Why you should care
Because dissent sends a message, too … if we care to listen.
There’s this Simpsons episode. Homer shows up to a presidential debate to proclaim: “America, take a good look at your beloved candidates!” He pulls off the two candidates’ masks — revealing them to be slobbering, tentacled monsters. “It’s true, we are aliens,” one of them concedes, “but what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system!” The crowd nods in agreement. Later, after the duly elected alien overlord, Kang, has enslaved the world, Homer self-righteously states: “Don’t blame me. I voted for Kodos.”
The joke, of course, is that Homer was screwed no matter which hideous space reptile he chose — a feeling familiar to some voters this election season. “Don’t boo. Vote,” counsels the country’s president, but even so, the Pew Research Center reports that distrust of politicians and the party system are nearing record highs. Consider that Americans are on track this November to have the “choice” between the most hated candidate in the nation — Donald Trump, according to polls — and the least trusted candidate, Hillary Clinton, again, according to the numbers. Yet on Election Day, my Facebook feed is flooded with sanctimonious posts proclaiming that “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” To which this politics reporter says, well, Bullsh*t.
Imagine if a business decided that feedback from disgruntled consumers was invalid. In politics, it’s the norm to suggest the disenchanted have no right to express their views, and that by abstaining, one loses one’s political standing. Never mind that an individual vote has a “1 in 50 million chance” of making any difference, according to Georgetown’s Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting. Or that a presidential ballot, with only two practical choices, is a very limited instrument for dissent or approval. You can in most systems register disgust through blank ballots or by registering an abstention, but that won’t get you very far.
To be fair, some suggest that voting itself is “the way that you send negative feedback,” says Brennan. And somebody has to vote, and recent research suggests it’s the donor class — read: the privileged wealthy — that benefits when turnout is low. But it’s just as important to talk to those who have consciously taken themselves out of the political process, or else we resign ourselves to the same caliber of candidates, time and time again. “It’s like going into a cereal line,” says Doug Craig, an at-large national board member of the U.S. Libertarian Party. “Everyone here would freak out if you had only Cocoa Puffs and Fruity Pebbles.”
As for those folks who vote no matter what, even as the republic gets taken on a roller-coaster ride to the devil knows where? You might compare them to what a company would call undiscerning customers — the people who keep on buying the same product year after year … and perhaps the ones we should trust the least to recognize a bad deal. Picture “a person who has strong opinions about hamburgers,” Brennan says, “but who always and only eats at McDonald’s.”