Voting: Suppressing Change Through the Pursuit of Power

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A sizable portion
of the American electorate heads to the polls today to cast votes
for members of the House and Senate, as well as various governors
and representatives in the states. The campaigns this season have
been particularly brutal, buzzing with allegations or evocations
of gay sex, pedophilia, bribery and corruption, racial prejudice,
preference for the rights of terrorists over the safety of Americans,
and a craven desire to turn tail and run from the Iraqi field of
battle. It seems a worthwhile time to ask ourselves, now, while
so many of us are at a fever pitch, before we know the results of
the election and bask in elation or wallow in sorrow, before the
question recedes far into the background, subordinated to our efforts
either to exploit our side's newfound power, or to gather strength
and mobilize for the next election battle: what is this thing so
many of us are about to do?

I write this
not to dissuade anyone, at this hour, from voting, far less to encourage
anyone to vote for particular candidates, but simply to provide
food for thought, and more importantly, to urge voters to consider
an alternate form of activism beginning on the day after the election,
regardless of whether their party wins or loses. It is important
to question what, exactly, it is we have when we have the vote,
if we are to advance one step beyond our present position.

I'd like to
return to what a few notables and ne'er-do-wells from the 19th
century said on this subject, back when American and English democracy
were still young and (thought to be) full of great promise. In part
I do this because these authors' works are easily accessible. But
more importantly, I cite their discussions as an indication that
the truth of a thing can be known or available for a long time,
while people continue playing the same fruitless game, convinced
it is a game that can be won and, even better, that they
can win, without ever letting the truth of the thing sink in and
alter their course of action. Perhaps now is the time some will
choose to forever break with this pattern, and set off in a new
direction. I urge this consideration because there seems to be little
solace or hope available in the results of the election regardless
of which party wins. If the Republicans retain control of the Congress
after the history of the last six years, they will conclude, rightly,
that they can essentially get away with anything, confident that
their base will never abandon them as long as the party leadership
and its associated spokesmen in talk radio, newspapers and evangelical
Christians can continue to successfully portray the Democrats as
closer to Pure Evil in the lesser of two evils sweepstakes known
as elections. If the Democrats gain control of Congress, or at least
the House, there seems precious little cause for celebration. This
is the party that, given a President who lied us into an unjust
and illegal war, who admits violating statutes and the Constitution
and arrogates to himself the right to exempt himself from laws,
cannot even bring itself to promise that, if it obtains majority
control, it will end the war as expeditiously as possible, repeal
the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act, defund the President's
illegal activities or commence impeachment proceedings. As Joseph
Sobran has pointed out, it is a delusion to believe there are two
parties which stand for different principles, when one party never
repeals or revokes the acts made while the other party was in control,
but leaves them standing while pursuing its own, new agenda.

What, then,
is the vote? The vote offers the prospect to the electorate that,
if they can succeed in forming themselves into a majority, they
may enact or force their ideas of what is good for all upon a minority
that is opposed or indifferent to that vision. The vote is a contest
in which the stakes are power over the minority. And how is this
contest conducted, and how do people who have the vote behave? In
the Pickwick
Papers
(1837), Charles Dickens provides a description
of electorate behavior that captures the Blue State/Red State America
of today as fully as the perfervid election contests of early 19th
century England:

It appears,
then, that the Eatanswill people, like the people of many other
small towns, considered themselves of the utmost and most mighty
importance, and that every man in Eatanswill, conscious of the
weight that attached to his example, felt himself bound to unite,
heart and soul, with one of the two great parties that divided
the town — the Blues and the Buffs. Now the Blues lost no opportunity
of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing
the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and
Blues met together at public meeting, Town-Hall, fair, or market,
disputes and high words arose between them. With these dissensions
it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill
was made a party question. If the Buffs proposed to new sky-light
the market-place, the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced
the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional
pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast
at the enormity. There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns
and Buff inns; — there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle, in the
very church itself.

Of course
it was essentially and indispensably necessary that each of these
powerful parties should have its chosen organ and representative;
and, accordingly, there were two newspapers in the town — the
Eatanswill Gazette and the Eatanswill Independent; the former
advocating Blue principles, and the latter conducted on grounds
decidedly Buff. Fine newspapers they were. Such leading articles,
and such spirited attacks! — "Our worthless contemporary,
the Gazette" — "That disgraceful and dastardly
journal, the Independent" — "That false and scurrilous
print, the Independent" — "That vile and slanderous
calumniator, the Gazette;" these, and other spirit-stirring
denunciations were strewn plentifully over the columns of each,
in every number, and excited feelings of the most intense delight
and indignation in the bosoms of the townspeople.

Mr. Pickwick,
with his usual foresight and sagacity, had chosen a peculiarly
desirable moment for his visit to the borough. Never was such
a contest known. The Honourable Samuel Slumkey, of Slumkey Hall,
was the Blue candidate; and Horatio Fizkin, Esq., of Fizkin Lodge,
near Eatanswill, had been prevailed upon by his friends to stand
forward on the Buff interest. The Gazette warned the electors
of Eatanswill that the eyes not only of England, but of the whole
civilized world, were upon them; and the Independent imperatively
demanded to know, whether the constituency of Eatanswill were
the grand fellows they had always taken them for, or base and
servile tools, undeserving alike of the name of Englishmen and
the blessings of freedom.

This is the
vote; it has always been the vote; it will always be the vote. Polarization
of all human interaction and endeavors, universal rancor and dissension,
slander, calumny, lies, deliberate mischaracterization of the words,
positions and deeds of the opposition, self-righteous indignation,
fantasies of crushing the opposition, and sheer delight in the downfall
of others.

The essence
of the vote is the acquisition of power over others, not, note well,
the good faith determination of the relative worthiness of specific
societal goals. If it were the latter, the vote would be structured
as a vote on goals or programs, and the Congress and President could
be a semi-permanent group of functionaries or administrators whose
job was nothing more or less than to implement those goals in good
faith. As the prevalence of negative campaigning illustrates, because
the essence of the contest is to determine who will rule over others,
the contest invariably turns on the character of the persons who
will exercise this power, not on specific programs or goals of the
candidates, as each side seeks to portray the other as evil bogeymen
who cannot be trusted with power, who will wreak havoc on our country
and quite possibly end life as we know it. Because the stakes are
power over others, and not a circumscribed, narrow power but a virtually
unlimited power, the natural reaction to this attempted power grab
is the fiercest opposition. The nature of the contest — – the pursuit
of power over others — by its nature creates polarization and opposition,
and calls forth ugly emotions and underhanded tactics.

People put
faith in government because they view it as an instrument for mutual
protection, reform of injurious practices, punishment of wrong-doers,
and general maintenance of good order and conduct. The 19th
century New England preacher, Adin Ballou, asked us to consider,
however, whether it was reasonable to believe that a system so constituted
was actually capable of achieving such goals. After all, the tactics
employed in the vote do not end, and the nature of the contest does
not change, after the election. The same tactics are used in promoting
the adoption of new legislation or appointments to the judiciary.
Is it reasonable to suppose that such means are genuinely constituted
to achieve harmony and well-being in a real commonwealth? Is this
how people who truly feel kinship
with one another and seek one another's best interests behave? Can
such means result in mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation
in pursuit of a common good?

Many people
seem to take for granted that legal and political action afford
to good men indispensable instrumentalities for the promotion
of moral reform, or at least for the maintenance of wholesome
order in society. Hence we hear much said of the duty of enforcing
certain penal laws, of voting for just rulers, and of rendering
government "a terror to evil-doers." Now I make no objection
to any kind of legal or political action, which is truly Christian
action. Nor do I deny that some local and temporary good has been
done by prosecutions at law, voting in our popular elections,
and exercising the functions of magistracy, under the prevailing
system of human government. But I contend that there is very little
legal and political action under this system, which is strictly
Christian action. And I deny that professedly good men do half
as much to promote as they do to subvert moral reform and wholesome
order in society, by legal and political action. The common notions
respecting these matters are extremely superficial, delusive and
mischievous. Look at facts:

  1. Is it
    not a fact, that men strenuous for legal coercion, who devote
    themselves to the prosecution of lawbreakers as an important
    duty, generally become incapable of benevolent, patient, suasory
    moral action? Do they not become mere compulsionists? Do they
    not become disagreeable to humble minds, and objects of defiance
    to the lawless? Is not this generally the case? I am sure it
    is. Reliance on injurious penal force costs more than it comes
    to, as an instrumentality for the promotion of moral reform.
    It works only a little less mischievously in morals than in
    religion.

  2. Is it
    not a fact, that equally good men are divided among all the
    rival political parties, and that, under pretence of doing their
    duty to God and humanity, they vote point blank for and against
    the same men and measures, mutually thwarting, as far as possible,
    each others’ preferences? Every man knows this. Does God
    make it their duty to practice this sheer contradiction and
    hostility of effort at the ballot-box! Does enlightened humanity
    prompt it! No; there must be a cheat somewhere in the
    game. The Holy Ghost does not blaspheme the Holy Ghost; nor
    Satan cast out Satan. Either the men are not good, or
    their notions of duty are false. [Emphasis supplied.]

  3. Is it
    not a fact that the most scrupulously moral and circumspect
    men in all the rival political parties are uniformly found,
    with very rare exceptions, either among the rank and file of
    their party, or in the inferior offices? Are our wisest and
    best men of each party put forward as leaders? Are not the managers
    — the real wire-pullers — generally selfish, unscrupulous men?
    Whatever may be the exceptions, is not this the general rule?
    We have all seen that it is. How then is it to be accounted
    for, on the supposition that political action is so adapted
    to moral reform and wholesome order in society? The facts contradict
    the theory. The good men in political parties are not the leaders,
    but the led. They do not use political action to a noble end,
    but are themselves the dupes and fools of immoral managers —
    put up or put upon, foremost or rearmost, in the center or on
    the flank, just as they will show and count to the best advantage.
    All they are wanted for is to show and count against the same
    class in the other party. Their use is to give respectability,
    weight of character and moral capital to their party. They are
    the “stool pigeons,” the “decoy ducks,” the take-ins of their
    managers. The way they are used and the game of iniquity played
    off, are the proofs of this. Yet this is what many simple souls
    call having influence.

  4. Is it
    not a fact that of the very few high-toned moral men, who happen
    to get into the headquarters of political distinction, not one
    in ten escapes contamination, or utter disgust?

And now what
do all these facts prove? That under the present system of government,
legal and political action is generally anti-Christian. That political
good men are influential chiefly as tools for mischief. And that
non-political good men are the most likely to render legalists
and politicians DECENT in the affairs of government. [From Chapter
VII, Christian
Non-Resistance
(1846)]

Ballou saw
that the nature of government, the very nature of the perpetual
contest among people to acquire power over one another, belied the
stated purposes of creating a genuine commonwealth. Such system
was supremely well constituted, however, to be commandeered by the
unscrupulous for selfish purposes, all the while gaining moral legitimacy
from the well-intentioned who navely believed that power could
be used to better society.

Another 19th
century New Englander exposed voting as a self-delusory form of
gaming with moral issues that flatters the voter's self-importance
without achieving anything significant. While Thoreau's Civil
Disobedience
is widely known for its exposition of a particular
form of resistance and protest, less attention is typically paid
to one of the great themes of that work, namely, that such form
of protest is necessary because government is founded on majority
rule and established by the vote. Thoreau derides the self-delusion,
passivity and ineffectiveness of those who believe it possible to
reform the government, and to establish what is right, by the vote,
namely, by expressing their opinion.

There are
thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war,
who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming
themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with
their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what
to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom
to the question of free trade, and quietly read the prices-current
along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and,
it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current
of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret,
and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and
with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy
the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most,
they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed,
to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine
patrons of virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal
with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian
of it.

All voting
is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight
moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral
questions; . . . The character of the voters is not staked. I
cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally
concerned that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it
to the majority. . . . Even voting for the right is doing nothing
for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it
should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy
of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.
There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When
the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery,
it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because
there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.
They will then be the only slaves.

The voter acts
under the delusion that he may bring about some result in the world
by the mere expression of his opinion. This is a delusion
that flatters a man's self-importance, and conduces to keep him
in his place while he busies himself with finding, joining and creating
men of like opinion, since that which he wants depends on numbers.
Most talk radio, much punditry, and much group "leadership"
is built on this delusion: the flattery of having one's own opinions
affirmed and repeated with stentorian righteousness, the busyness
of building consensus, that is, uniform blocks of opinion, the self-importance
attached to the assumption that one's mere opinion, one's
voice, counts for something.

For Thoreau,
there is only one test of what a man really esteems and believes:
that which he acts upon. A man who is really concerned with
a matter will not simply express an opinion on the subject, or petition
for what he believes is right. He acts, without waiting first for
the approval of the majority. "If you are cheated out of a
single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing
that you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even
with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual
steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never
cheated again. Action from principle, and the perception and the
performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially
revolutionary."

By establishing
a system founded on the marshalling of opinion, people who believe
that the best or most efficacious means of achieving their goals
for the country is by securing victory for their party are shunted
into perpetually busying themselves with building party and consensus,
and to that extent cease doing actual work to achieve their goals.
And this, from the perspective of the elites who benefit from the
status quo, is the great stability and improvement inherent in democracy,
in contrast to other forms of government: by offering the commoners
the prospect of acquiring power, and a power founded on marshaling
those who share similar views, people busy themselves primarily
with the acquisition and maintenance of power and efforts to build
"consensus," thereby effectively preserving and prolonging
the status quo.

It is sometimes
averred that, whatever defects government by majority rule has,
it has the merit of minimizing conflict by providing a means by
which the majority can achieve or pursue its goals, without resorting
to actual violence and bloodshed. This is wrong, however, because
the system is founded on opinion and it costs next to nothing to
have an opinion. The real worth of a thing and strength of a desire
is revealed by what a person actually does, not what opinion
he holds. It is far too easy to believe a thing and never act upon
it. It is far too easy to hold beliefs that are little more than
self-flattering opinions about oneself that one takes credit for
holding.

If the Iraq
War depended upon only those who would actually volunteer to go
there and fight and those who would voluntarily pay to support it,
we would soon find out how many supporters of the war there really
were. A man who acts upon what he believes will soon experience
real life consequences of his behavior; he will learn, adapt or
respond accordingly. A man can hold an opinion that it costs him
little to nothing to hold forever. Far from minimizing conflict,
therefore, a system of majority rule founded on consensus multiples
conflict and makes conflict more likely, for it is too easy for
men to espouse beliefs and principles for which they, personally,
will never experience serious consequence, and for which others
— some small minority — will pay the price.

If Ballou and
Thoreau are right, very little good can ever come from voting or
the political process. What IS effective is to form voluntary associations
of interested parties to achieve goals without the aid of politics
or legislation. While Thoreau is famous for advocating outright
civil disobedience to government when government compels action
against conscience, Ballou (or, for that matter, Martin Luther King
or Gandhi) are better known as advocates of simple PEACEFUL noncooperation.
(A decision to not ride the public busses is not "civil disobedience"
because it breaks no laws, but is a simple refusal to cooperate
with or participate in one's own repression or exploitation.)

If, for example,
we desire to curtail our government's adventures abroad, forget
trying to build a party that can actually say no to unjust wars,
and work to encourage people to not enlist in the military, and
to help them not choose the military out of the necessity of their
personal circumstances. Encourage engineers, scientists, business
people to not work for the companies that produce weapons of war.
This can be recommended both on religious grounds, and on the pragmatic
or simple moral ground that they do not unwittingly make themselves
tools of men who will lie them into unjust and unnecessary wars,
and make themselves parties to murder for illegal, unknown, unstated
reasons.

The goals different
people may seek cannot be prescribed beforehand, because they must
spring from and be maintained by action founded in the actual passion
of the participants. What is critical, is that such action simply
eschew politics, legislation and the courts, i.e., all forms of
compulsion, and be conducted in a peaceful, voluntary, civil manner
that deals with others on the basis of honesty and in good faith,
even while opponents will not. While this form of activism may seem
to promise too little to those who hope for sweeping change promised
by gaining control of the legislative process, pursuit of that chimera
has the potential to sidetrack people for a lifetime. The Republicans
had control of the Congress and the Presidency for the last six
years. Ask the conservatives if they got what they wanted. Consider,
instead, whether Thoreau is right, and whether only "Action
from principle, and the perception and the performance of right,
changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary."
Act accordingly.

November
7, 2006

Jeff
Snyder [send
him mail
]
is an attorney who works in Manhattan. He is the author of
Nation
of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control
, which examines
the American character as revealed by the gun control debate. He
occasionally blogs at The
Shining Wire
.

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