Alongside PBR and moustache fetishes, a dangerous hipster credo is snaking its way through society. They’re too cool for bootleg jeans. Too cool for pre-rolled cigarettes. And, yes, too cool for voting. I shouldn’t lay it all on hipsters. I’ve heard yoga moms and academics express a similar philosophy, though framed slightly differently. Each version is alike, however, in that it rests on the post-modern media-drenched realization that our governmental system is “corrupt,” “too negative” or imperfect in some way. And each believer takes implicit pride in the mistaken idea that they’ve reached some moral pinnacle by choosing not to vote.
If not on grounds of morality, it’s argued on grounds of rationality. The economist Steven Levitt argues that the “stupidest” reason to vote in a Presidential election is the belief that your vote will make a difference. One vote never decides an election. When voting results are sufficiently close, the courts determine the outcome, a la Bush v Gore (2000). But Levitt ignores the emergent properties of collective action. When a group of people turn out to the polls because they believe they’re votes might change the election outcome, they might be right. If voter turnout approached 100% (or even 65%), we’d have a drastically different government than we do today. When the cool people choose not to vote, our government is – unsurprisingly – kind-of shitty.
Levitt was referring specifically to Presidential elections, and I agree with him that a non-vote decision is rational in hard blue or hard red states. If everyone turned out, the results would likely be the same. But in swing states, the threshold is so much lower that a few thousand extra votes can turn the election. State, local, and Congressional elections have lower thresholds as well. Massachusetts, for example, will likely go blue whether or not you vote; but your decision to vote (collectively) could certainly impact whether Elizabeth Warren unseats Scott Brown in the Senate.
A friend recently posted the following on his Facebook page: “Don’t want to vote? No big deal; a non-vote is the same as a denunciation of the candidates running and a legitimate use of your voting right!” This assertion is tame relative to other rationales I’ve heard, and given what I know of my friend, well-deliberated. Also, I’m sure he’ll vote. But it’s a flawed premise at the root of most versions of the hipster voting credo, so I’d like to analyze it.
There exists no clause in the Constitution that specifies a certain percentage of the population that must vote in order to validate an election. Nor does the electoral college look at Sally’s non-vote and those of the rest of the 50+ percent of the population that refrains from voting and say, “All of these non-votes indicate that the people don’t like either candidate. We need to reform the political process!” Nor do our politicians reject a successful run for office because enough people didn’t vote. [One party in particular actually benefits from lower voter turnout; hence, that party’s extensive effort to suppress the vote.]
While the intention behind Sally’s non-vote might be to denounce the candidates or to take-a-stand-against-the-system!, the practical effect of her non-vote is simply one less person participating in the election. All Sally manages to do is relinquish her power to the people who have chosen to vote. Sally’s intention doesn’t really matter. Her non-vote functions as a vote for whomever ends up winning the election. Didn’t vote in 2008? You effectively voted for Obama. Not going to vote this year? You might be supporting Romney.
The political reality of any nation is inescapable. In democratic countries, because we can participate, the political process is something of a sport. Sure, a kind of game. But you don’t avoid the game by choosing not to vote. You simply bench yourself. You cede the outcome of the game to those players who choose to participate. Benching yourself doesn’t place you on a moral pinnacle; refusing to take action when you have the opportunity and ability is a moral failing. You’re still in the game. The whole arena is “the game.” The only way to escape the game is to leave the country. And then you’ll be in a different game.
This mindset – this “awakening to the game” and subsequent rejection of participation – is similar to the moment you realize that your parents are human beings, with flaws and emotions and personal history. Instead of accepting this fact and learning to relate to your parents from a new place of respect and understanding, you get upset and stop talking to them. Removing yourself from the relationship isn’t going to change anything. Spoiler alert: Your parents will still be flawed! By engaging with them, however, you can work to accept them as flawed human beings and change the way you relate to one another. You can work to change the system.
The mindset also uncovers three unpleasant character attributes, at least one of which is likely present in any given non-voter. The first is a borderline tendency towards irrational conspiracy theory, to which I won’t pay lip service. The second is “perfectionist idealism,” an inability to work within the constraints of reality to effect the change you want to see. I will only vote for a candidate that agrees 100% (or x%) with me. In any given election, all candidates propose policies with which I disagree. I think the two-party system has serious limitations. Certain aspects of the government seem hopelessly corrupt. But using such reasons to exempt yourself from voting betrays a naivete, a selfish idealism. Choose the candidate that best aligns with your goals or vision, and then work to reform the particulars in need of repair.
The third unpleasant factor involves “intrinsic privilege,” a status wherein the policy differences between the two parties don’t have sufficient personal impact to compel you to vote. Congratulations on your chromosomal fortune! While fiscal policy effects are difficult to forecast, social policies are easily understandable; and the contrast between the two parties is enormous on most issues.
Do you want continued access to abortion, or do you want to overturn Roe v Wade? Do you want to choose what your health insurance covers, or do you think your employer should get to decide? Do you want to encourage social acceptance of gay couples and the possibility of equal marriage rights, or do you support vitriolic homophobia and an explicit rejection of all pro-gay-marriage policy initiatives? Do you want FEMA to continue to provide organized help to storm victims? Do you think women should be paid as much as men for equal work? Do you think women should be forced by the government to bear the child of their rapist?
These are big policy differences. And important ones for some of us. If you’re privileged enough that these policies don’t effect you personally, think about how they’ll effect people you love and care about. Think about the effects of these policies on society at large. A decision not to vote is a naïve, idealistic, intellectually lazy symptom of American privilege. You’re in the game whether you like it or not.