is particularly interested in participatory democracy. They’re interested in voting. So long as they are, the outcomes in races like the one in Pennsylvania are eminently predictable.
I am for the most part unimpressed by the “lesser of two evils” argument for voting…and especially for voting for one of the candidates from the Big Two parties. “Don’t you see, if you don’t vote (or if you vote for a third-party candidate), you’ll be helping Evil Candidate X win the election. Therefore you must vote for Slightly-Less-Evil Candidate Y who represents the Slightly-Less-Evil Other of the Big Two Parties. It is the lesser of two evils.” But why do evil at all? Why not work, even if it is your own humble little way (kind of like your vote), to promote an alternative to the evils of the two party system?
Now I don’t want to be partisan in this post, but have you seen some of the people you voters have elected? I for one am not going to be lectured to about political wisdom by people who voted for…no…I will just have to resist naming the stupid and/or corrupt people you voters put in office. You know full well — don’t you? — who they are. And if you do, shame on you for electing them. And if you don’t, well, you’ve got nothing to say to me. I mean, one state returned to office a person whose entire platform is dedicated to being completely obstructionist. In other words, this person’s mission is to not to govern at all — not in the “that government governs best which governs least” sense, but in the sense that this person will work hard simply to thwart whatever the other side would like to do…even if it really were to contribute to the common good. Should I be complicit with that?
Nationwide, $4 billion was spent on this election. Four billion dollars! Our public schools are run down, our infrastructure is crumbling, our natural world is being devastated, and you voters — yes! you must take responsibility — wasted $4 billion on these elections. Money well-spent, would you say?
I am a registered independent voter. I am not permitted to vote in primary elections because I do not belong to a political party. In many districts, office holders are selected in the primaries — the disparity in party affiliation making the general election moot. In fact, I think I ought not to be allowed to vote in a primary election. Granted that we’re going to continue to have these kinds of elections, I think the parties themselves should select their candidates. However, I do not think I ought to have to pay for these elections. Let the parties fund their own selection process for their candidates. Why should I have to pay for the workings of a party with which I have little common interest?
Or here is an alternative: Public financing alone for this step in the process. All parties and their potential candidates for the general election, not just the Big Two, have equal access to the polls and to a reasonable array of public media in order to present their respective cases. You could do all this for a lot less than $4B. Worried that this would stop all the tv commercials and robo-calls to your house (hahahaha…of course aren’t…it’d be a blessing!) and that this would be an infringement of freedom of speech? Don’t worry. You’ll get over it. The public media will give you plenty of opportunity to hear all sides on all issues — in fact, you’ll have way more information than you get with all the attack ads you have to endure now.
There are lots of other election reforms that we could discuss, all of which would serve to strengthen democracy (i.e., that would start do do away with this fake democracy the patriotic scolds perpetually mistake for the real thing with a kind of religious fervor). But let’s leave that for another day.
Let me reiterate: I am not arguing against all voting. I am not saying I will never vote, no matter what. I am not telling you that you should not vote. I am simply pointing out that not voting is not the moral failure that some of you voters claim it is. Unlike you, I am not a Manichean about politics. I don’t think there is One Party of Light and One Party of Darkness. I think — only because it is true — that there are lots of political parties, but that we don’t get to hear much about them because of all you Manicheans. I am reminding you that voting is not all there is to democracy, and it is perfectly possible (I know, because it happens to be actual) that you can hold elections and still not have a genuine democracy. I recognize that there are non-voters who don’t vote out of apathy (but is the apathy entirely their fault?) or from laziness. But there is also a certain laziness in perhaps the majority of voters, who, thoroughly uninformed, sheepishly head to the polls yammering in their Manichean way about how the sky will fall if Evil Party/Candidate X wins the race. Some even declare, in that event, that they’ll leave for Canada. But, alas, they never do.
Truthfully, I don’t want them to. What I want is an increase in democratic participation. As things stand, I don’t think that is accurately measured by voter turnout.
I saw one of those picture-posts in my Facebook stream this morning that read, “When you skip voting, it’s not rebellion. It’s surrender.” As one might imagine, there was a great deal of discussion in the comments section. The overwhelming majority of the responses held that if you do not vote, you do not have the right to complain about the government. Following on the heels of this claim is the implication that one has not just a right to vote but a responsibility to vote.
I side with the minority on these claims. I am stunned by how easily people will say that if you do not vote you lose the right to voice your concerns. I thought my right to liberty (including liberty of conscience and speech) was inalienable. That means neither you nor I can abrogate this right – no matter what. This right was “endowed by the Creator” — or, if you don’t like the theological flavor of that claim, we could say: We just have these rights. Period.
So my voting or not voting is immaterial to my right to say whatever I think about our government. You have zero right to silence me on the basis of my not voting. You can disagree with my ideas. You can argue against them. You can simply decide to not take them seriously. But there is no valid argument for silencing me, including an argument on the basis of my voting record.
Just to underline: you have nothing to gainsay this. So stop.
Second, if I have a right to vote, I have the correlative right not to vote. But this requires some reflection.
Voting rights, as they stand, are not inalienable. That means, someone or some group might try to curtail or eliminate this right. In fact, groups try all the time (right, Republicans?). Putting aside cynical politicking (okay, Republicans?), we generally accept that those under 18 may not vote, those with a felony conviction (in some cases) may not vote, that you must be a citizen to vote, that you may vote only once, etc. There are restrictions on voting. So voting rights are limited, which makes voting seem more like a privilege than an inalienable right such as freedom of conscience. A privilege granted by whom? By those currently in the government (legislative, executive, judicial).
So if I am granted this privilege by the powers-that-be, must I exercise it? Am I required to vote? Would it be just in a free society to order people to vote and punish them if they don’t?
And vote for whom? Those on the ballot only, or should write-ins be allowed (as they are today)? If write-ins continue to be allowed, and you force everyone (well, those you deem worthy of the privilege anyway…) to vote, and if everyone irritated by having to vote when they don’t want to comes down to the polling place and writes in their vote for their wise Aunt Sadie or whoever, what would we have then? Would that really be meaningful? Wouldn’t we have more or less the same result if those who didn’t want to vote for one of the party candidates or for a write-in candidate who has zero chance of being elected simply stayed home like they wanted to?
What should we say about those who do not vote? Do they not vote because they are apathetic, lazy, disenchanted, cynical, contented, accepting, wise, rebellious, forgetful, incompetent, statement-making…? What? I don’t think you know, do you? It is certainly not one thing that keeps people from voting.
So whether voting is a right or a privilege, a citizen must be free to vote or not, and without punishment if she chooses not to vote.
But what about this fear: If voting is a privilege granted by the powers-that-be, and if people do not take advantage of that privilege, won’t it be likely that the privilege will be taken away?
There are certainly anti-democratic forces at work that would like to end all voting once and for all. To call voting a privilege plays into their hands, and so it is important to see voting more as a right — an inalienable right. As such, it cannot (legitimately) be taken away or given away, for that matter. Whether anyone votes or not.
So I would say that militating for the right to vote (i.e., fighting for something already ours) is a worthy cause. We’d be out in the streets if the powers-that-be were to try to take away our right to vote (which, by the way, is — by definition here — impossible: our taking to the streets would be our “vote” in that case). Whether you then go ahead and vote, given the current system, is immaterial to that fight. The right is ours. Period.
There is an argument to be made about the efficacy of voting (see this post from 2008). We must consider how much voting becomes a substitute for democratic engagement. We must consider, too, how much of a role big money plays in elections.
There are plenty of good reasons not to vote.
What about the “lesser of two evils” argument? Candidate A may be horrible, but A is far less horrible than B. Is that a good (enough) reason to vote? Isn’t the lesser of two evils still evil? Can one be faulted for not wanting to do evil?
Well, perhaps one can. If our backs are to the wall and all our choices are bad, one cannot be faulted for choosing the least bad option, even though it is still bad. But what if our backs are not against the wall? What if there are options besides complicity with certain evils? Wouldn’t working — in whatever ways, great or small — against the broken system be at least as good (if not better) than surrendering to it? Is taking the time to write a blog post, for instance, giving a reasoned opinion on not voting worth the same as a vote in the current system? Could it even be worth more? What if we were deny the equivalence of “citizenship” and “voting”, to think that we, indeed, have responsibilities, but responsibilities as citizens and not just as voters? One might be a responsible citizen and still not vote.
To be clear, I am not arguing that you should not vote. I am arguing that if you do not vote you still have the right to voice your dissent and criticism of the government. I am arguing that you do not have responsibilities qua voter, but that you do have responsibilities qua citizen (and qua human being, for that matter). I am suggesting, too, that not voting is a form of vote, and that it can be (but, alas, is not necessarily) an act of civic responsibility.
As I write these words, there is a shooting incident ongoing at the Canadian Parliament. Here is a headline I hate (from CNN):
There is no evidence yet that the shootings are linked to Islamic extremism.
First of all, CNN is reporting on what it does not have evidence of. I am going to to way out on a limb here and say there is a lot that CNN does not have evidence of.
Second, what exactly is meant by the word “yet” in this headline? Do they have some reason to anticipate that they will have that evidence? If so, then it seems that, in fact, they do have at least some evidence for the claim. But they don’t, so the word “yet” is unjustified.
And then why mention “Islamic extremism” when attacks like the present one can be carried out by all sorts of groups or none.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I hope they get this situation controlled in short order and get to the bottom of it. And let the chips fall where they may. But CNN is way out of line with this headline at this point.
Sometimes, it starts to seem simple.
Everything. All of it.
Yeah. Sometimes I think I see the simple pattern of all the struggles that our common life together seems to bring.
Yes. Let me explain. I read the following sentences in a book:
In what measure and by what means can individuals accept themselves as mortal without any imaginary instituted compensation; in what measure can thought hold together the demands of the identitary logic which are rooted in the Legein and the exigencies of what is (which is surely not identitary without becoming for that reason incoherent); in what measure, finally and especially, can society truly recognize in its institution its own self-creation, recognize itself as institution, auto-institute itself explicitly, and surmount the self-perpetuation of the instituted by showing itself capable of taking it up and transforming it according to its own exigencies and not according to the inertia of the instituted, to recognize itself as the source of its own alterity? These are the questions, the question of revolution, which not only go beyond the frontier of the theorizable but situate themselves right away on another terrain…the terrain of the creativity of history. [Cornelius Castoriades, cited by Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy, 298-299.]
Say what, now?
Yeah, dense, isn’t it? But what is the simple meaning? To me, this goes back to Aristotle, at least. What is the good life? It is the life that is best for us to lead. How do we know it? How do we learn it? We learn it by watching others and forming habits. But what if the habits we form by watching others whom society says are worth imitating, what if that leads us to vice, not virtue? What if the whole society is corrupt? Is there any hope? Yes, because although moral virtue is very important, there is more to being a human than moral virtue. There is what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue, which is being able to see what is—even past the habits and practices and institutions of our own society. With those intellectual virtues, we always have access to the other, to the unexpressed, to the not-now visible possibilities. Indeed, this goes further back, to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which the prisoner somehow slips his bonds (but how?) and gets out of the darkness of illusion and can see what is in its truth. But the prisoner does not—cannot—live in this “realm” because he is human. He needs his institutions in order to live. Those institutions make life possible AND impossible at the same time. To say this in a formula: I am in society, but not wholly of it. I carry my alterity with me. I need the bonds of identitary logic to live AND I am always more and other than how that logic “identifies” me, how it turns me into a (mere) identity.
Perhaps that goes even further back to the very edge of thought: the many and the one, identity and difference, analysis and synthesis.
Indeed, it does. The truth is in the middle and the margin, in the in-between and at the edges.
But is what you claimed, right? Is what you just tried to say simple?
Yes. It is just that simple.
You know what your problem is?
No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me.
I am, indeed. Your problem is that you are incoherent. Or inconsistent. Or inconsistently coherent. Or something like that.
Well, I’m glad you cleared that all up for me.
I’ll demonstrate: What are you, conservative or liberal?
Do I have to be one or the other?
See what I mean?
Isn’t there a third (or fourth) choice?
I’m a nonarchist.
No you’re not.
Yes I am.
Nope. That’s just a word you made up because you simply couldn’t decide what you are.
A nonarchist believes in no first principles (archai). He differs from the anarchist in that the anarchist thinks there are no first principles. But that is his first principle, so to speak. It is not mine. I believe in no first principles, not even that one.
Isn’t that just saying there are no first principles?
No, it’s not the same. The reason anarchy is so often tied to violence is that the anarchist is usually a true believer. He believes that whatever is going on is bad and that blowing it up is a moral imperative. I do not believe that.
All anarchist are bomb-throwing maniacs?
No. In fact, I very much object to that characterization because it’s the one used by The Powers-That-Be to make anarchistic thinking seem “beyond the pale.” However, because there are in fact anarchist principles, it is possible for there to be true believers, and true believers can be very dangerous.
Is non-archy like casuistry? Are you a casuist?
Okay, yes, I suppose I am. I think there are only events, cases, and that each case has something that uniquely distinguishes it from every other case.
You know the knock on casuistry, right?
Something about inconsistency or incoherency or even hypocrisy…something like that?
Right, well the thing is, if you aren’t a casuist, then you think there are real governing patterns, forms, principles, or whatever, that take precedence over persons, places, things, and times. To me, that is hypocritical—literally, not critical enough. For the sake of your blessed consistency (the hobgoblin of tiny minds, it has been said), you are willing to neglect or deny the uniqueness of persons, places, things, and times. I am unwilling to be so sub-critical.
But if you nonarchist casuists were to win the day, then would we be absolute relativists? And if we were, wouldn’t morality go right out the window? All we’d be left with is “what’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is right for you and there is nothing we can really say to each other.”
Do you think so? I don’t. Or at least, I don’t think it would turn out like that. I think we human beings have a lot in common—a whole lot, in fact—even though each of us is unique.
Well, then, are these commonalities the first principles of ethics?
Not like some people think. You can’t just read off these commonalities and develop an algorithm to solve all our problems once and for all. But we are real people with real commonalities in real situations, and from within them we can try—no guarantees—to solve our problems. Or maybe even find that what we think are problems really aren’t problems at all.
What do you mean?
Well, for instance, “religion” seems to have been a longstanding problem for us human beings. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
If we didn’t have to be so consistent and coherent and all that, maybe each person could be religious (or not) in his own way without that seeming such a scandal to others. And, at the same time, the person living out this “religious” expression won’t be so damn certain (coherent, consistent) that he lets it bring him misery or to wreak misery on others.
That’s a lot to hope for.
I am a religious man.
You are a nonarchist, casuist, religious man.
Yes, for starters. I am also a man who likes pizza. Consistently, you’ll be pleased to know.
There’s hope for you….
I’m all about hope!
We don’t understand. And that lack of understanding leads to fear. And that fear leads to acting like idiots.
Why we should fear the fear of the unknown, via ISIS, Ebola, and Why Fear of the Unknown Makes Us Stupid.
Those of us who advocate the legalization of so-called “recreational” drugs (or, better, the ending of the “war on drugs”) would do well to consider the facts presented in this piece. A stint in law enforcement made clear to me the role of alcohol in crime: I can’t remember taking anyone in who was not under the influence at the time of their illegal activity.
This doesn’t change my mind about the fact that the “war on drugs” has cost millions (probably billions) of dollars only to have exacerbated the level of violence, societal blight, and personal misery. I never said (or ever believed) that legalizing drugs would solve all our problems. I still think it would be a step in the right direction. The suggestions in this article for better coping with our alcohol problems could be extended to the challenges of legal drugs.