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.