Voting: Suppressing Change Through the Pursuit of Power


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