Voting is not a form of self-expression.
If you want to express yourself, write a song, paint a picture, make a therapy appointment. Don’t rely on voting. Voting has real-life consequences. If you write a boring song, paint an ugly picture or lie to your therapist, it’s not a big deal. You can throw away the results and get on with your life. But if you throw your vote away, you have to live with the results for at least two years until you get a chance to vote again.
Voting is not about defining your personality; it’s not about proclaiming your individuality or rebelliousness. If you want to do that, pierce your nose or dye your hair. Voting is for reaching a consensus with your neighbors and fellow citizens about the best leader for your community or for the nation as a whole. Someone has to be that leader, so you need to reach an agreement with other folks on who that will be.
Voting is not about finding the absolute best person in the district, state or nation with the most idealistic policies and the purest of backgrounds. It’s about finding the person who’s most likely to get into office and actually have a positive impact on the real world. Voting is not about patting yourself on the back; it’s about changing the laws, regulations, taxes and spending of the government. Voting for someone with no realistic chance of gaining office may make you feel good, but it will not change the real world at all.
Think of any issue that you care about and ask yourself how you can get the change you want to see. Maybe you want firearms to be treated like automobiles: licensed, registered, inspected and insured. Maybe you want carbon emissions cut by 80%. Maybe you want affordable, comprehensive health care for every single American. Maybe you want police officers held accountable for violence against unarmed black men. Maybe you want affordable, quality childcare for all working parents. Maybe you want something else.
Ask yourself: “How can this actually happen?” Because there are wealthy, determined people who don’t want any of this to happen. To say, “It should just happen, because a majority of Americans support these things in the polls,” is not an answer. That’s the “magic wand” theory of politics.
Millions of Americans believe in this theory. Many of them got very frustrated with President Obama, because he couldn’t use his wizard powers to impose the above policies on the government, even though he lacked the votes in congress. If something is self-evidently right, these magical thinkers insist, everyone should just go along with it. A fairy godmother should come along, wave her wand and turn the ugly pumpkin of American politics into the fancy carriage of democratic utopia.
There’s no magic wand—and it’s a good thing too, for such a wizard’s stick might fall into the hands of a George W. Bush or a Donald Trump. So, given that there’s no fairy godmother, how can we achieve real change? There are two main answers: democratically passed legislation or the seizure of power through violence.
The latter option has obvious drawbacks: a high body count and low odds of success. How many of your friends are you willing to watch die for a 10% chance of overturning a well-armed government? As the legendary community organizer Saul Alinksy once said, “’Power comes out of the barrel of a gun!’ is an absurd rallying cry when the other side has all the guns.”
“But wait,” you’re going to say, “what about non-violent demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes?” And I’m going to say, “Those are potent, valuable tools for altering popular opinion and pressuring politicians. But how do those shifting attitudes get translated into actual governmental change? By laws and regulations enacted by politicians elected by popular vote.”
Consider, for example, the most dramatic direct-action campaign of the 20th century: the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, the marches and civil disobedience wore down the apathy and resistance to racial justice. But what were the movement’s demands? What constituted victory? It was the passage of legislation explicitly outlawing discrimination in housing, hiring, schooling and voting.
Who actually passed that legislation? Liberal majorities in congress. Who signed that legislation? President Lyndon Johnson. If Barry Goldwater had been president with conservative majorities in congress, the laws would have never been enacted until voters ushered in a more liberal government.
Protest and voting are not opposing strategies; they’re complementary. One can’t work without the other. If Martin Luther King and his allies don’t agitate in the streets, public sentiment doesn’t move toward racial justice. If Lyndon Johnson and his allies don’t turn that sentiment into laws, nothing concrete gets changed. The two sides need each other. The current Black Lives Matter, Single Payer and Green New Deal movements should keep that in mind.
Some people don’t like voting, because sometimes the other side wins. That’s like saying, “I stopped playing basketball, because we didn’t win every game.” But basketball players don’t do that; they say, “How can we get better to win the most games over the next season?” That’s what voters need to do.
As Alinsky said to the disappointed progressives after the turmoil of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, “Do one of three things. One, go and find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and start bombing—but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.”
Some people think voting is a waste of time. What difference does one vote make? Well, a few elections do turn on one or two votes per precinct. But even in the majority of contests where the margin is too wide for a few votes to matter, the commitment to voting is crucial. By supporting the notion that everyone should vote—and vote for someone who might win—you create a culture where voting is an expected responsibility. And that can create a huge swing in elections.
If you’re uncertain about the power of voting, just consider how your enemies view it. If the right is spending millions of dollars and millions of hours trying to suppress the vote, that’s a good indication of how serious a threat it is to them. Banning felons in Florida, purging the rolls in Georgia, warping the ID rules in Texas, limiting polling places in Wisconsin and gerrymandering in North Carolina are all signs that the powers-that-be fear the voting power of the people.
They don’t care about your tiny Marxist-Leninist party—hell, they even give the Green Party a lot of money—but they’re scared to death of voter turnout. If you abstain from voting or vote for a third party, you’re helping out those anti-democratic forces.
This brings us back to our original idea: voting is not a form of self-expression. The great weakness of American culture is the default position that an individual’s impulse should always trump the common good—that my desires and opinions are more important than everyone else’s. That poisonous assumption allows us to ignore the neediest and keeps us so divided that the inequality of wealth and power grows unchecked by collective resistance.
There are times when it’s good to be individualist and non-conformist: when you’re choosing your clothes, home décor and romantic partners, when you’re articulating your own political or aesthetic perspective. But voting is not one of those times; that’s a time when you need to think of electing someone who will actually improve the laws for everyone, not just yourself. It’s a time to be pragmatic about the possible. You owe that much to your fellow citizens.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you didn’t vote, you don’t get to complain.” So true. But I would take it a step further: If you didn’t vote for one of the top two candidates in any election, you don’t get to complain. If you weren’t willing to submerge your ego and join a consensus to put the best of the plausible options into office, don’t complain about the results.
If you didn’t vote for Al Gore or Hillary Clinton, you don’t get to whine about the Bush and Trump administrations or the Ralph Nader Supreme Court. If you didn’t vote for one of the finalists for congress or city council the last go-round, don’t grumble about the government. Don’t post about politics on social media. Don’t gripe at the office or the barroom. Don’t mouth off at family dinners. Just shut the hell up.