What is the ballot? It is neither more nor less than a paper representative of the bayonet, the billy, and the bullet. It is a labor-saving device for ascertaining on which side force lies and bowing to the inevitable. The voice of the majority saves bloodshed, but it is no less the arbitrament of force than is the decree of the most absolute of despots backed by the most powerful of armies.
~ Benjamin R. Tucker
November 7th — like any other date in history — has born witness to birth dates and events with both positive and negative connotations. On the affirmative side, it is the birthday of Albert Camus and Konrad Lorenz. On the other side of the ledger, it is also the birthday of Heinrich Himmler, the date of FDR’s election to a fourth term as president, and the date on which Anne Hutchinson was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a u201Cheretic.u201D
This November 7th will also be the date of the forty-second anniversary of my non-participation in the voting process. I can assert that I have been u201Ccleanu201D from the politicoholic addiction for over four decades. I have no intentions of ever again sneaking into an enclosed booth — that serves the same purpose of hiding one’s embarrassing habits as those found in an adult bookstore — to conspire with a multitude of others to despoil you of your liberties or property.
I shall, of course, continue to be asked by some of my colleagues and students why I am not wearing one of those little stickers — reminiscent of bird-droppings — that reads u201CI voted.u201D Mark Foley will have to endure far less opprobrium for his actions than do those of us for whom it has become known that we are, as a matter of principle, opposed to the practice of voting. u201CAre you apathetic?u201D, or u201Cdid you just forget to register?u201D, or u201Care you making a protest against the quality of candidates?u201D, is the usual litany of responses I get to my non-voting stance. u201CApathy is not something I care about one way or the other,u201D I reply, as my inquisitor heads off fearful of contemplating the unthinkable: that someone may be philosophically opposed to the democratic process!
As others go forth to participate in this silliest of all rituals — designed to convince members of the boobeoisie that they are really running the political zoo — I shall be engaged in more productive pursuits, such as picking the lint out of my navel.
The media priesthood has already begun the chant: if there is something wrong with the political system, we need to go to the polls to fix the problem. One of the media stalwarts has his own solution: u201Cgo to the polls and vote out every incumbent.u201D Don’t dare consider, of course, that there may be something fundamentally dysfunctional about the system itself. If drinking a quart of Scotch each day has given you cirrhosis of the liver, don’t bother with changing your habits, just change to another brand of Scotch!
We need to remind ourselves of Albert Einstein’s admonition: u201Cwe can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.u201D Trying to reform the political process makes no more sense than trying to reform the carnivorous appetites of jungle beasts. If it is your desire to put an end to the violent, destructive, corrupt, and dysfunctional nature of government, stop wasting your time by focusing on the current management of the system. Rather than dutifully going to the polls to select from a narrow list of options provided you by political interests that you neither know nor control, you might want to inquire into who is providing the cast of characters — and writing the script — for a performance you are expected not only to attend, but to cheer.
To create a system which, by definition, enjoys a legal monopoly on the use of force, and then allow that system to become the judge of its own authority, is an error of such enormity that one can only wonder why grown men and women would be surprised to discover such powers being u201Cabused.u201D Creating the system is the abuse. Directing our criticism to members of the present cast while overlooking the backers of the play — who have substitute performers waiting in the wings — exceeds the bounds of innocence. It is like placing a bowlful of candy in front of a number of small children, and expecting the candy not to be touched in your absence.
The media guru who advocates voting out all incumbents has doubtless picked up on a widespread mood of despair within the American public. From my conversations with students and co-workers, numerous e-mails I receive, as well as seeing television interviews of people, I sense an attitude that has been expressed to me in so many words: u201CI know what you say is true, but what can we do about it?u201D There is no expectation that another candidate or political party can remedy the problems such people see. Knowing that there is nothing within the u201Csystemu201D that can produce a reversal of what politics has become, they have given up.
It is easy to understand this sense of frustration on the part of people who may be on the verge of discovering that politics — not the candidates — is the problem to be overcome. They have endured decades of u201Cthrow the rascals out!u201D that only provided them another gang of rascals to evict from office in the next election. The fraudulent Ronald Reagan — with his promise to u201Cget the government off your backs!u201D — generated massive increases in the size, power, and expense of the state. Newt Gingrich’s u201Ccontract with Americau201D quickly revealed itself as but another u201Ccontract on America,u201D and so has the sleight-of-hand show continued up to today. One need only listen to the unfocused gurgling of u201CMake-No-Wavesu201D Nancy Pelosi — the Democratic Party’s current leading figurine — to discover how irrelevant the outcome of this election portends for the rest of us.
As the Republican Party — with its control over the White House and Congress — reveals its deceitful, corrupt, and destructive foundations, turning to the Democratic Party as an alternative is now seen by most Americans as utterly futile. Increasing millions of people now see the two-party system for what it has always been: two choices of rule offered by a political establishment that doesn’t care one bit which gang prevails at the polls. This is why recent elections have come down to such inane non-issues as Willie Horton’s parole, the pledge of allegiance, John Kerry’s war record, and — presumably — the content of Mark Foley’s e-mails.
The media continues to prattle about the big u201Crevolutionu201D that will take place this November 7th. In order to encourage our participation in this biennial charade, we are being told that the American people have had enough of the duplicity; special-interest corruption; lying; and engorged appetites for police-state surveillance, secret trials, and torture. These same Americans will march to the polls, we are further advised, to vote the Republicans out of power and replace them with Democrats.
But when a Tweedledum Republican is opposed on the ballot by a Tweedledummer Democrat, even a handful of the Faux-News faithful may recognize the fungible nature of the various Republocrats. I have, in recent years, discovered only one member of Congress who is an exception to this, namely, Ron Paul from Texas. It is instructive that Paul — a philosophically principled Republican — has long been vigorously opposed by both the Republican and Democratic chieftains, a phenomenon that ought to be a tip-off to the identity of the real interests in any election.
I suspect that, like myself, those who have lost their innocence about politics will also be staying home on November 7th. After years of playing the carnival shell-game and losing their egg-money to clever sharpies, many Americans have finally experienced the working definition of u201Cinsanity,u201D namely, u201Cdoing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.u201D
But that ever-dwindling minority of Americans who do continue to vote will express their faith in and commitment to the system that is destroying both themselves and their children. They will stagger into voting booths, cast their ballots, and have their Pavlovian conditioning reinforced with the reward of an u201CI votedu201D sticker with which to let others know of their devotion to the faith.
But as the decision making of those who do vote will continue to reflect the same confusion and unprincipled base that always accompanies trips to the polls, I suspect that the results will show no substantial change in the current makeup of Congress; that the Republicans will continue to be in control of all aspects of the federal state. The GOP may even gain seats.
For the same reason that Major League Baseball is benefited by the World Series whether the Cardinals or the Tigers win it, the political establishment is served by the outcome of the elections it runs, no matter who the candidate is. We recognize and accept baseball as a game and, since we are generally not required to support it, there is no problem with it. But we have been too well-conditioned in the political mindset to be willing to look at this system and see it for the vicious and involuntary game that it has always been; a game over which we delude ourselves into believing we control with our ballots. After all, as Emma Goldman reminded us, u201Cif voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.u201D
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.