Why vote?

Voting: Political Act, or an Art Form?

Why vote?

Some of us vote primarily to try to determine what the government will do, and some to express ourselves artistically.

If you want to determine what the government will do, you do vote, and you vote for a candidate or party that has a reasonable chance of winning the election.  You probably disagree with one or more positions taken by the candidate, but on the whole, you prefer that candidate to the alternative.  This fits the classical description of politics as “the art of the possible.”

If you want to express yourself, you might vote, but only for a candidate who truly inspires you, and who agrees with nearly everything you believe.  If no candidate passes that stringent test, you might not vote at all, expressing your disdain for all the ugly realistic choices.  If a candidate who has no chance of influencing the outcome of the election inspires you, you happily vote for that candidate. Voting thus becomes an art form, an aesthetic performance. Oddly enough, this performance has no built-in audience. Perhaps God will congratulate you for keeping away from the election; not counting on divine approval, you can congratulate yourself, and send messages to your friends inviting them to congratulate you.

Whatever happens in the election, the aesthetic voter or non-voter has this consolation: Not my fault, I did not vote, or I voted for the irrelevant ideal candidate.  Unfortunately, this consolation consists of a lie.  If you, a strong environmentalist, did not choose between the lukewarm candidate who favors some environmental regulation, and the free market champion who favors industrial polluters, you have, by your inaction, effectively supported the industrial polluter.  It makes no practical sense to give support to the industrial polluter because you care about the environment so deeply; it just makes aesthetic sense.

Unfortunately, political action as art form infects even those of us who do vote with practical results in mind.  Some of us plan to vote for the better candidate, but not to contribute to the campaign for that candidate’s election.  We can thus express our lack of enthusiasm and save some money.  Some of us plan to vote for, and contribute to, the candidate’s election, but not to volunteer any work for that result, or even put up a lawn sign.  We can express our lack of enthusiasm by our inaction. Maybe God appreciates our finely-calibrated refusal to get deeply involved; we certainly can ask our friends to congratulate us.  Sadly, our finely-calibrated inaction may result in electing the other candidate, who opposes nearly everything we believe in.

We do not know who will win the next election, but either way, we can count on one result.  Political leaders reliably ignore the interests of people who do not vote, or who vote for irrelevant figures.  When we vote for boutique third-party charmers, our friends might admire us, but our political leaders treat us as irrelevant.  They will cheerfully sacrifice us to benefit the people who vote, work, and contribute to getting them elected.

If you really want to vote as an aesthetic performance, I have a suggestion for you: Always write in a vote for yourself. That way, you never have to compromise with candidates who disagree with you in the slightest, and you never have to take responsibility for the outcome of an election in the real world.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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