Rock the Non-Vote

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Yes, I confess, last Saturday I went to see "The Dead," which is the current name of the band comprised chiefly of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. (Now that Jerry Garcia is literally dead, perhaps they are no longer grateful.) The concert was really quite good – the people who think the band is just peddling hippie nostalgia are misinformed. Even when those guys have an off night, an open-minded listener can appreciate that at least they are trying to keep pushing their music into new places. What’s more, with Garcia gone, the rest of the band is now able to actually rehearse. (Garcia was notorious for not being able to put up with any stretch of rehearsing that lasted for more than 20 minutes or so.)

However, I was perturbed by the brief lecture Bob Weir and Phil Lesh delivered on voting, just before performing their encore. Weir told the audience to make sure to register and get to the polls this fall. "It couldn’t be more important," he proclaimed. There were, he noted, tables at which one could register right there at the show. (Isn’t there some law against asking 18-year-olds who are under the influence of several hits of acid what their party affiliation is?) He added that if every Deadhead in Florida had voted in 2000, "this country would be in a very different place right now." Then Lesh chimed in, saying, "It’s your responsibility to vote."

The not-so-subtle implication was that everyone should register to vote against Bush, and presumably for John Kerry. But let’s consider what such a decision really means. It is clear that many of the people who are enthusiastic about electing Kerry feel that way because they believe that the current administration deceived the American people into supporting an unjustified war against Iraq.

If that describes you, I want to say that I think your heart is in the right place. But do you realize that Kerry has said he will increase the number of US soldiers in Iraq? Do you recall that Kerry voted for the war? Now, of course, he is attempting to excuse that vote by pointing to the faulty information he was given. (Well, at least excuse it a bit, because he has never said that if he had been in Bush’s place, the US wouldn’t have attacked Iraq, only that he would have spent more time talking with the head honchos in other countries before doing so.)

But were you fooled by the propaganda pouring out of the White House and the neoconservative press? I sure wasn’t, and I know that many of my antiwar friends on the left were not either. So why was John Kerry duped? Shouldn’t he have had access to even more information than we did? Given that he had to cast a vote on whether or not to authorize the war while you and I had no such opportunity, that he is paid to think about such matters, and that he has a staff to help him ferret out the relevant facts, then shouldn’t he have been far less susceptible to the disinformation campaign than we were?

I agree that it’s a good thing if you take some responsibility for the actions of your nation’s government. (I say "some," because it is easy to take that idea way too far, so that you wind up indulging in righteous superiority because you are all torn up over, perhaps, how awful the slave trade was, or how brutally the US suppressed the Filipino effort to achieve independence after the Spanish-American War. Yes, it was awful, and yes, it was brutal, but those really aren’t the sort of things you’re going to fix now, are they? Feeling guilty about situations that one had nothing to do with and that one can’t possibly change is just a way to boost one’s own self-image, and has nothing to do with genuine responsibility.) So sure, do whatever you can to steer the society in which you live in a better direction. But in this election, casting a vote for either of the two real contenders means voting for more war.

The question of whether or not to vote also came up for me a week or so before The Dead concert, when I was talking to a friend of mine about the upcoming election. He’s fairly interested in politics; furthermore, he knows that I write about and devote some thought to political affairs. So when I told him I wasn’t planning to vote this fall he was quite surprised, and expressed his disapproval – in a polite and friendly way – of any citizen who doesn’t make his voice heard at the polls.

However, he had mistakenly assumed that I would be sitting this one out because I am indifferent to the state of the country, or I just can’t muster up the energy to get out and cast my ballot. Quite to the contrary, I am an enthusiastic non-voter. After all, to write a column about not voting takes more effort than does walking a couple of blocks to a local school and pulling a few levers. What’s more, not only do I not vote, and write about not voting, but I also endure the censure of others when I tell them I’m not going to vote, and I pitch the case for not voting when the topic happens to come up in conversation. (I generally don’t bring it up myself – you become a terrible bore if you are so fixated on your pet idea that, as though it were Rome, all conversational roads seem to lead there.)

Of course, Bush and Kerry are not the only two people running for president this year. Some readers might urge me to cast my vote for one of the minor party candidates, as the best way to express my displeasure with the choice offered by the two major parties. I have encountered libertarians who believe that it would be a significant statement if, for example, the Libertarian Party candidate received 5% of the vote in a presidential election. I assume that there are Green Party members, Naderites, and others who have similar goals. But even if, for instance, a Libertarian some day garners that much support, then I think the primary result will be that Republican and Democratic candidates for office will spout slightly more libertarian rhetoric. Perhaps Congress might even pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana or something of the sort, which, I admit, would be a fine thing. Otherwise, however, the Republicrats will continue governing pretty much as usual, generally increasing the reach of the state into all of our lives, whatever slogans they might bandy about while running for office. (Remember, our previous president declared "the era of big government is over," and then made the government even bigger, while the current one promised us a more "humble" foreign policy, and then embarked on the least humble one we’ve yet witnessed.)

My own vision of how we can express our unhappiness with being free to choose our preferred beverage, so long as we pick Coke or Pepsi, is a bit different: I’d like to see a presidential election where only 5% or 10% of all eligible voters go to the polls. A turnout that low would be far more damaging to the position of the elite who run this country than would a few million votes cast for some minor-party candidate. (I wonder if the people who believe that defeating Bush will make a significant difference in the way this country is governed have noticed that the only real alternative to Dubya is another millionaire from the Skull and Bones society?) The fact that real political power in the US is in the hands of a tiny fraction of the population is obscured by the quadrennial spectacle in which the rest of us can pick one of their two candidates to be "our" next president.

So I say, let’s rock the non-vote. Since we aren’t being offered any really meaningful choice, let’s not lend credence to the pretense that we are. If you weren’t planning to vote, then, instead of mumbling apologetically when asked about it, proudly tell others why you aren’t. If you were intending to cast a ballot, perhaps in order to protest our current foreign policy, then consider the notion that you might do so more effectively by staying home and reading a good book. If we spread the word, then maybe in a few years we will see tables at rock concerts where the attendees can sign up to get themselves removed from the list of eligible voters.

August 18, 2004

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives