On the de-politicization of voting

Historically, I have been a pretty avid voter. This particular election, I feel an urgency to keep Illinois from getting a finance-asshole Republican governor, but there’s only so much damage he could do as the legislature will remain Democratic basically regardless of what happens. Most of the time, my reason for voting is that I live in an urban area and can easily walk to my polling place and I have a job that allows me great flexibility — hence I figure, “Why not?”

I don’t have a big theory as to why voting is necessary for everyone. I sympathize with those who choose not to do so on principle, and I also sympathize (moreso) with people who think it’s worth the effort to try to influence election outcomes because even a marginal, incremental change for the better is still better.

The one group I definitely don’t understand are those who say: no matter who you’re voting for, make sure you vote! I’m going to be honest — I would prefer that Republicans stay home. Unlike actual Republicans, I don’t favor laws that make it more difficult for my political opponents to vote, but I certainly am not in the business of encouraging people to vote against my own political preferences.

It’s this strangely de-politicized view of voting that seems to me most dangerous and insidious. The de-politicized vote, the aesthetics of voting-for-voting’s-sake, has no content other than a gesture of legitimation for the system as it now stands. The content-free demand for people to make their voice heard on election day strips their voice of any determinate content, turning it into a sheer acclamation of the actual-existing order.

8 Responses to “On the de-politicization of voting”

  1. adamrobertswriter Says:

    “the aesthetics of voting-for-voting’s-sake, has no content other than a gesture of legitimation for the system as it now stands”

    By the system do you mean ‘liberal capitalism’ or ‘democracy’? If the former, then voting for parties that commit to dismantling that system would surely be a progressive possibility, hampered only by the inertia of the rest of the people voting. But if you mean the latter, then I’m puzzled. Is your point that democracy itself is a bad thing, a ‘system’ we shouldn’t endorse? Of course voting ‘legitimates’ the system of voting: that’s not only tautological it seems to me a good thing.

  2. Stephen Keating Says:

    It’s almost like voting is a sacrament.

  3. bultmanniac Says:

    Voting legitimates the social democratic practice of buying elections.

  4. Brennan Breed Says:

    Perhaps, should we radicalize the “voting for voting’s sake” idea and push it everywhere as a supposedly non-partisan way to increase turnout, as it would inevitably reduce the GOP? I could imagine trying to get people to consider mandatory voting, by comparison to mandatory schooling (like Australia, where they get fined if they don’t vote) simply from aesthetic, non-political considerations (you all must exercise your civic virtues!…) Of course, this would change the electorate entirely. And it would make it a lot harder for billionaires to buy elections.

  5. Chance Says:

    If I can tweak the statement, “The de-politicized vote, the aesthetics of voting-for-voting’s-sake, has no content other than a gesture of legitimation for the system as it now stands.”

    I can only speak to the Minneapolitan community I was raised in, but I can assure you that this kind of sentiment was generally a roundabout way of saying “vote for my candidate.” It has led to a lot of fighting with some of my closest friends as a result because I didn’t make the “right” choice when I actually did vote. The rhetoric is neutrally expressed, but there were toxic undertones.

    Nevertheless, I concur with you that the effect of voting. There is a symbolic efficacy to voting, like rituals or legal discourse, in that it gives people the perception that they participate in democracy, or the will of the people is heard. The effect of this is insidious because, as you say, it really only reinforces the status quo (and gives the perception that the status quo was freely chosen).

  6. Alison (@Axle_Tree) Says:

    I put out the message ‘vote for anyone, but vote’ to my students. This is in the UK and I have had students listen to me and say they will vote for our local fascist party (BNP in this area). I don’t retract the message, even under this provocation.

    I have a few reasons. Higher turnout will in general bring about a more progressive politics, regardless of the individual vote of one student. The message to ‘vote for anyone’ is permitted, but if I made a voting preference clear I would be shut down. The young in the UK have low turnout, and I believe this is part of the reason why politicians ignore them. Once people have got into the habit of voting, and thinking about politics, I think they will move leftwards.

  7. Hill Says:

    Alison, I’m not sure if this translates to the UK, but given the widespread voter suppression re-emerging in the US, it’s not clear that increasing turnout is going to lead to progressive outcomes. Even if we are able to increase the general desire to vote, conservative populations (read: white men, old white people) may actualize that desire at a higher and increasing rate for structural reasons.

  8. Joseph Method (@method3000) Says:

    “The content-free demand for people to make their voice heard on election day strips their voice of any determinate content.” It doesn’t “strip” anyone’s voice. It’s an invitation for others to participate. The precondition for holding an election is that you agree to be bound by its outcome. That is also “content-free”, but the alternative is civil war. Promoting the underlying process for political discourse and decision-making isn’t insidious or dangerous.


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