I have actually never abstained in a presidential election. Four years ago was when I started thinking more seriously about not voting, both as a Christian and as an anarchist. But ultimately I decided to vote then, defensively, against Bush.
In the months leading up to this election, I’ve wrestled with the question of whether or not to vote quite publicly on this blog, and my personal blog. I’ve certainly come to believe that voting isn’t everything, especially when imagining the type of politics that Christianity calls us to. I also believe more and more that the electoral process as it exists in the united states reveals the divisions and conflict that exist in the church, and more importantly, that it seems to reveal where the true allegiance of most Christians lies.
Indeed, I continue to believe that not voting can be a powerful form of protest in many situations. But I have resisted the idea that Christians either must vote or may never vote, and likewise, the idea that anarchists should vote or should never vote. As I said a while back at here, “I am not, nor have I ever been, an absolutist when it comes to voting. I find both positions problematic: to insist one has a duty to vote or to insist that Christians may never vote is to elevate voting to a level of importance that it does not deserve.”
In that same post, I said, “Sometimes, though, in the immediate circumstances, a particular election can mean the difference between life and death, or at least tip the scales slightly in favor of life.” What I was getting at was the importance of context. As I have said repeatedly, had someone like Hilary Clinton won the democratic nomination, I probably would not have voted. But after a lot of reflection, I decided that there are plenty of sufficient reasons to vote in this presidential election, and to vote for Barack Obama. Some scattered thoughts and positions I have come to as a result of this reflection:
1) Voting in the united states is indeed participation in a corrupt system. Critics of voting are indeed right that casting a vote is, in some sense, to be complicit in that system. There is a real danger, though, in believing that abstaining from voting will make us less complicit with this death-dealing system. While I believe Christians must witness to “the wider culture,” to imagine that we are completely separate from that culture, and that we play no role in making it and perpetuating its good aspects as well as its bad aspects, is an illusion.
2) I find it troubling that most of the Christians who call for abstention are twenty- and thirty-something white middle-class males. And I find it troubling that many of these Christians compare voluntary voting in the u.s. to rituals of allegiance such as forced worship of Caesar in the Roman empire. The pressure to vote is strong and it’s ideologically driven. But the fact that we are pressured to vote is not the sort of political oppression that many Christians believe it is.
3) I largely agree with the oft-repeated phrase “if voting could really change anything, they would make it illegal.” I agree with Chomsky and Zinn that there is only one party in america — the Business Party — and that it has two factions. I have also come to agree with them when they point out that these two factions are not identical, that, in Zinn’s words: “Even for the ‘purest’ of radicals, there must be recognition of differences that may mean life or death for thousands.” That recognition of differences is often on the level of individuals, and not so much on the level of political party. (Clinton, for example, seems to me a much different sort of candidate than Barack Obama.) In certain contexts, and with certain candidates, it seems to me that opportunities do arise, however limited, to derail certain aspects of the imperialism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and capitalism of this country.
4) One opportunity in particular seems to me to be quite obvious. Radicals consistently and rightly criticize the fact that the american presidential tradition has only included white, rich males. This election gives us an opportunity to break from that tradition in some respects and I am in favor of contributing to the breaking of that tradition and sending it to hell. The types of racism and scapegoating that republicans have shown in this campaign compels me to register a small action that indicates which side I want to stand on when it comes to race in america. Racism runs deep in the people of this country and is not limited to any political party. But one party has proven itself to be quite open about its racist worldview and political tactics. To hell with them.5) Another opportunity that appears to be within our grasp is the potential for some changes in the health care system in the united states. American for-profit health care is unambiguously demonic. Libertarian types often ask me how an anarchist could be in favor of universal health care. Such libertarians prove how little they really care about “liberty.” The way I see it, there is a hierarchy of tyrannies and not all forms of rule are equal. The tyranny of corporate capitalism is one of the worst in that it thrives on the illusion of freedom. In an ideal, utopian community, people’s health needs would be cared for, and the “systems” that provide this care would be in the hands of the people. Universal health care can be imagined and implemented in various ways in the united states. None of them would be ideal. But any of them would be better than keeping the power over life and death in the hands of corporations. The opportunity for universal health care that we seem to have represents a much needed move toward taking power away from corporations. My understanding of “liberty” does not include capitalism. (More on the topic of anarchism and health care here.)
6) As a middle class, male, white american, I have the luxury of voting or not voting. (No, I’m not buying into the “gift” that american political ideology presumes voting to be, and I do not fall for the “your ancestors fought and died for your right to vote” stuff. I’m merely stating a fact: I have a choice whether to vote or not.) The majority of the world’s poor (and non-poor) do not have a say in who the leader of the “free world” is going to be, but their lives are affected by our choice too. Perhaps even more. Most of the world is terrified of four more years of the neoconservative nightmare, and not out of middle-class political discomfort or mere difference of opinion. They are the ones who will be on the receiving end of u.s. bombs, not us. I’m voting on their behalf to help keep John McCain out of the White House. He’s bombed human beings before and he’ll do it again.
7) “And what about abortion?” some have asked me quite directly. Many of them know that I am 100% against abortion in all cases. (What this means in terms of specific political practice is a long complicated question, and one I can’t deal with fully here. On this issue, like others, my anarchism informs my politics and from a Catholic perspective this is legitimate, as opposition to abortion may take form in various legitimate political options.) The problem, of course, is that we know by now that the republican party has done and will do nothing to defend the unborn and the rest of their policies are decidedly anti-life in the very deepest sense. I was duped for many years by the rhetoric of the republican party and of Catholic republicans. Been there, done that. Long ago I joined the ranks of those who say we will not be duped again. The republican party hates abortion, but refuses to see how their foundational principles contribute to abortion’s causes. If they will not attack the causes, their pontificating is meaningless and will only serve as an issue to exploit every four years to fool well-meaning folks who cannot (or refuse to) see the big picture. The best way to end abortion is to change our society at its roots, and in the mean time, to do what Christians have always done in the face of what seems to be an unchangeable situation of death-dealing systemic sin: change hearts one at a time.
It should be clear by now to anyone who has read my blog that I am no democrat. And voting for Barack Obama is not meant to suggest that I have any loyalty or allegiance to that party, which I consider to be a party of death much like the republican party. I reject both parties. Indeed, I reject this system entirely. Depending on the election, I could see myself sitting out of the process entirely. But sometimes opportunities present themselves which allow us to conduct some minor derailing of this death-dealing system. This time, I am voting primarily for those around the world who were on the receiving end of the republican party’s bombing raids because they are getting far too organized and must be stopped. I am voting to help do my part to send the all-white american presidential tradition to hell.
And I am voting for my daughter and my new nephew because, despite my cynicism, they deserve a better world and I am a part of the world that they are inheriting. I do not float above it in a pretty Christian cocoon and I can’t settle for the middle-class Christian illusion that sitting this one out will preserve my “purity.” I reject the culture and politics of death in every place I find it, and I won’t fall for the inflated rhetoric of “hope” and “change.” But strangely, perhaps miraculously, the system itself provides tiny openings that we can take advantage of in order to derail it toward its own destruction and the birth of something new. And every little bit helps in seeking out and exploiting those openings. Even my stupid little ballot.