Next Tuesday is the primary election here in Pennsylvania. Even if you haven’t yet read Randy LoBasso’s coverage in this issue on the petting zoo of human nastiness that comprises our local political process, you’ve inevitably seen some of the stultifying, oversimplified argle-bargle that’s filled the candidates’ TV ads. If you’ve managed to avoid all of it, congratulations: You are plugged into the secret of eternal happiness, and you not only deserve a medal, you should immediately write a bestselling self-help book to enlighten the rest of us.
Presuming you have caught wind of all the electoral flatulence, I’d like to tell you something: You don’t have to vote. More specifically, it’s OK to abstain, or to cast protest or write-in votes, to express your mind.
I know, I know. We’re supposed to be good, upstanding citizens and respect the Constitution and the sacrifices of past and current generations. My father is probably wincing as he reads this; after all, he fought for his country in a war. And while he considers the Vietnam War to have been pointless, he still insists that the right to vote, liberal democratic enfranchisement, is something too precious, too hard-fought to not exercise at every opportunity. And, you know, I agree—to a point.
I used to obsess over politics. As a teenager, I watched Crossfire on CNN. When Al Gore had the presidency stolen from him, I literally cried. I didn’t get to add my vote to the constitutional crisis of 2000, though—I wasn’t 18 yet. That came in 2002, when I proudly cast my very first vote for former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell for governor. In fact, I wrote to my hometown newspaper about how it was my first time voting, and they published the letter; it’s still clipped to my parents’ fridge. I worked on the Rendell for Governor campaign, and those days were some of the happiest in my entire life.
So I’m not some crazy anarchist or communist or flag burner here. (While all these groups are technically OK, they’re also ridiculous, in that they have disdain for the system that grants them the freedoms to hold disdain for the system.) I’m not anti-American—I’m a good old-fashioned American liberal.
Which is exactly why I’m thinking of not voting next Tuesday.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants us the freedom to exercise our speech. We are allowed to do this a variety of ways: through protests, votes, press and, literally, speeches (so long as we don’t run afoul of commonsense safety and peace ordinances).
In the Internet Age, we Americans enjoy expressions of speech on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, too. We had an Occupy Philly movement whose participants used protests to express their displeasure with a system that’s stacked against the interests of class minorities. And today, basically everyone who isn’t L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is a class minority. That means we hold a tremendous amount of untapped power in our sheer numbers; the only thing we don’t have is our hand on the socioeconomic control levers. That’s why it’s important to grab and pull the actual, physical lever (okay, it’s a touch-screen button now) of the voting machine.
And yet that’s just one way we can express our speech. We can send an equally important message by refusing to participate in this echo chamber of political consultants, both liberal and conservative, who seem to dress up their own nasty hatred of America in disingenuous praise of its values.
I get it. By not voting, I’m not putting my voice out there, which lots of political junkies will argue means I’m forfeiting my right to complain. But that’s really not the whole story. By simply considering not voting, I’m sending a message that the system as it exists does not address my needs—or the needs of fellow queers or working-class people—no matter who it puts in charge.
We have a criminal justice system that disproportionately imprisons people of color. We have an economic system that disproportionately favors rich people in favor of poor people. We have a social system that disproportionately targets queer and HIV-positive people for crimes.
We really need to start understanding that the system is stacked against us, and by opting out entirely, paradoxically, we might start to facilitate change. Voting may represent the “healthy” exercise of American democracy, but as Jiddu Krishnamurti once said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
People who find the system to be bullshit have every right to abstain or to write in their own protest vote. We don’t need to force ourselves to develop a taste for whatever mediocre appetizer the Democrats or Republicans may be serving up to get us salivating for the heavier shit smorgasbord they’re planning for November. Because as long as American society doesn’t give much of a shit about class minorities in general, this country’s in no position to pressure us to vote. All this electoral-obsessive disorder really does, in the end, is enable a bunch of rich white people to yell at each other, do nothing to serve the rest of us, and get paid to do it.