Salon turns to Steve Salaita for the latest iteration of “I am too good for political coalitions” tripe, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better example of the atomistic consumerism that almost always underlies allegedly “radical” critiques of the utility of voting:
I dislike voting as a model of political engagement, especially in a corrupt and constrained system that devalues grassroots organizing and tries to limit our imagination to mechanical support of stage-managed icons. Yet I accept that people find inspiration in public figures and express approval by casting votes, sometimes the only political commodity available to a disempowered public.
Nakedly absent from this, as it is from the rest of the piece, is a consideration of the actual material consequences of elections. If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becomes president, many, many horrible things will happen that will not happen if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders becomes president. Carbon emissions will be much higher. The Supreme Court will likely be controlled for many years by neoconfederate reactionaries, with consequences that only start with women in many states having their reproductive freedom extinguished. The NLRB will be consistently anti-labor. Civil rights and employee protections will go unenforced. Millions and perhaps tens of millions of people will lose access to health care, leading to a substantial amount of avoidable death and suffering. There will be massive upper-class tax cuts funded by a combination of debt and cuts to spending for the poor. Trump might not go along with cuts to Social Security, but he may also foment an unconscionable amount of race-based violence. These are all extremely important things.
And why does Salaita should think we should ignore all these potentially horrible consequences, the brunt of which will be borne by people less privileged than himself? Why, a bunch of Holden Caulfield twaddle about how politicians are phony and inauthentic, man. Given what’s at stake, what intelligent person of voting age could possibly give a shit about politicians being “stage managed?” How can you possibly think the only reason people vote or otherwise act to support candidates is because they find them personally inspiring?
And that’s not the only fallacy packed into these two sentences and repeated throughout. There’s the odd and obviously wrong apparent assumption that voting and other forms of political engagement are some sort of zero-sum game and if you do the former everything else must be off the table. As for the implicit idea that voting is not actually a source of power, well, perhaps he should write John Lewis and tell him what an idiot he was for putting his life on the line for something as meaningless as the right to be “inspired” by Lyndon Johnson. And he can also let John Roberts and Republican state legislators know they’ve wasting their time trying to suppress the vote, since it’s all meaningless anyway.
Pundits who insist on voting as a precondition of respectability exhibit contempt for anybody who rejects the mythologies of U.S. exceptionalism.
What does “U.S. exceptionalism” have to do with this? “The consequences of candidate B winning instead of candidate A winning the election will be horrible” is a fact, not a myth, and it does not in any way imply a belief in “U.S. exceptionalism.” By the same token, disdaining the ballot because politicians are phonies everywhere coming out of the windows does not in any way challenge mythologies of U.S. exceptionalism. Indeed, as evidenced by their actions it is exactly what America’s worst elites want.
The right to vote certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted, but deification of voting can prevent us from treating ourselves as something grander than a massive focus group curated by a few dozen affluent lickspittles. The mythography of voting has conditioned us to treat mediocrity as superior.
Um, has it? To who? Basically, once you accept the idea that you can support politicians you don’t think are heroes or idols — something that for most people I hope happens no later than junior high — all of these dilemmas instantly vanish.
This brand of disciplining rose to prominence during Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000 and is dutifully repeated by waspish blowhards every four years. While reasonable people understand that debate will arise over voting strategies, there is little consideration of the merits of voting third party or not voting at all, which, contrary to neoliberal orthodoxy, can certainly be an affirmational act of participation. When folks with loud voices and large audiences assign blame for the terrible state of U.S. governance on people who make ethical decisions to avoid cosigning injustice, we’re no longer dealing with reason but with numbingly inane superstition.
This essay concluding with accusing other people of advancing “numbingly inane superstitions” is hilarious. Moving right along, the key point here is that while he gestures towards debates about “voting strategies,” his essay contains no such argument. What, precisely, would voting third party or not voting do to affect “the terrible state of U.S. governance”? What could it accomplish that could possibly justify the horrible downside risks, risks that Salaita nowhere disputes? This isn’t about strategy or politics but about voting or not-voting as an “(individually) affirmational act of participation.” What is in fact going on here is an attempt to preempt any discussion of strategy or the material consequences of election outcomes, for the obvious reason that if the discussion takes place at any level higher than congratulating oneself for making self-affirming consumer choices the tactic cannot be defended. And, since he brought Nader into it, it’s also a convenient way of preemptively denying oneself any responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their actions. The voter-as-consumer model is unattractive in itself and as applied is all downside and no upside.