It is an old and tired truism: “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” The idea supposedly is that voting is a privilege, a price one pays to live in the land of the free, and so integral to the democratic process that not voting is somehow un-American, that not voting means not participating (the implication is that one doesn’t WANT to participate) in our democracy, and therefore whatever happens in that democracy is outside the non-voter’s rights and privileges—but can this really be correct?
To take just one of the strands of this bumper-sticker idea, voting is not a privilege. A privilege would be shaking Nelson Mandela’s hand or having a key to the executive washroom. Voting is mostly a waste of time and most people know it. They know that voting is a sham, a sideshow, an attempt to convince people that they DO participate, when in fact, voting is a manipulation of the natural patriotic and altruistic instinct Americans (and any other humans) have to do right and make things better. But money rules our politics (as the Supreme Court recently made VERY clear) and only the wealthy or those well-connected to money or those who are attractive to others with money, can run effectively for office, so any voter can choose between one very rich person or another rich one. Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor in California, spent over 45 million dollars (a lot of it her own money) just to get the nomination, and may top 150 million in the general campaign. No one who runs for office above the level of dogcatcher can afford to go without some measure of financial support from a monied interest, an interest who will come back later—should the candidate win—to see a return on investment. Does anyone really still believe that spending 35 million dollars to be a senator is exclusively a patriotic act? To believe voting is “the will of the people” is to believe that Thomas Jefferson will rise from the grave next week.
Voting is a sop to Cerberus, which even the dullness and vapidity of American discourse cannot hide or justify. If the choices a voter have are just copies from one template, why should anyone even bother if the template, itself, is flawed? This is not to say that all politicians are graft-ridden or unresponsive to their constituents, but it is to say that the very system we are encouraged (and harangued) to use validates this corrupted version of “representation.”
But if voting is the only accepted way to participate in a democracy, how can anyone who has NOT voted—that is, NOT participated (by definition)—lay claim to any right to critique public policy or politicians? This line of reasoning hides two assumptions: 1) that voting is the only sure way of participating, and 2) only voters are affected by policy decisions.
The first assumption is patently false. There are many ways to participate in a democracy and we are seeing that today. I don’t mean the Tea Party, however, which is still operating under the old assumptions: that THEY will replace “bad” politicians and policy with THEIR “good” politicians and policy by appealing to voters, but using the same broken system. This just replaces one acidic compound for another—neither drinkable. One viable—and certain traditionally American way—is to rally around one’s community, in a myriad of ways. The Fourth of July celebrations across the nation were a good example of this. With so many communities unable to scrape up money in these financially-ridiculous times, private citizens paid for some, elected officials paid for some (maybe as a voter-incentive for the next election?), corporations were asked to finance others (good PR for them—BP in Texas, but they signed on before the spill), and in other communities, there were no fireworks, but there WERE community barbeques and ceremonies honoring patriotism and all that stuff liberals don’t like to talk about and conservatives talk about WAY too much—neither knows what it is they are speaking about.
Things do get done, politicians do implement good policies, but the bulk of the action which is accomplished in the name of the people is generated BY the people, many of whom are not voters, but who ARE affected by the venality, back-door dealings, pork-trading, earmark-grabbing people who got the majority of the 30% of the people who bother to vote on any particular election day. Voting is a mirage, which promises action and democracy and progress, but there is no water out there on the road; when you get there, it’s gone, to be replaced by another shimmering pool further on.
So, as it stands now, voting is a circus—not bread AND circus: the bread has already been baked and eaten—to take our minds off what’s going on behind the curtain. And if you live here, get services here, send your kids to school here, pay taxes here, send your kids off to war here, then you have the right to complain—just by virtue of your presence here, whether you vote or not. But complaining is more than just working your jaw: it is community activism, picking up trash on your road, keeping up with current events, hitting every blog and Twitter-like place you can find. Don’t even bother writing your “representative” because he or she never answers, except to send a form email saying your interest and comments are appreciated, which means it’s never read by anyone higher than a staffer whose main job is to get the cappuccino machine cleaned every day.
Of course, the ultimate complaint is non-compliance. It is easier, more effective, and more patriotic (remember the non-compliant colonists who didn’t pay their taxes?) I remember the oil embargo of the 70’s and that California changed the speed limit to 55, so we could save gas…but no one was going 55. The CHP wrote bales of tickets, but drivers had to get to work, truckers had to make their hauls on time, and no one complied as people on the L.A. freeways still tailgated each other at 90 miles per hour and people driving a block to the AM/PM to get coffee backed out of their driveways at half the speed of light. No one I ever saw during those times ever obeyed the limit, even accidentally—the ultimate complaint. Eventually, the “crisis passed,” as the authorities said, realizing that no one was obeying the law, that people were voting with their accelerators, and the speed limit was moved back up—Jeffersonian democracy at its most practical and potent.
If Americans want to live in a better place, then maybe they should start by ignoring what politicians want them do, and concentrate on what is NEEDED in their communities and neighborhoods. If they run afoul of the law, then maybe the law is crap and should be run afoul of. So I may not vote for a local office or two, or maybe not at all, but I will complain in my own fashion. It’s truly the American way.