A Vote for Abstention: US Elections 2012

by: Tara Ruttenberg

“Elections? You know what I mean, whoever wins it’s going to be the same problem.” – Bob Marley

Robert Nesta’s prophetic words, while spoken decades ago within Jamaica’s tumultuous political context, indeed speak relevant wisdom beyond their years, and we are wise today to take them to heart when considering our right to vote – or abstain – in the upcoming US elections. The ‘same problem’ in our case being that of an elite-led and money-motivated plutocratic, oligarchic and corporatocratic brand of representative democracy, which will not be overcome by the outcome of our nation’s depressingly narrow choice between bad and worse. Progressives, socialists, Occupy Wall Street-ers and other left-of-center-ers begrudgingly rally around the Obama team, not because they still believe in the same disillusioned hope for change that proved all too short-lived in 2008, but rather because they are horrified, as they should be, by the alternative of a GOP presidency. That electoral decision – the hands-tied choice between bad and god-awful – is not democracy in action, it will never bring forth the changes we seek, and it is not our only option. Enter: the argument for electoral voting abstention.

While the concepts of oligarchy and tyranny-by-way-of-democracy are as old as Plato and Aristotle, their contemporary manifestations in today’s US political system are much deserving of the renewed scrutiny and criticism they currently receive from the left. Resistance and protest movements calling for systemic and structural change embodied most powerfully by the Occupy movement have drawn attention to the wealth and power imbalances inherent in the country’s economic and governance systems, wherein democracy is sold to the highest bidder. Brave soul, Senator Bernie Sanders, and organizations like the Sunlight Foundation recognize the political power of the wealthiest to influence election outcomes, with Sanders exposing top US billionaires for their majority-GOP campaign contributions (“not content to own our economy, the 1 percent want to own our government as well”)[1] and Sunlight blowing the whistle on tax-free election financiers posing as tax-exempt social welfare groups.[2] As an informed electorate, we must both praise courageous individuals and organizations such as these for their strength in speaking truth to power while also understanding what these realities mean for our own insignificance as voters in a system so beyond our control.

Then there’s the fallacy of democratic representation and our supposed role as voters in electing representatives to speak for and in support of our interests. A recent post on Occupy Wall Street’s Facebook page asks, “How can politicians represent you when they’re given millions of dollars to represent someone else?” And when we’re talking about the country’s top 26 billionaires each spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support the political party and candidates they see as most likely to succumb to their political puppeteering, the falsely heralded concept of one-person one-vote is both belittling and demoralizing to voters who still sadly believe in their role as protagonists in their nation’s democracy. While enough votes for Obama may mean we don’t have to face the unstomachable peril of a Romney presidency, it still means we are complicit in supporting and lending credibility to the corrupt system we claim to oppose, run by and for the wealthy and powerful elites and unrepresentative of the rest of us, also known as the majority.

Similarly, while we may already recognize US democracy as a far cry from the idealized “government of the people, by the people and for the people” it sought to be, a look at voter turnout in recent years lends further clarity on how unrepresentative of the majority our political system is. Up from a low of 49 percent voter turnout in 1996, the numbers were 51.21 percent in 2000, 56.69 percent in 2004 and 57.37 percent in 2008,[3,4] showing that over half of the voting age population has turned up to vote so far in the new millennium, a trend that looks to be on the rise. Of those numbers, close-call elections have decided the presidencies of our leaders with the winner attaining 49.23 percent of the popular vote in 1996, 47.87 percent in 2000, 50.73 percent in 2004 and 52.87 percent in 2008.[5] These results are revealing and worrisome. Not only has barely half of the US population turned out to vote since 1996, of those who voted, just barely half (and less than half in in 1996 and 2000) voted for the winner. This means that only 25 to 30 percent of the US voting age population can claim to have supported or have been represented by the President they voted for since 1996. Seventy to 75 percent of the population, on the other hand, either voted against the elected President or opted not to vote at all. Now what if more people show up to vote this year and we near 30 or 35 percent of the voting age population in favor of the winning President? It would still mean that 65 to 70 percent of the nation, or hundreds of millions of people, are either unsatisfied with or apathetic toward the outcome of their electoral democracy. A sad state of affairs for a system of governance that supposedly rests on political representation and majority rule.

Still, many US citizens do exercise their right to vote and accept the election outcomes even when it means that only a margin of the population is in favor of the candidate elected. It seems that progressives on the farther side of left always grapple with a depressing predicament, and this election is no different: 1) Do they vote for the lesser of two evils as a defensive means of damage control knowing that they will inevitably feel sold-out when their candidate betrays campaign promises and predictably follows the course of political action as dictated by powerful lobby groups, corporations and Wall Street? Or 2) Do they seek out, rally around and vote for a respectable third-party or write-in candidate who stands for everything they care about but who has no chance of winning, at the same time knowing full well that a vote for that candidate, while valiant in principle, is essentially a vote for the GOP? Or 3), do they bow out gracefully and abstain from voting because they can’t stomach the idea of validating a candidate whose policies they despise within a system they know will never be transformed by casting a vote at the ballot box? By default, perhaps frowny-faced and with a sense of defeated resignation, most on the left opt for option 1 in the end, not as a vote for hopeful change but as their only defense against a more backwards version of entrenched tyranny.

While Democrats and further-lefties weigh the options that tear at their heart-strings and informed intellect, the even more dismal reality is that we rarely find Republicans poring over such decisions in the run-up to election day. Rather, conservatives vote right with a sense of heroic determination, because if they don’t, they fear losing their country to immigrants, socialists, women and homosexuals who want to give healthcare away for free, take away their right to own guns, keep abortion legal and birth control subsidized, and overtax their hard-earned money to dole out to poor people and welfare moms who should really just get a job like the rest of us hard-working Americans. And when the media machine feeds and reaffirms such uninformed, fear-driven determination from the right, it’s hard for anyone left of center to even for a second consider not voting and letting them win.

On the surface and in the short-run, a non-vote may indeed mean ‘letting them win’. And that’s precisely what prevents us from talking seriously about abstaining in this year’s elections as a powerful form of protest with longer-term impact. ‘Not letting them win’ means we are constantly on the defensive, tacitly and cowardly supporting a failed system we hate and candidates whose policies we’re against as long as it means we don’t let the GOP win. But how long can we keep validating that which we deplore and those who betray us before we recognize and repudiate our own complicity and moral liability in that very betrayal? If we’re talking about representative politics, I imagine that there are many of us who feel left out of and unrepresented by the party system based on the structural argument that no party represents us or our many worthwhile interests, yet we keep voting for the same parties we don’t believe in instead of saying no and opting out. We demand and fight for structural change yet we keep voting for those in power who have no intention or ability to transform the system from the inside-out, of building anew what is flawed and outdated. Like ours in this election, their hands are tied. The longer we keep voting for the lesser of two evils as our greatest defense against tyranny, the longer we grant legitimacy to plutocratic governance masking oligarchy under the guise of democracy.

And what if the GOP does win? Given the endless billionaire dollars lining their campaign purse they may very well win, even with all of us die-hard lefties playing defense, selling out and voting for Obama in November. Perhaps that reality need not be as stark as we imagine it when we consider the longer-term impact of timely political catalysts propelling structural social change. If we play with Plato’s philosophy on governance just a bit, perhaps we may even come to consider a GOP win and the tyranny it represents as the father and mother of social revolution, and that we as a nation might just have to hit rock bottom before enough of us will rise up and against and start building the sustainable future we envision, instead of waiting around for someone else to do it, hiding behind a vote for empty rhetoric and more of the same disguised as exercising our narrow rights of citizenship and lazy democratic participation. Could it be that by continuing to vote, by continuing to play by the restrictive rules of the oppressor’s game, we may in fact be postponing organic change from emerging as the only recourse to the true tyranny of the plutocrats?

And even then, the strength of the revolution is not just about taking to the streets in protest (although the awareness, organizational solidarity and call-to-action components of protest are most necessary as a first step) in hopes that the powers that be will hear us and find it in their hearts, minds or best interest to take us seriously and make changes; unfortunately I fear the power structures and the interests they protect are far too entrenched. Moreover, is relying on protest to transform the system a strategy not akin to begging our oppressors to set us free? When has that ever worked in the history of freedom movements or revolutionary change? The true change we seek must instead focus on the transition from protest movement to becoming the creators of change ourselves, ceasing to support outdated systems that create the problems we oppose and which no longer serve us by building something we can be proud of, in effect making our antiquated political reality both unnecessary and irrelevant – in essence, illegitimate. And it starts with simple yet powerful moves like not voting in November.

Inspiringly, this process has already begun in earnest with groups like Occupy, local food movements, cooperative living and working arrangements, neighborhood organizations, experiments with consensus democracy, new progressive economic think tanks, cooperative corporations, peace education, and many more. Their success and strength rest on the knowledge that sustainable change does not emerge through fighting against or within the existing system, but rather by having the courage to create new systems outside it. Imagine now if all of the highly intelligent, ethically motivated, socially oriented progressives in the country joined movements like these or started creating their own; what if they stopped wasting their time playing by the rules, arguing about, voting for and rallying around the lesser of two evils and trying to convince others to do the same and instead started working together to build the viable alternatives they demand? Is that a fantasy dreamland or our greatest hope for nonviolent social revolution?

While the argument for abstention is most common in libertarian and anarchist circles,[6] which may be why none of us are comfortable debating its merit, the underlying moral bases are valid for all of us across the political spectrum, and they deserve closer consideration, as offered here. If we’re not going to vote, what can we do? We can start by listening to the words of Mr. Marley, recognizing that whoever wins in November, we still have the same problem. From there, we can stop encouraging people to vote as their way of making a difference and instead start imploring them to invest their energy more productively in their communities, in cooperatives, in Occupy; to help “build the movements outside” to quote Bhaskar Sunkara[7]; and to focus on creating the new to make the old irrelevant.   


[1] Jason Easley (July 24, 2012). Bernie Sanders Exposes the 26 Billionaires who are Buying the 2012 Election. Jason Easley. Politicus USA. http://www.politicususa.com/bernie-sanders-exposes-26-billionaires-buying-2012-election.html.  Accessed September 9, 2012.

[2] Keenan Steiner. (August 28, 2012). Party Time: RNC Awash in Corporate, Lobbyist-Funded Events for GOP Delegates and Lawmakers. Democracy Now. http://www.democracynow.org/2012/8/28/party_time_rnc_awash_in_corporate. Accessed September 11, 2012.

[3] John Woolley and Gerhard Peters. The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php.  Accessed September 9, 2012.

[4] Michael P. McDonald (March 13, 2010). 2008 General Election Turnout Rates. United States Elections Project, George Mason University.

[5] David Leip. Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/. Accessed September 10, 2012.

[6] For example, George H. Smith. (1982). The Ethics of Voting. The Voluntaryist, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1982.

[7] Reihan Salam and Bhaskar Sunkara. (September 7, 2012). Conservative Reihan Salam and Marxist Bhaskar Sunkara on Bill Clinton’s Big Speech. New York Magazine. Accessed September 7, 2012 http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/09/conservative-and-a-marxist-on-clintons-speech.html


this article was originally published in Ciencia & Tropico, vol. 35(1), March 2013. http://periodicos.fundaj.gov.br/index.php/CIT/article/view/1456