The first presidential election I ever voted in was 1992. I voted for Bill Clinton. I was twenty years old and relatively politically unaware, although I had already thought Republicans were assholes since I was about ten. Not really based on many specifics, just based on the general vibe I got from them whenever I saw them on TV.
By 1996, I was voting for Ralph Nader. I still was not following politics terribly closely, but I had figured out that Democrats were basically just caving to Republican demands in the name of “bi-partisanship.” And, I didn’t even know Nader was running until one of my friends, who was in line to vote right in front of me, told me. I had planned on just voting for Clinton again, but once I found out there was an alternative, I took it.
By 2000, I was much more politically aware, but from a (to this day) much more radical perspective. I was living in Oregon and had fallen in with anarchists, tree-sitters, “anti-globalization” activists, some of whom thought I was naive and silly for even voting, period.
But, I voted for Ralph Nader then, too. And before you go screaming at me for “handing the election to Bush,” understand that I was voting in Oregon. So, essentially, my vote didn’t make a difference at all in the outcome of that election. Bush had already won electorally before the polls in Oregon had even closed.
But, by 2008, after more-or-less sticking my head in the sand for eight years because it was just too painful to watch, I voted for Obama. I was never one of those people who expected a bunch of awesome, progressive shit out of him. I knew that he was just talking the talk during his campaign, but that as soon as he was elected, he’d go back to the same old neoliberal walk. I understood this and expected it. I mean, that’s what Democrats do, right? But by that point, I had pretty much given up hope that any political candidate would ever actually represent me and had accepted my cynical, defeatist fate of always having to settle for the “lesser” of two evils. I was still, though, not following the actual goings on of national, or local, politics all that closely. Again, it was just too painful.
Also though, around 2012, I started listening to “liberal” radio. I live in Denver at the time, home of AM 760, which billed itself as “Progressive Talk” radio. It has since switched to sports or something lame like that. But, I listened to Bill Press, Thom Hartmann, David Sirota, and Nor-man Gold-man. Hartmann, once a week, would do a “Brunch with Bernie” segment. That was my first introduction to US Senator Bernie Sanders.
So, in 2015, when Bernie announced he was running for president, it was like a lightning bolt of hope. Finally! Someone was running who actually represented policies I wanted to see at least discussed, if not, perish the thought, implemented. Finally, maybe I wouldn’t have to completely swallow my integrity when I voted. Finally, maybe, there was a chance to pull the entire debate we have in America back over to a center-left position, back from the far-right place it had drifted to before my very eyes over the course of my lifetime.
In 2000, when Nader was running, there was a phrase uttered frequently, and even got made into a bumper sticker: “Vote Your Conscience, Not Your Fear.” There’s something very empowering about that idea. It’s basically suggesting that maybe we should vote for what we actually want, instead of voting against what we don’t want, or voting for some totally diluted and compromised version of what we want, which turns out to be not what we really wanted at all. After a while, though, this phrase kind of became code for “just turn off your brain and vote for the Green Party.” Don’t bother paying attention. Don’t bother thinking. Just vote for whoever is “anti-establishment.” I think you can see the danger in this.
But what if we took this saying more literally? What if we really and truly examined our conscience? What if we stopped emotionally reacting to the candidates, or how their campaigns were or were not run, and actually thought long and hard about the consequences of a particular candidate winning or not winning? What if we stopped telling other people who they should and should not vote for and allowed them to examine their own conscience and make their own decisions?
And, what if we stopped over-exaggerating, or under-exaggerating, the power of our one, tiny, drop-in-the-bucket vote. Because your one vote is probably not going to decide the fate of a presidential election. Sometimes margins are slim with only a few thousand or hundred thousand votes in an electorally strategic state making the difference, but still. Your one vote is only one of those thousands, and it may only matter if you’re in this electorally strategic state. I don’t think any of us would have guessed, in 2000, that it would come down to Florida.
But this is why I still, stubbornly, insist on voting, even when I don’t have any good, viable choices. Because my vote is one of the very few, insignificant powers my government allows me. It isn’t the only power. I also have the power to protest, to contact my elected representatives, to write this blog. But if I chose not to vote, I would be giving up one of the tiny specks of power I am afforded. It may not be much, but my vote is my autonomy, my agency, my voice. It’s not the whole of any of these things, but it is a small part, and in a system that consistently disregards and dismisses the needs and desires of insignificant nobody’s like me, I just wouldn’t feel right about giving up even the smallest sand-grain of the power I’m allowed to have.
But so then, I also don’t want to “waste” my vote, right? Let’s think about this, too. What is “wasting” your vote? Because the mainstream argument against voting third party is just that. That, if you do, you’re wasting your vote. But why? Is it just because in our fucked up system a third party candidate could never win? What if I vote for the Democrat, or the Republican, and they lose? Was my vote “wasted” then? What about all the people who voted for John McCain or Mitt Romney? Were their votes wasted? What if you voted for Hillary in 2016? Was your vote wasted? By this mainstream logic, yes, it was.
No vote is ever wasted unless it was not counted. Even if it was counted for a losing candidate, it still was not wasted. Because you used your voice, you expressed your autonomy, you exercised one of the few infinitesimal specks of power you are allowed as an average, ordinary, individual citizen of this republic.
Vote your conscience, not your fear. But VOTE.
Read Related Post: “On Voting Your Conscience.”