Social Control and Getting Out the Vote
As the 2020 Presidential election campaign mercifully nears its end, one cannot avoid the onslaught of politicians, musicians, celebrities, and friends exhorting us all, as Americans, to “get out the vote.” On October 20, house member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez streamed a video game to over 400,000 people to encourage them to head to the polls. While we might expect such behavior from those in the political establishment, such as former first lady Michelle Obama, this enthusiasm for voting feels more prevalent than ever, as we are reminded that this, yet again, is the most important election of our lives.
While of course necessary for a functional democracy, there is a problem with these simplistic pleas for our political participation: your vote just does not have very much impact. Georgetown scholar Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy, notes: “on the most optimistic model…you can have as high as about a 1 in 20,000,000 chance of being decisive on the presidential election, but only if you live in one of a few swing states [emphasis mine].” One need only imagine themselves as a Republican living in California to understand this point. Further, if you, like many Americans, deign to hold a more fringe ideology, your vote has never led to the election of your ideal candidate. Just think of the last time we had a Marxist, Libertarian, or Maoist president.
Maybe an impact on the outcome isn’t the point. Perhaps we have a duty to vote, even an imperfect one. Some scholars have suggested that voting is not purely instrumental, but expressive of our political identity or symbolic of our equal political rights, points which critic Brennan readily concedes. As we listen to public figures attempt to get out the vote, such conclusions certainly seem reasonable, as they speak of democratic participation in tones of reverence. Indeed, in the consciousness of the political class, voting is sacred.
From a social control standpoint, getting out the vote may be playing a more sinister role. One fears that casting a vote for one of the two “realistic” candidates (lest we throw away our vote on a third party) lends legitimacy to a system that perpetrates injustice that many Americans deplore. So what if most of us don’t support the separation of migrant families, the criminalization of plants, or civil asset forfeiture? Both major candidates for president have implemented or allowed these practices while in executive office. Demands for our political participation - voting in one of these candidates - cast the electorate as implicit supporters of such policies.
We can try to understand this legitimation process through the Marxian concept of ideology. Marx wrote that ideology is the set of beliefs and values that is disseminated by the ruling class in defense of its own interests. While we are now discussing political elites, as opposed to the bourgeoisie, the principle still applies. Note that ideology in this context is not political or partisan. I do not argue that getting out the vote is part of a liberal ideology or a conservative one, but rather the shared ideology of our political system.
To that end, perhaps we are told to vote – even if it doesn’t make a difference – to support the machinations of our political institutions. When we vote, we embody and perpetuate an ideology that holds voting sacred, and legitimize the actions of a powerful few, even if we disagree. And if you really disagree - you want to abolish the police, implement a universal basic income, or end American interventionism - you might be careful about lending authority to institutions that simply do not represent your interests.
So, if you support one of the candidates, by all means, vote, especially if you live in a swing state. Inform yourself on the issues, make a plan, and cast your ballot as you participate in our collective civic ritual. But remember to be skeptical of exhortations to get out the vote. Know the many horrors committed in your name, and that their perpetrators rely on your vote for legitimacy. And remind yourself that while your vote has little instrumental value, it is a powerful symbol and expression of your endorsement of the actions of our government, whether noble or corrupt.