It’s really no secret that democracy in the United States is in dire straits. This is attributable to any number of causes, paramount among them being the corrupting influence of money. However, there is also a sense in which this degeneration is attributable to the humdrum behavior of the average American. I am referring, in particular, to voter apathy and disengagement. For a microcosm of this, look to the irascible (if probably well-intentioned) buffoon Russell Brand, who has taken to arguing against voting. Though there are a number of versions of the “don’t vote” position, the basic argument (which I will hence-forth label the Brandian argument) is that the corrupting influence of corporate and individual wealth is so disproportionate to that of the average voter than participation in the election process is futile. Either we will elect ineffectual, spineless tools (who I will give the hypothetical name “Democrats”), servile mercenaries of corporate mendacity and myopia (who I will denote with the hypothetical term “Republicans”), or unreconstructed knuckle-dragging lunatics (again, hypothetically termed “Tea-Partiers”). Ultimately, it looks like a lose-lose scenario.
I am sympathetic to those who feel a certain sense of pessimism when looking at the electoral field U.S. citizens are presented with most election cycles. Nevertheless, the notion that citizens should abandon the privileges of participatory democracy to the dustbin of history is untenable. True, most elections fail to present us with a choice worthy of enthusiasm. But they also present us with some choices that are clearly better than others. Personally, I would much rather vote for a candidate whose ability to serve public interests are swamped in incompetence and narcissism (“Democrats”) than a candidate who will actively work to sabotage the interests of the public (“Republicans”). Indeed, those within the “Republican” category have actively worked to hasten the United States’ transformation from republic to plutocracy (see Citizens United vs. FEC, McCutcheon vs. FEC). It is also worth noting that there seem to be a handful of truly decent candidates out there, elected officials who seem legitimately concerned with upholding the principles of representative government and participatory democracy (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). A recognition of the fact that the aggregate effect of any election will almost certainly not be a turn of the political tide is not an adequate justification for a decision to abandon the political process entirely. On the one hand, voting for the lesser of two evils at least helps to put the brakes on the U.S. descent into plutocracy. Shall we be live in a state of perpetual corporate serfdom and ecological disaster in 20 years, or 50? On the other, the rare opportunities we have to elect truly good candidates are priceless. Shall we abandon the prospect of reinvigorating our democracy – however gradually – as hopeless because it seems hard?
In short, I would urge those who might be gripped with a justifiable sense cynicism concerning the state of modern U.S. government to not abandon their civic duty to participate in the process of molding government to better match the interests of the citizens it is meant to represent. The Brandian argument, as propounded by an (apparently) charming moron whose political views have all the sophistication and nuance of a stoned 18 year old, fresh out of his first university-level political science course, is only superficially convincing. In a very real sense, those sympathetic to the Brandian position share culpability for our current political woes, their disengaged ignorance having greased the skids for a government ruled by venality. The decision not to vote has never been an educated one – it is rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding concerning the issues at stake and the way things work. Choosing the superior candidate from a pool comprised primary of the feckless and unscrupulous is an unsavory task, but an important one nonetheless. Abandoning your opportunity to do so does more than invalidate your complaints concerning the political woes of the United States. It makes your directly responsible for them.
Here’s Bill Maher’s recent editorial on the subject, starting at ~2:23: