The Obligation to Vote Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, on Election Day, I wrote a somewhat wordy and maybe convoluted post arguing that under certain circumstances, we have a moral obligation to vote–not a legally enforceable obligation, but an obligation nonetheless. It’s possible that the conditions that I set out in my post are never or rarely met, but my primary aim was to defend the conditional involved, and only secondarily to reach the consequent: if certain conditions are met, among them the imminent electoral advent of fascism, one has an obligation to vote (against fascism).

As it happens, I do think that the relevant conditions can be met, and sometimes are, but we don’t have to haggle over any of that to reach a more modest verdict on the recent US election. Whether or not anyone had an obligation to vote, and whether or not we faced the prospect of fascism in that election–and whether or not any of my other conditions were met–it’s not plausible to suggest that the election or its outcome were easily dismissed or morally inconsequential.  Nor is it plausible to suggest that those who did vote were engaged in some quixotic endeavor that collectively made no difference to anything. Put it this way: imagine that everyone alarmed by the prospect of a “red wave” had abstained from voting, convinced of the supposedly quixotic, even distracting or destructive, nature of the activity. And imagine that everyone in favor of a red wave had voted. In that case, there would have been a “red wave,” and we’d be swimming–or drowning–in it.

I’m sure that some readers of this blog would have welcomed that outcome. But such views aside, I think it’s fairly obvious that a “red wave”–an overwhelming electoral victory for the Trump-inspired Right–would have been a gigantic step backward for the United States, both morally and politically. You don’t have to regard the MAGA movement as a harbinger of fascism, or be some kind of woke leftist to think that. Nor do you have to be a great partisan of the Democrats, or a reflexive fan of centrism. You just have to regard the hysteria, dishonesty, and open malice of the MAGA movement as a significantly greater threat to the common good than that posed by any of its rivals, however negative a view you may have of them. I have no great attachment to this country, or to its politics. I’m doing my best to leave it. But the moral-political difference between MAGA and non-MAGA is pretty hard to miss, even for someone on the run.

From this relatively irenic, politically modest perspective, it’s hard to understand how anyone could regard the election as somehow causally irrelevant to the promotion of justice. Had the election gone drastically the other way, we would be living in a MAGA-fied world where the prospects for justice would be much dimmer than they are.  You may not be sanguine about our current political predicament–I’m not–but it’s hard to deny that things could and would have been much worse, had many more non-MAGA Americans dismissed the election as a triviality.

An essay in the book I mentioned in the previous post has the title, “Mussolini or Nixon? Don’t Bother Voting. Prepare to Resist.”* Those three phrases capture my puzzlement at the anti-voting camp exactly.

As for Mussolini versus Nixon: faced with a choice between Mussolini and Nixon, it’s not obvious to me that it’d be wrong to vote for Nixon. Nixon sucked, but give him credit: he got us out of Vietnam, and ended the draft. By contrast, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, invaded Spain, made an alliance with Hitler, dragged Italy into the wartime Axis, and helped facilitate the Holocaust. Even if you throw Cambodia into the mix, it’s hard to equate the two.

And however bad Nixon was, the United States survived the damage he did: he may have been forced out of office under fraught and extraordinary circumstances, but to his credit, he left, to be replaced by the likes of Ford and then Carter, through a relatively normal political process. That’s a lot more than can be said of Mussolini, who did far more damage than Nixon, and didn’t leave–at least not in the relevant way. Italy had to undergo wholesale military conquest and occupation before it overcame the consequences of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Nothing comparable was true of Nixon. Choosing between Nixon and Mussolini is, after all, not just a matter of choosing them, but of accepting the consequences of the choice. The differences make a difference, and can’t be wished away.

Obviously, there are no good reasons to vote for a Nixon per se. But if the question is voting for Nixon to avoid the prospect of a Mussolini, it trivializes fascism to equate Nixon with Mussolini, to treat them as being fundamentally on a par, or to treat the decision between them as morally inconsequential.

In any case, however we end up on Mussolini vs. Nixon, it’s not plausible to suggest that every election in the United States, from the local level to the federal, is merely a choice between a Mussolini and a Nixon. So it’s ultimately not helpful or accurate to reduce political life to choices of that description.

As for “don’t bother voting,” if we hadn’t bothered to vote in the 2022 elections, wouldn’t things have been much worse than they’ve ended up being, ensuring, consequently, that things would in the future be much worse than they had to be? Say whatever you want about the Democrats, but they’ve bought us some time.

And as for “preparing to resist,” if a red wave had swept the polls, wouldn’t the prospects for resistance have been much worse, since there’d be more to resist, and fewer resources to do so?

I’d answer my own questions with “yes’s.” I have yet to comprehend the perspective of those who would answer with “no’s.” But not for lack of trying. Or lack of a willingness to keep trying. There’s a fine line, after all, between cravenly choosing the lesser of two evils, and judiciously refusing to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The question is exactly how and where to draw it.

*William Gillis, “Mussolini or Nixon? Don’t Bother Voting. Prepare to Resist,” in Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech & Political Violence. Also here. Or if you’re disturbed by the black anarchist background of the preceding platform, try this link. For Gillis’s other writings, see here. For a different sort of argument against voting, see Gillis’s “The Case Against Voting.”

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