A friend and former coworker of mine made an odd statement to me one day that really grabbed my attention. He said, “A decision not to vote in an election is a politically legitimate choice.” Against my protest, he went further to say “the sacrifices made to secure the right to vote for African-Americans did not require voting as civic responsibility.” Since he was a former campaign worker and strategist for the Democratic National Committee, I was genuinely surprised to hear him say this. I disagreed, shaking my head to register my strong disapproval, but continued to listen. He often took views contrary to Black middle class “common sense” but was also one of the most intelligent and “down for the cause brothers” I knew, so I kept my cool and listened further.
“When African-Americans feel that voting is ineffective and that the political system has failed them, it is very reasonable for them to opt out as a way of showing their rejection of the system,” he asserted. He went on to note that it was neither foolish nor immoral behavior. At that point, I set aside my knee-jerk reaction to his comments and thought about his point. It was straightforward enough. He was arguing that African-Americans and others who are not served by the political system need not invest their time and energy into something that consistently fails them. In his view, not voting as a political act was an exercise in civic responsibility. I found that hard to swallow and pointed out that their “political act” had real consequences in their daily lives. “From education to economics, the political system structures and determines the world we live in,” I maintained. He countered by acknowledging that it was true in theory, but then asking whether it was true in fact.
At that point, a light went on in my head. I had confused the theory of democracy and the “right to vote” with the reality of selecting from a group of candidates who often lack the commitment, the insight or the skill to improve the lives of America’s disaffected. “If the political system only provides candidates who despise you or disregard your interests,” I thought, “how can voting be a civic or moral obligation?” I saw then that elections could be used to create an illusion of legitimacy for an illegitimate system. I realized he was right. I conceded, “Of course … elections could be shams that people reject by not voting at all to show that they do not buy into the charade. I agree that their choice to do so can be a political act.” With that, I changed my view of the voting process and elections. I no longer romanticized or exalted voting as a moral act or civic virtue. Instead, I saw it for what it is: a tool to achieve political outcomes.
When you see voting as a tool, then you recognize that, like a hammer or a screwdriver, its value is in helping to accomplish goals. It should never be confused with the goal itself. The political dysfunction that grips our country today results from most of us lacking social goals and visions that we are working toward. Instead, we want the world to be better, and we vote with the hopes that it will happen — much like playing the lottery. We then blame the people elected if it is not “better” for us. We fail to realize, though, that the world has been made better for someone as a result of elections and the entire political system. The question is, who has the world been made better for and how can we enter and expand that group?
The answer is that we can use elections along with lobbying, protesting, organizing, etc. to do so. Deciding that politics does not matter and opting out gives control to others who will continue to make the state and city work for them. If we want the system to work for us, we have to work the system. Like any tool, it responds to the skill and the effort that we put into it … nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.