The first time I thought about not voting, I was at the APSA teaching and learning conference some years ago (2009?) in a stream of discussions about learning outcome assessments for core courses in Political Science. While measurement issues pose a problem for learning outcome assessment, the bigger problem our group talked about was the normative content of the assessed learning goals, and the ethics of putting professors in a position to endorse certain normative outcomes. For example, someone suggested that all “Introduction to American Politics” courses should share a number of common learning outcomes, one “teaching the value of political participation through voting.” As I listened to that – I realized such a goal would be a real problem for me. I wasn’t sure I believed in “the value of political participation,” particularly “through voting,” and, even if I did, I didn’t want to impose those values on my students.
I didn’t refuse to vote yesterday because I don’t want to impose that value on my students, though – or because I don’t believe in the value of political participation. And its not because I’m too busy. I could have been voting rather than writing this blog post. In part, I didn’t vote because, like Phil Arena, I don’t get any joy out of it, and I don’t buy arguments that I individually influence the outcome of elections or that my behavior will be modeled. But its more than that. Voting is a performance that does not work for me. Take, for example, the proposition of voting in the Florida gubernatorial election – choosing between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist – the most unpopular set of candidates in recent history. Sure, I would have preferred Crist to Scott. But that’s like asking me if I’d rather eat broccoli or cauliflower (I don’t eat vegetables) – I have a mild preference for broccoli over cauliflower, but I find both revolting and the suggestion that I voluntarily endorse either is so unsettling that I can’t do it – at a visceral level – even if those people who say my vote matters, and I set an example – even if they were right. Why not?
I guess, because I hate the idea of living in a world in which the political spectrum is constituted by Rick Scott and Charlie Crist; or even by Barack Obama and his opponent(s). I feel like choosing among them is complicity in a system that sets their beliefs as the political spectrum, which is itself a problem. The idea that I should vote one way or another to make a marginal difference in a system that I find on the whole corrupt does not make any sense to me – and no amount of research in electoral politics makes it make sense to me. I’m not going to widen the American political spectrum, or break the Democrat-Republican consensus on foreign policy, by voting. I’m not going to be able to voice my rejection of both candidates in almost every election in which I would be asked to vote. I’m not naive enough to think that my refusal to endorse the ‘better of evils’ communicates that message widely – or even to anyone but me. But at the end of the day, I think I refuse because I hear the message. And that helps me be sane.
There was this Garth Brooks song that was the b-side of a single cassette when I was in high school – when single-cassette b-sides existed. It was called “The Change.” The last two lines of the chorus – “its not the world that I am changing, I’ll do this so the world will know it will not change me” – is kind of where I fall on voting. Its not that I don’t want to change how the world works – especially how the US government works – its that to try to do that with integrity, I can’t vote like its all ok. Because that would change me, and it wouldn’t change what I see is wrong with the ways that the people I would vote for run the government that in theory represents me. If I must, I’ll take responsibility for the electoral result – but I’m doing it so I can take responsibility for my own performance too.