Practically every single American citizen has heard the phrase, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” at one point or another in his or her life. Whether we have been the object of this assertion, the righteous accuser, or a bystander during the political brawl which released it, we’re all familiar with its implications. In American political culture, it is taboo to refrain from this ritual. But it is this specific accusation by American voters which I feel needs to be addressed, now more than ever.
Thankfully, I needn’t delve into any heavy lifting for my purposes today. Academics have already done extensive study on the fact that one has vastly higher chances of winning the lottery, and astronomically higher chances of getting into a fatal car wreck while driving to the polling place on election day, than any given voter has of making a difference in an election. And there is already a great deal of material on the dangers of uninformed voters — the targets of most new-voter registration drives — influencing government policy. It isn’t my purpose either to point out the obvious failures of the political parties (for those of you who still subscribe to the idea that there are two parties with differences and such) to live up to any of the principles, ideas, goals they espouse, or to engage in any distinguishing departures in policy from previous administrations. And further still, I won’t be insulting your intelligence by mentioning the fact that having voted for “the lesser of two evils” every four years for generation after generation has not seemed to do anyone much good apart from these supposedly less-evil individuals in whom we as a people seem to place a great deal of blind faith.
This inexplicable phenomenon has become such a cornerstone of American politics that those who shy away from its practice are shunned and dismissed from all political discussion. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” shouts the citizenry at the first mention of cynicism in our political landscape. While an expression of discontent with the nauseating options of electoral candidates will land any such dissenter squarely in the above field of strange clichés about what “we” “have” to do to prevent whatever utterly indistinguishable candidate has been deemed the mortal enemy for this round of the custom. Fortunately for most well-informed non-voters, these strange arguments are easily swept aside with a magic spell known as facts. While many voters do not understand this long forgotten language, its short term effects have the uncanny ability to shut them up.
Unfortunately, a much more daunting task lies before the non-voter who seeks to challenge the entire institution of voting itself. For those, such as the anarchist, whose disquiet is not only the politicians, but the very democratic process, most have had their work cut out for them in the manner that they challenge voting. Few, if any, have understood that this ignorant claim should be met with the only logical conclusion to be drawn in this discussion:
“If you do vote, you have no right to complain.”
First of all, no voter has ever heard this before. You will have their full attention. This is something that you will need, as in order to support the assertion you have just made, you will need to instruct the voter in something else that he or she has very likely never given much thought to — democracy.
When you vote, you are participating in a system. As a voter, your participation signifies that you fully understand the rules of that democratic system, just as a self-responsible adult does when consenting to any other activity. Not only does your vote submit your opinion between political candidates or legislation initiatives, it also acknowledges that you understand the rules of the game and are aware of its consequences.
Even the most rudimentary understanding of the democratic process yields the general idea that voting is the act of giving your personal validation to a candidate for an elected political office — an office which affords that individual certain powers over the populace for a given period of time. This vote is given with full knowledge that this candidate may or may not follow through on their campaign promises. Though first time voters might be excused of any error in understanding of that fact — due to lack of experience perhaps — any citizen who considers him or herself to be politically informed, or any seasoned voter should be expected to have gathered that most, if not all politicians will fail to make good on practically all campaign promises made leading up to voting day.
So when voting, you are signing a blank cheque. You allow this candidate carte blanche with the powers granted to the office you are voting them to. Whatever actions they engage in over the next four years, you have signed your name on the dotted line for that four year contract, allowing this behaviour and consenting to its repercussions. If your chosen candidate has won an election, you’ve already consented to everything they shall do during their term. Whatever the outcome, you bear personal and direct responsibility.
But there is also another side to this coin that we must not forget. The rules of an election, the fine print of participating in a democracy, clearly dictate that the outcome is always a zero-sum game. By participating in a democratic election, you are well aware that your chosen candidate may not win. Any reasonable voter should be cognisant of the fact that if the majority does not agree with a particular vote, that candidate will not be elected. By participating, you as the voter are consenting to the fact that if you are in the minority, your democracy will choose another candidate whom the majority supports. If you recall, you have consented to this process with your vote.
You have consented to being governed by that other candidate should yours not carry popular support. Whatever actions they engage in over the next four years, you have signed your name on the dotted line for that four year contract, allowing this behaviour and consenting to its repercussions. If your cherished democracy chooses another candidate for you, you have already consented to everything they shall do during their term. Their actions that harm the poor or the economy, their wars, their border policies, their increases in spending and debt — these are all actions which you, by your participation, have consented to through your participation and your vote.
So whether any given voter has cast their ballot in favour of Candidate A or Candidate B, Candidate Red or Candidate Blue, they have acknowledged their understanding of the democratic system. Their desire is to win, but they have resolutely voiced their belief in the wise opinion of the majority. By their participation in this democracy, they’ve communicated to us all that their decision is to have faith in whichever candidate is chosen by this system, regardless of whether it is what they desired. As such, it is their firm belief that this is the correct decision, and there is no reason to be dissatisfied in the system that they have chosen to use for their purposes. Since they have voted, they have given up their right to complain.
As for the rest of us, those of us who haven’t participated in this damning, we’ll go ahead and criticise the shit you've gotten us into.