Fascism and the Obligation to Vote

Worried about the election? Ha, ha, me too! While we’re waiting to learn the fate of our country, I figured I’d kill some time by running a thought by you that I’ve been meaning to blog for awhile, but never had the chance to–until tonight. Oh, the irony. The question is whether the prospect of fascism for your polity gives you the obligation to vote. I kind of think it does. But you tell me.

Imagine that you have the right to vote, and that you care about the common good of the polity in which you have that right. Now suppose that, all things equal, fascism or the prospect of fascism would grievously subvert the common good. Presumably (all things equal), your caring about the common good gives you an obligation to promote it somehow. You would, I’d think, flout the demands of justice if you just sat there observing the real prospect of fascism, and did nothing about it–or even did something about it less efficacious in stopping its advent than some more efficacious option in your power.

If fascism is en route, after all, the situation you face is a bit like Peter Singer’s drowning child example, except that in this case, the drowning child is your polity. You couldn’t, consistently with claiming to be a caring person, simply watch that happen, or alternatively, do something obviously ineffective about it in the quixotic thought that doing so might nibble cosmetically around the edges of the problem. That would be like wading into the water near the drowning child, splashing around a bit in a melodramatic fashion, and calling it a day. Only a moral monster or a fool would do such a thing–or rather, refrain from doing the right thing. Just as the person in Singer’s thought-experiment has the obligation of performing the action within his power that will come as close as possible to actually saving the child, so you have the obligation of doing the same thing with respect to saving the polity you profess to value. 

Now suppose that fascism actually lurks on the horizon–that it is, in William James’s phrase, a “live option” at a given historical moment, live enough for some currently-existing set of political actors to enact. And suppose that it’s precisely an election result that could, at that moment, decide whether or not you end up in fascism (or discernibly closer to it). Assume, in other words, that fascism votes its way into power. If so, election results–whether a series of them, or a single dramatic occasion, or some combination of these–would prove causally pivotal to determining the fate of the common good. Under these conditions, it seems to me, if you really do care about the common good (of the polity in which you have the right to vote), unless you have a better way of resisting and forestalling fascism, you have the obligation to vote. Voting is ex hypothesi the most causally efficacious option for resisting fascism, and so, of promoting the common good. So you should vote.

Now suppose that your polity has two major political parties, one fascist, and one flawed but decidedly non- and anti-fascist. Call the one F and the other non-F. Given the preceding, don’t you have at least a defeasible obligation to vote non-F? I think so. At any rate, I can’t think of a better alternative.

I have, to be sure, packed a lot of conditions into this scenario. So let’s double back and re-consider them. 

(1) For one thing, you might not care about the common good of the polity in which you exercise the right to vote. You might care about some other common good, or simply care about something of greater value than the common good. (Or you might care, but lack a right to vote.) If so, you’re off the hook, at least for present purposes. You’re free to ignore elections and live your life. “You be you,” as they say. 

(2) Suppose you do care, except that the mere prospect of fascism is (right now, and for the foreseeable future) too distant to be worth taking seriously, or all that seriously. If so, the conditions for the argument don’t yet apply. Whew! You’re off the hook! 

(3) Beyond that, elections, or some particular election, might not be causally decisive with respect to the advent of fascism. Some other causal process could be more important in determining whether a polity descends or not into fascism. Once we identified that other process, of course, the argument would have to shift there: you’d have to do whatever it takes to stop that process from happening. But ex hypothesi, voting would not be it.

(4) Beyond that, it could be that the prospect of fascism is not the only relevant consideration. The prospect of fascism might threaten the common good, but so might something else not mentioned in the scenario, such that voting for non-F has non-fascist-but-equally-bad-consequences, or voting as such distracts attention from something even more important than resistance to fascism.

For instance, the non-F party might be reliably anti-fascist, but might espouse communism or theocracy or just plain old non-ideological insanity. If those things are at least as bad as fascism, it would be irrational to vote for them on anti-fascist grounds. This was arguably the case during the Spanish Civil War, where the alternatives could plausibly have been characterized as fascism of the Franco-Hitler-Mussolini variety as against socialism of the Stalinist variety (and/or a socialist brand of anarchism that was either easily co-opted by Stalinism, or else too chaotic to function as a viable form of governance). Soviet-style socialism may well have been anti-fascist, but arguably had equivalent problems of its own. Likewise, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the options were either Soviet-style socialism or some brand of Islamic theocracy. If those are your options, there may well be a good case for sitting things out. In cases of that kind, voting isn’t an option because there really are no options. You’re voting for six of one as against half of another. That gives the mere appearance of resistance to injustice without actually advancing the common good, so there’s no point to it. 

It could also be that while one party is fascist, and the other is anti-fascist, both are equally bad with respect to some issue more fundamental to the common good than fascism versus anti-fascism. Imagine, for instance, that climate change is a cataclysm in the making, and that both the fascist and anti-fascist parties are equally indifferent to it. In that case, it might be argued that fascism vs. anti-fascism is beside the point. The bigger looming (but equally ignored) issue is climate change. So while fascism vs. anti-fascism is important, when it comes to climate change, there are (if you’ll pardon the pun) bigger fish to fry.

(5) Finally it might be too difficult, empirically, to figure out whether the relevant conditions hold (or more generally, what’s going on). No one can be blamed for justified doubt or warranted indecision under conditions of extreme uncertainty. So you could sit things out by pleading ignorance, as long as you did so honestly, rather than from a spirit of opportunistic evasion. 

Granted–all of it. But if the relevant conditions do hold, and you can figure out that they do, and there are no countervailing considerations, you do have an obligation to vote, right? Not only that, you have a (defeasible) obligation to vote for the non-F–meaning, you ought to vote non-F in every case where doing so defeats F, unless some (very) special consideration dictates otherwise. That might entail swallowing a lot of the stupid, offensive shit that non-F stands for, and voting for them simply on anti-fascist grounds. The point is, however bad non-F is, F is ex hypothesi much worse. Hence the obligation to vote for non-F. QED. 

Someone might grant that while the sum of all votes makes a decisive difference to the political outcome, since no particular vote does (or likely does), and each individual wields only a single vote, it seems silly to invest so much significance in the act of voting. So that fact by itself–the fact of individualized causal impotence qua individualized–entails that you have no obligation to vote.

I don’t think this argument is particularly plausible on the merits, but I also think there’s a technological fix for it. Suppose that you know that an election is coming, and that it’ll be decisive with respect to fascism and the common good. You could plan for it ahead of time, and your planning might take the following form: Yes (you might acknowledge), your lone vote by itself makes only an infinitesimally small difference to the overall political outcome, but your vote in concert with millions (or whatever large number is relevant) makes a big difference–all the difference. Now imagine that you could, by electronic means, enter a massive “assurance contract” such that everyone who entered the contract pledged to vote a certain way, with the contract binding those who pledged if and only if enough people pledged to make a decisive difference to the election. If not enough eligible voters pledged by a certain date, everyone would be released from the contract, so that it becomes a dead letter (even unto fascism).

Granted, this magical threshold number is a matter of speculation. There’s no way to predict with absolute precision how large a number of votes is needed to make a decisive difference to an election. But there’s probably a way of specifying a plausible ex ante range, and at a certain point, in the interests of reaching a decision, a reasonable number could simply be chosen within this range such that that’s the number that decides the assurance contract by fiat. If, after all, we’re really facing the prospect of fascism, it would be pretty stupid to sit around haggling about the exact number. Anything reasonably in the ballpark will do.*  

Suppose that you enter this contract, along with the requisite number of other people–I mean, comrades–and you all publicly pledge to vote non-F. In other words, you’ve traded the secrecy of your ballot for publicity, and used that publicity as the basis of an assurance contract that defeats the “one vote doesn’t matter” problem.**

What happens if you backslide on your promise? The same thing that happens when you backslide on any important promise. You lose a bit of self-respect, you lose a bit of the respect of others, and you open yourself up to blame, contempt, and the like. That might not be enough for some people–the kind of people who believe that a sanction isn’t a sanction unless it’s monetizable. Fine. We could, to appease such people, bake a material sanction into the contract. If you backslide, you have to pay a monetary penalty. Or for people who think that monetary penalties privilege the rich, perhaps the penalty could be that you have to do a lot of remorse-inducing push ups. Or sit ups. Or planks. Or, to take a page from my mother’s book of punishments, perhaps backsliders would be forced to sit down and write “I will not backslide on my promises” 500 times in a special “Punishment Notebook.” (Yes, I had a Punishment Notebook growing up, and this was my mother’s preferred form of discipline.) I leave this part of the proposal to your retributive imagination. The point is, one way or another, there’s probably some way to give the contract the right kind of bite. 

All of this occurred to me while reading an anarchist-authored book I’m supposed to have reviewed by now (actually, supposed to have reviewed a long-ass time ago), Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech, and Political Violence. All of the book’s contributors oppose fascism, and all regard fascism (indeed, regarded it back in 2017, when the book was published) as nearly imminent in the United States. Yet many authors deride the idea that voting is in any sense obligatory, or even all that important. A few, if I remember, go to the extreme of saying that voting is something you positively shouldn’t do. The arguments they give strike me as extremely unpersuasive: we all (well, those of us who aren’t fascists) want to stop the tides of fascism, but I don’t really see what better alternative these authors (or any others) propose when it comes to doing so. It’s not that what they propose–rallying publicly against fascism, de-platforming fascists, cancelling them, publicly shaming them, etc.–is necessarily wrong, or not worth doing. I just don’t see why it’s superior to voting. If fascism votes itself into office, aren’t elections where the action is?

I say this not because I’m a great enthusiast about voting. I’m not. But of all the methods of dealing with fascism, voting seems to have the most bang for the buck, and is in principle, the least casualty-ridden tactic of the lot. Street brawls and paramilitary activity will put you in the hospital or in the ground. In general, voting does not. That’s got to count for something, so to speak. And it beats not dealing with fascism, too. What’s not to like?

It’s kind of funny that I’m writing this after the polls have closed, and after our fate has been decided. I guess the Owl of Minerva really does take flight at dusk. And depending on the election results, it might make sense to take flight at dawn, too.  We’ll see.  

*Notice that for small, local elections of the kind that have recently become so fraught and politically significant, the threshold number need not be that large. In a state like New Jersey, with a long tradition of municipal “home rule,” involving hundreds of small or even tiny municipalities, voting-by-assurance-contract could become–and implicitly has become–a viable political strategy at fairly low thresholds.

**I’m ignoring the legality of this option under current US election law. I’m not entirely sure it’s legal. But if it isn’t, that’s a strike against our laws, not the proposal.

20 thoughts on “Fascism and the Obligation to Vote

        • I don’t see why. But first, let’s get clear on the logic of our disagreement.

          I’m arguing, fundamentally, for a big conditional. I don’t think you’re disputing the truth of the conditional. You’re disputing whether one can reach the consequent via the antecedent.

          The conditional is:

          If (1) you care about the common good in which you have the right to vote, and (2) there is a real impending prospect of fascism arising, and (3) an election or series of them has the capacity to block this prospect, and there are no countervailing considerations as per (4) in the original post, and (5) you know this, then you have an obligation to vote.


          Part of your argument suggests that you don’t think (3) is ever true, hence don’t think the antecedent is ever true, hence don’t think we can infer the consequent from its truth.

          I really don’t see why, and don’t see how the C4SS piece disputes or refutes the possibility. If fascism comes to power by electoral means, I don’t see how there is any way of stopping its rise to power except by countervailing electoral means. And I don’t see what agorism has to add here. Let’s say that agorists sit out an election satisfying the conditions in my conditional. Fascists win the election. Now fascism is in power. Well, at this point, fascism holds veto power over the prospects for agorism. So I don’t see how the agorist strategy has succeeded.

          At that point, the only hope that agorists have is a resort to arms. I have no objection in principle to a resort to arms, but not if there is a way of avoiding one. And elections give us one.

          The track record of the strategy you seem to be suggesting–with respect to resistance against fascism–is unpromising. The Spanish and German Left, and now the Israeli Left, sat by, focusing on things-other-than-electoral success, only to watch fascism take over by electoral means and ruin the prospects for what they had in mind. At the very least, that is a cautionary tale. More plausibly, I think it’s the ultimate fate of anyone who cedes elections to fascism.

          When you say, though, that you wouldn’t endorse a strategy that counts on the cooperation of >50% of a polity, I’m inclined to infer that the better way of reading your argument is not so much as disputing the truth of (3), but as an implicit (unacknowledged) rejection of (1). You are in effect acknowledging indifference to the common good in which you have the right to vote. What you’re saying, after all, is that you can’t count on the cooperation of the majority of those people. Well, if you can’t count on their cooperation, then you don’t intend to cooperate with them. And if you don’t, it’s hard to see how you can claim to promote the common good constituted by them. That’s not necessarily an objectionable line to take. One could justifiably write off the majority of people in one’s polity. But that isn’t the line you’re actually taking. Explicitly, you’re not rejecting the antecedent at (1). You’re rejecting it at (3). But a rejection at (3) strikes me as totally unmotivated. And your implicit rejection at (1) seems unacknowledged.

          It’s worth focusing on something I relegated to a footnote (the first footnote). “The common good of the polity in which you have a right to vote” is somewhat ambiguous. You have a right to vote in a certain municipality and county in Alabama, in the United States. That gives you the right to vote in a variety of different elections from the local to the federal level. Why think that it’s so difficult to win local elections? The threshold required to swing an election for, say, Board of Education in a small town is not that big. If you’re willing to write off political action on that level, it’s hard to see how any political action, agorist or otherwise, can succeed at anything. Maybe it can’t, but in that case we should be quietists, not agorists. But if a bunch of renegade Republicans can succeed at winning at local politics, I don’t see what stops anyone else–except ambivalence about the value of success.

          The first footnote of my post contains three hyperlinks. One of them goes to a post I wrote about a school board election in Princeton, New Jersey. Another goes to a New Yorker article about the Republican strategy of dominating local elections. And a third goes to a book about the functioning of local politics in New Jersey. Those sources demonstrate that electoral politics at the local level is not the quixotic or Sisyphean endeavor you’re making it out to be. Ordinary people do, after all, enter local politics and win elections there. But if local politics is a Sisyphean endeavor, then politics itself is, and we should write off the whole endeavor. Agorists have not achieved success of a kind that suggests that agorism holds the key to success where non-agorist democratic politics is a game impossible to win. Things are the other way around: ordinary democratic politics looks like game that ordinary people can sometimes win; the success of agorism is parasitic on that, but has no chance in its absence.


        • Just to give a sense of the numbers involved in a local race in Princeton, population 30,000:


          Winning this race is a matter of convincing a few hundred people that your message is at least on par with two of the incumbents and preferable to a third. That’s difficult, but not overwhelming. The Republicans have learned how to play this game and iterate the wins. Others can do the same, but for different ends. And should.


  1. I think that it’s the duty of citizens in a democracy to vote and that it should be mandatory. At least when the boat sinks there’ll be no whingers; we all voted to head for that iceberg. In regard to stopping fascism though, fascism is usually the outcome of a vote. People vote for fascism is the choice not to have any more choices. I imagine a lot of fascist supporting voters would reason thus: the fascists we’re about to vote in will provide strong and decisive leadership in the direction we want to go, and any contrary unpatriotic views will be suppressed and ignored, as they should be. The principle being, dictators are fine as long as they agree with us. But this is also a view held by some anti fascists. If half the population plus one wants to abolish gay rights, democracy clearly isn’t working as it should. In any case, in the states and other countries where voting is optional, the risk and current reality is that fascists will try to stop anti fascists from voting and they will be successful because they’re richer, whiter and have a much lower moral bar.


    • I think that it’s the duty of citizens in a democracy to vote and that it should be mandatory. At least when the boat sinks there’ll be no whingers; we all voted to head for that iceberg.

      I can’t say I agree with that.

      I’ve defended a duty to vote, but a very circumscribed one–against fascism, under certain conditions, if the voter himself or herself is in a position to know. But I don’t think there’s a general duty to vote apart from conditions of that sort.

      For one thing, sometimes the choices one faces in an election are not worth the exertion of voting. If no candidate is worth voting for, there is no point in voting. And if there’s no point, there’s no duty. Sometimes both options are positively evil. There can’t be a duty to promote something evil or wrong.

      Beyond that, a person can be honestly ignorant of how to vote. It flouts the point of voting to insist that such a person vote. If he honestly confesses that he doesn’t know what to think, he can’t possibly have a duty to vote simply to express his avowed ignorance.

      I certainly don’t think that voting should be mandatory. Voting is supposed to be an exercise in self-governance, but it defeats the purpose of self-governance to be forced into it. And what distinguishes liberalism from fascism is liberalism’s reluctance to use force against those who are neither using it themselves nor harming anyone. More important than voting is distinguishing liberalism from fascism in principle. Surrender that principle, and there isn’t enough to distinguish them to make liberalism worth saving.

      It definitely is true that fascists and proto-fascists in the United States are trying hard to disenfranchise the population, but mandatory voting can’t resolve that. Mandatory voting only applies to those eligible to vote, but fascists can accept it while declaring large swatches of people ineligible. There really is no resolution to that problem but a direct (political) battle against those engaged in disenfranchisement. My friend and fellow blogger John Davenport has an excellent forthcoming book on this. I’ll try to blog about it when it comes out.



      • In Australia no one is ineligible to vote, so long as they’re a citizen and over eighteen. It’s true that one often feels the choice is between wicked and wickeder…. but then I guess everyone has the choice to become a candidate also or to help choose one. Kind of. As for ignorance, the obligation to vote discourages it, to some extent. Even my amazingly ignorant neighbour asks her like minded friend who to vote for, so she doesn’t go too far astray. Compulsory voting gives one a sense of collective responsibility. We’re all in this together, no-one gets to sit on the sidelines and say it’s nothing to do with me. In fact, we have an excellent system the USA would do well to emulate.


        • Well, if the choices between candidates in a given election are bad right now, it seems to me that you should have a right to opt out right now, regardless of any options you have to remedy that in the future. Otherwise, you’re being forced to make a choice between bad options when the better option is to sit the election out. It seems wrong to force people to make the worse of two decisions in the name of forcing them to make the right decision.

          Beyond that, my point is that we have an obligation to vote in order to stop fascism. But if that’s so, it’s counter-productive to force fascists and their sympathizers to vote. We should hope that they don’t vote. Less right-wing participation in voting is better for everyone.

          I also don’t see how mandatory voting really improves voter competence. Voters don’t become more competent simply by voting in every election on command. They are required to vote, not to vote competently. Mandatory voting bypasses the competence problem, and then imposes it on the electorate. That’s worse than what we already have.

          Though I don’t agree with mandatory voting even in Australia, the US presents a special case that makes mandatory voting even less attractive than it would ordinarily be: mandatory voting would attempt to solve a non-problem while ignoring the real problems we face. Lack of voter participation is not the real problem in the US. The real problem is the Republican Party’s systematic attempts to disenfranchise those eligible and willing to vote.

          One tactic is to declare “voter fraud” a problem, and then devise methods for combating it that in effect prevent people from voting, or make it difficult to vote. Another is to define voting districts in such a confusing or ad hoc way as to confuse people about what district they’re in, or else to create an enclave of like-minded voters that dissuades voters from the other party from voting at all (because they’re sure to lose). Our Electoral College system at the federal level creates yet another problem. And then we have large jurisdictions–the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico–where residents lack the right to vote in federal elections altogether. Those problems have to be solved before we start to worry about lack of voter participation. In a sense, American voters decline to participate because they’re being asked to participate in a system that makes no sense. The problem is not their refusal to participate in the system, but the irrationality of the system itself.

          Incidentally, one complication is that non-citizens have a limited right to vote in non-federal elections in the United States.


          It seems counter-intuitive to permit this, but given the scale of our immigration problem, given the utter irrationality of our immigration system, and given the fact that legal immigrants are taxed but don’t enjoy the full set of benefits for which they’re taxed, it’s a reasonable compromise to give immigrants a limited right to vote. But it’s also a source of constant friction. Immigrants are very easy to disenfranchise.

          To use a very different example: Palestinians in Jerusalem have a limited right to vote in local elections, but often abstain from voting on the grounds that voting in Israeli elections is a vote for the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem. I used to find that argument quixotic, but have now come to sympathize with it. It would compound the injustice of the annexation of Jerusalem for the Israelis to force Palestinians to vote in local elections (not that they ever would). The annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel is fundamentally unjust, regardless of whether the Israelis have given Palestinians the right to vote or not. It’s wrong to force them to participate in an electoral system that they regard as fundamentally illegitimate, even if doing so might improve their material lot.

          We have lessons to learn from Australia, but not, I think, on voting. On gun control and health care, perhaps. Maybe other things.

          There is, incidentally, a book-length debate on mandatory voting, featuring an American versus an Australian philosopher (Jason Brennan vs. Lisa Hill).


          I rarely agree with Brennan, but am inclined to agree with him here.


  2. It seems you want to generate the moral obligation here via causal supremacy or necessity (and something at stake that is of undisputed, vital normative importance). But isn’t the causal supremacy or necessity point here plausible only with regard to what is at stake in collective “action” (relevant norms, enough people following them, etc.)?

    Suppose that enough general compliance with norm N is required for social disaster D to be avoided. Do I even have sufficient reason (let alone obligation-style, overriding reason) to comply with N? Not necessarily. In many situations, it is likely that I can get away with free-riding. If so, and if the cost of complying with N imposes some significant-enough cost on me (and it is not clear that the cost has to be so high), then I’ll fail to have sufficient reason to comply with N.

    For me to have reason (or much reason) to comply with N if I could get away with free-riding, we need some additional element of normativity that generates more reason (for me) to comply with N. Moreover, what we really need is some normally-overriding reason (for me and all others in my sort of position) to comply with N. Now, one salient way to generate overriding normative pressure is via implicit or explicit identity-commitment (and associated reasons for avoiding having a certain kind of negative self-regard, roughly regarding oneself as not-respect-worthy person). If this mode of normativity-generation is sensitive to appropriateness-standards in moral, reactive attitudes (perhaps primarily via sensitivity to actual, appropriately-held attitudes of this sort), then, plausibly, we have the right ingredients to having overriding reason (of a recognizably moral sort) to comply with certain social norms (those the violation of which, in a context, make things like moral resentment and moral anger appropriate).

    Plausibly, it is appropriate to have moral anger toward agents that violate norms that, if enough of us don’t comply with them, some social disaster results. If each of us has most reason to adopt compliance with norms that fit this bill as identity-defining — and if, in such a normative situation, there is sufficient tendency to adopt such identity-commitments — then we end up with many agents (perhaps most, perhaps functionally usually enough for adequate compliance) with overriding reason to comply with the norm. (Those without such identity-commitments would face different, more punishment-based reasons, usually-overriding in a different way, to comply, while, for the most part, have what Bernard Williams might call a “rational route” to accepting the norm in the right, moral way, thus coming to face the normal sort of overriding moral normative pressure to comply. I don’t see how, on this sort of picture, we can avoid this last perhaps-revisionary element in our moral theory.)

    That’s a bare-bones picture (sketchy for sure, perhaps in both senses of ‘sketchy’!) of how there might be (the right sort of) normally-overriding normative pressure to comply with obviously-vitally-useful social norms (even though, from a narrowly consequence-centered approach, many or most of us might lack even sufficient reason to comply). It is easy to see how this kind of approach would yield an obligation to vote anti-fascist in the event of a vote determining whether one’s society will slip decisively toward fascism. So, thinking that something like the kind of picture presented is correct, I agree with your conclusion. Also I agree on purely intuitive grounds! I just don’t find your causal supremacy (or causal necessity) argument convincing.


    • I don’t quite get your objection. The agent’s caring about the common good, and fascism’s subverting the common good (so that the agent is committed to caring about fascism’s not obtaining) is deliberately baked into the example. Given that set-up, the agent has pro tanto instrumental reason to promote anything that prevents fascism from obtaining.

      She can’t do that on her own, but an assurance contract multiplies her efforts: it assures her that her desire to stop fascism from obtaining is seconded by a sufficient number of others to probabilize that it won’t obtain. The assurance contract only works if (to the extent that) there are no free riders, and in that respect has the same normative structure as any promise (so that it’s no more or less normatively puzzling than any promise). I don’t defend the normativity of the institution of promising, but that seems like a case of the tail’s wagging the dog in this context. I’m definitely not appealing simply to causality, however. The point isn’t simply that fascism’s not obtaining is of great importance, but that I set the example up so that the agent herself is committed to thinking that. The only reason she has for not acting accordingly is lack of assurance she’ll be effective, but the assurance contract partly assures her that she will.

      One objection I didn’t entertain in the post for lack of time to develop it was the possibility that the other side might game the assurance contract by entering it, then defaulting on the promise. But that seems an ineffective way of gaming it. All that it does is convey a misimpression of the assurance that others will vote, but since the misimpression is an exaggeration of how many will vote, all it does is encourage people to think that they have greater numbers on their side than the thought. That’s not harmful enough to be a very big problem. I have a separate response to anyone who thinks it is, which I’ll save in case anyone actually makes that objection.


      • Incidentally, one reason I didn’t belabor the issue of whether the agent has reason to keep her promise is that she’s promising to do something she already has reason to do. In your objection, the cost of complying with the norm in question is high, but here it’s low. The ballot can be mailed to your door, and you don’t even have to stamp it. If you’re trusting enough, you can just leave it in your mailbox for the delivery person to take to the post office. A person unwilling to put even that much (little) effort into abiding by a promise on a topic of this gravity would just be self-deceived about their own normative priorities. That’s a much higher cost to incur than having to vote.


        • Well, I’m making a proposal to the effect that an assurance contract would help resolve the situation we’re in (or would be in if we faced fascism).

          In a sense, the whole post is hypothetical, not actual, since it’s couched as the defense of a conditional with a very long antecedent which I haven’t affirmed. That’s the point of my response to Roderick.


        • It belatedly occurs to me that it might help to revisit Jason Brennan’s Ethics of Voting, pp. 28-36 to understand what I’m doing in my argument here. On those pages, Brennan lays out and offers a critique of an argument for a general duty to vote based on Richard Tuck’s arguments in the latter’s book, Free Riding. I haven’t read Tuck, so I’m taking Brennan’s account of him on faith, but assuming Brennan is right about Tuck, I think that Tuck’s argument (or the Tuck-inspired argument discussed by Brennan, call it Tuck+) is similar to the one you’re (mistakenly) attributing to me. Tuck+’s argument turns almost entirely on causal efficacy, but doesn’t quite (at least on Brennan’s account) explain why being causally efficacious at bringing about an outcome–including a desired electoral outcome–is rational or obligatory.

          I’m inclined to think that Brennan’s anti-Tuck+ argument succeeds, but if you go back and read his critique, I think you’ll also see why it doesn’t succeed against mine. The argument I’ve given here has exactly what Tuck+’s argument is missing. It explains how the voter belongs to the causally efficacious set that makes a difference to the election, and it includes the missing step that gets you from causal efficacy to the moral/rational importance of being causally efficacious. I think this is because the conclusion I’m trying to defend is far more modest than Tuck+’s.

          Granted, I could be accused of solving the problem by packing too much into the set-up, but I’ll cop to that, because my main point is to defend the conditional, not to reach the consequent. If you read Brennan’s critique of Tuck+, I think you can see that I’ve basically interpreted his critique less as a critique than as a statement of adequacy-conditions that Tuck+-type arguments need to satisfy. In a sense, all I’ve done is to give a just-so story of an account that actually satisfies the adequacy conditions.

          That’s very telegraphic, I realize, but it’d take me a whole new blog post to explain how the argument of this post relates back to Tuck and Brennan. Maybe later.

          (I used Tuck+ rather than Tuck-star, because for some reason, WordPress kept changing my asterisks to italics, and started screwing up the formatting of the comment.)


  3. America’s founders were suspicious of democracy and did not regard voting as the main safeguard against authoritarianism/totalitarianism. Instead they installed structural guard rails ,separation of powers, federalism ,a bill of rights and the like meant to reign in politicians and their enablers ,alas these guard rails are coming under increasing assault from all parts of the political spectrum ,once they are gone elections will not save you.


    • Nothing in my post says that voting is the main safeguard against fascism, but history shows us that it is an important safeguard. Fascism came to power in Spain, Germany, and Japan through the electoral weakness of the non-fascist parties. The same thing is true of authoritarianism in contemporary Israel and India. That doesn’t mean that voting by itself was the sole factor involved here, but a stronger electoral showing would certainly have helped in all of these cases, and in many others besides.

      The same thing is true of Jim Crow in the American South. The Civil Rights movement was, in its early days, largely a movement for voting rights. Black voters were deprived of voting rights, deprived of political power, and for that reason deprived of the rest of their rights. Their rights were restored after their voting rights were restored. Once again, elections were not the only factor involved, but subtract them from the equation, and the route to the restoration of black rights would have been longer and more tortured than it was.

      The American Founders were very intelligent men, but they also missed a lot. That’s why there are amendments beyond the first ten that they put in the Constitution. The 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 26th, and indirectly the 25th amendments, are all either directly about voting rights, or about the electoral process. That’s eleven amendments to the Constitution, to say nothing of the Constitution itself beyond the amendments. Since juries vote on verdicts, and juries are a focus of the Bill of Rights, voting is as crucial to the first ten amendments as to the later ones. Whether you call the United States a democracy or a republic, there is no denying the centrality of voting to its political system. Once you factor in the voting we do outside of the official political process (at work, in the companies in which we hold stock, in clubs and other organizations), voting becomes an inescapable fact of life. The existence of a separation of powers, of federalism, and of a Bill of Rights doesn’t affect any of this.

      It’s as dangerous to permit fascism to infiltrate our informal lives as it is to permit it access to our political system. So we have our work cut out for us. We can’t outsource that work to some anonymous system or set of structures.


      • It seems like you are making my point for me if the Alternatives are not clearly superior ,as is the case in all the examples you give, or there is no true separation of powers or no widespread culture of liberty ,totalitarianism is inevitable elections or not . It’s just a question of which flavor of totalitarianism one prefers .Don’t forget a lot of the rights that are now taken for granted were won in independent courts at times in defiance of popular will. Societal solutions that involve putting more money an power in the hands of politicians and opaque taxpayer funded bureaucracies should be viewed with scepticism


        • I don’t see how that connects with the argument I’m making, at least in any way that rebuts anything I’ve said. To repeat something I said to Roderick Long above, this is a one-sentence summary of my thesis:

          If (1) you care about the common good in which you have the right to vote, and (2) there is a real impending prospect of fascism arising, and (3) an election or series of them has the capacity to block this prospect, and there are no countervailing considerations as per (4) in the original post, and (5) you know this, then you have an obligation to vote.

          If (1)-(5) are met, and you face a choice between a fascist and a non-fascist candidate, then the non-fascist one is superior, and you should vote for that candidate. It’s not true that in all of the examples I’ve given, there is no clearly superior alternative. There is a superior alternative in the very case that the original post is about.

          Whether totalitarianism is “inevitable” with or without elections is highly disputable, and not proven by anything you’ve so far said. But it’s also irrelevant to my argument. If fascism attempts to come to power by electoral means, then if you ignore those means, it will come to power, regardless of the culture you inhabit. You will then inhabit a liberty-loving culture governed by fascist leaders who have a veto over your actions. That seems myopic. A liberty-loving culture would grasp that if fascism is making an attempt to come to power by electoral means, lovers of liberty should oppose it by voting against it. That may be a bare minimum of resistance, but a bare minimum is by definition not something you can forego.


  4. Pingback: The Obligation to Vote Revisited | Policy of Truth

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