Voting: It’s Your Civic Duty, Stupid


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:

Supreme Court ads another cobble to the path toward U.S. plutocracy

The conservative Supreme Court justices have struck another resounding blow against the tyranny of campaign finance law. This nation’s beleaguered rich have suffered too long, their liberties shackled to the millstone of an unnecessarily broad definition of quid-pro-quo corruption. With this ruling, justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito breath new life into the First Amendment of the United States constitution. America’s wealthiest citizens, long afflicted with a form of selective mutism preventing them from participating in traditional forms of participatory democracy, can now speak with their money.

Or so the conservative Supreme Court justices, apparent lapdogs of America’s conservative plutocrats, would have the nation believe.

For those unaware, McCutchen vs. FEC resulted a split 5-4 decision on Wednesday, ruling that overall caps on campaign contribution are illegal. The cap on how much one can donate to a particular candidate remains the same at $2600, but the overall cap of $123,200 every two years ($48,600 distributed among individual candidates, $74,600 to parties) has been abolished. Conservatives argue that this is an expansion of liberty – that it makes the democratic process more inclusive. RNC chairman Reince Priebus commented, “is an important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse.” This, of course, is mendacious nonsense aimed at justifying their anti-democratic leanings to their puerile base. The decision broadens the democratic process for people who have more than $48,600 in disposable income to spend on political campaigns every two years. For those of us not suffering under the blight of that limit, the influence of speech is actively diminished. As the dissenting minority on the Supreme Court wrote:

The First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.

What has this to do with corruption? It has everything to do with corruption. Corruption breaks the constitution­ally necessary “chain of communication” between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point. That is one reason why the Court has stressed the constitutional importance of Congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many…

In conjunction with the 2010 Citizen United ruling, this represents another victory in a campaign apparently aimed at placing the majority of political influence into the hands of a vanishingly small minority of extremely wealthy individuals. I’m not sure what the lower limit might be for being able to donate more than $48,600 every two years to the political campaigns of individual candidates, but if we arbitrarily take $250,000 per year as a benchmark, then the voices of roughly 3% of Americans are amplified by the Supreme Courts ruling. Even then, individuals would be spending a minimum of 9.7% of their gross income on politics. If they were spending the full amount – $123,200 for candidates and political parties – they’d be investing 24.6% of their two-year gross income attempting to influence elections. Rather unlikely, I think.

In reality, things seem to be much worse than the preceding hypothetical scenario would suggest. Indeed, in 2012, only 591 people gave the maximum amount to federal election campaigns. Clearly, the only people that stand to benefit from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutheon rulings belong to an exceedingly small minority of America’s most outlandishly wealthy citizens. As Lawrence Lessig points out, only 0.01% of Americans gave more than $10,000 dollars to political campaigns in 2012, while only 0.000042% (132 individuals) gave 60% of the money spent by superPACs. General elections are decided by voters – who runs in them is decided by donors. Put another way, if politicians can get most of the funding they need from 0.05-0.01% of the U.S. population, their stake in addressing the interests of the other 99.95-99.99% is sharply decreased.

Taken in concert with the ruling striking down critical provision of the Voting Rights Act, it would seem the conservative members of the Supreme Court are actively engaged in a campaign to put control of the U.S. government firmly in the hands of a small, wealthy elite. Forget “Big Government” and entitlement spending – this, coupled with growing income inequality, is the malignant tumor that truly threatens to end our republic. This is a trend that will almost certainly sap the life out of the democratic process. Odd that the people who so frequently use words like “freedom” and “liberty” as the clarion calls of their “Big Government” denunciations are so willing to see the United States transformed into a nation run by a handful of greedy, short-sighted multi-millionaires and billionaires.

On the bright side, at least the querulous poor aren’t calling the shots. Or the vanishing middle class. Who wants people like that in charge? With a little more work, the Supreme Court and their Republican allies will have built a glorious and divided nation. The smartest, hardest working of us will live in glorious shining cities, sparkling gems in the heart of a verdant Edens. Outside the city gates the wretched poor will ride around on makeshift buggies, sporting hockey masks and shooting each other in the throats with wrist-mounted crossbows over a gallon of gasoline. It’s the ‘Merican Dream, baby!

Here’s Jon Stewart’s marginally light-hearted take on the affair (I can’t seem to embed the video here):