Back in November 2022, I was watching the night time news. The headline story was the G20 leaders’ summit taking place in Bali, by all accounts an incredibly beautiful place. Footage appeared on the screen of the leaders catching some downtime, walking in an idyllic garden wearing dazzling white shirts, happy out and generally looking oh, so very pleased with themselves. At one point, they partook in a tree planting activity, each of them with their own little hoe and mangrove sapling. They beavered away there, hacking and digging like an upmarket chain gang, as they put their sapling in the ground.
Watching on, I took note that there were only two women amongst the select group. Not that that makes much difference because, for those who believe the world would be an immensely better place if more women were in charge, they should bear in mind that the women who get to the top tiers of our society, in whatever sphere or domain that might be, are just as bad as the men. If I say “Giorgia Meloni”, need I say more?
I was also reminded that these esteemed leaders and their entourages arrived in Bali on private jets, some actually with as many as three jets. Ouch! I guess there isn’t any climate emergency or energy crisis on Planet G20. The biggest quandary the conference organisers had to face was where the VIP aircraft should be parked while the event was taking place. I guess the tree planting photo op made the possibility of a virtual conference out of the question.
It turns out that the motto of the conference was ‘Recover Together, Recover Stronger’, a motto which implies that something terrible has happened but it’s behind us now and we have a world united in collective determination to move beyond the something terrible to another something that will be much better. The motto is so ludicrous as to be laughable. If it were even true that the ‘something terrible’ is behind us, these leaders’ version of what recovery looks like is business as usual: continued economic growth that promotes corporations and elites, perpetuates income and wealth inequalities, and hastens us towards ecological collapse (if we aren’t nuked in the meantime). And the world finds itself in this state because of the decisions being made by those very same G20 leaders and their predecessors.
I knew, as I continued to watch, that the G20 gathering of 2022 would achieve nothing. Just like the sixteen G20 gatherings before it.
None of that, however, brought me to breaking point. What did it for me was that footage of them moseying around and planting those mangrove saplings. Something snapped in my head. A “not in my name” sort of snap.
I thought, who the hell are these people? How come this miniscule group was ordained to speak for huge swathes of the world and allowed to make decisions that would have the most serious ramifications for all the rest of us but decisions that we would have no part in? In other words, who made them the boss?
The answer to that, of course, is representative democracy; representative democracy is what made the most of those G20 leaders boss.
Yet, representative democracy, in those countries where it exists, is neither representative nor democratic. Not in my opinion. For the most part, I do not share the politics, values or aspirations of the vast majority of the G20 leaders, or elected leaders in general. I do not believe they are competent or trustworthy enough to make decisions on my behalf. Put simply, they don’t represent me.
Even the ‘best’ democracies are sadly lacking in proper representation of the people who live in them. And that isn’t just my opinion. The facts back me up.
On average, voter turnout for elections is around 66%. The winning party only needs to get half of these votes (plus 1), which means that the party who gets into government, by and large, represents about a third of the voting population, at best. If that were an exam, it would mean a fail for the student. If that were a measure of heart function, it would likely mean heart failure. So why then do we accept this in our democracy where the most crucial decisions in our society are made?
The situation where I live is even worse. Here in the North of Ireland we’re still (unfortunately) occupied under British rule, and that means we fall under the jurisdiction of Westminster. The two big parties in Westminster, Conservatives and Labour, have no elected representatives whatsoever in the North. Labour doesn’t contest elections at all here while the Conservatives ran four candidates in the last election in 2019. These four, between them, won about 5,000 votes. That means 0.4% of the electorate in the North voted for a party that is now making decisions on our behalf. And Sunak, my ‘leader’ at the G20, at the same time he was in Bali talking about recovering together and stronger, back home he was planning even more cuts to public services and tax rises for ordinary working people. And while there is a devolved ‘government’ in the North, it hasn’t been in operation since 2021, though even when it is in operation it has very limited powers, no fiscal control, and is essentially a glorified local government.
Leaving aside the unacceptably low level of representation in representative democracy, there’s a question mark over whether any genuine democracy is at play either. The track records of the majority of Western democracies demonstrate that they look after the interests of big business and finance. They give tax breaks and incentives to corporations and the wealthy, leaving low and middle earners to shoulder higher taxes. They allow earnings to be suppressed, willing in some cases to subsidise wages from public funds rather than force employers to pay a living wage. They force austerity on the population, slashing vital spending on public services and programmes, while at the same time increasing military budgets. They bail out banks but not mortgage holders. They chip away at funding for education, social security, and health and social care, and simultaneously outsource services to private companies through lucrative contracts. They hand over social housing to corporate landlords in the private market. They choose to ignore dealing with ecological crises in favour of corporate greenwashing so that the status quo is maintained. In short, they serve the needs of corporations and elites, not the people. It’s upside down and back to front. How is any of that democratic? How is that serving the needs of society?
Even those parties who proclaim to be on the Left seem to be in the grip of capitalism and at the behest of capitalists, Often, they’re unable or unwilling to accept that capitalism can’t be fixed or made palatable, that it has to be replaced. Some may not believe there’s any better alternative to capitalism even if they wanted to replace it. Yet others don’t have the courage, or even the values, to go up against big business, to be champions for the ordinary people. And in the rare cases where a Left government with aspirations to implement more progressive policies might get into power, their values and policies are invariably crushed by threats and coercion and by dirty tricks and smear campaigns from below, from above, from inside their country and outside. They get pushed out or compromised, thus disappointing the people who believed enough in them to give them a vote.
I accept that at one point in time, not that long ago, I wouldn’t have had the right to vote. I accept that the right to vote for many sections in society was hard fought, and that being denied suffrage is a violation of our most basic civil liberties. I was raised in a very political family where voting was seen as a civic duty. I always voted. I voted in local and national elections. I voted in referenda. I voted when I didn’t like any of the parties or their policies. I voted when the sun shone and when it bucketed rain. I voted no matter what. All that was of consequence was that I vote, that I exercise my right to do so.
But recently, I made a decision to stop voting. I didn’t make the decision lightly but I think I’d seen too many elections, too many scandals, too many lies, too many wrongheaded, egregious decisions. I decided I deserved better and rather than exercise my right to vote, I would start to exercise my right not to vote. I hate to say it, but for me, our democratic system doesn’t work, no more than our economic system works. Both are bankrupt; and neither delivers for society or the planet. Perhaps their failure is linked, since our democracy serves capitalists first and foremost.
But just as there are better ways to do our economy, there are also better ways to do our democracy. What really appeals to me is a democracy that would give ordinary citizens more say in decision-making, more control over where public money is spent and what policies are set. And a democracy that genuinely fosters justice, solidarity and inclusivity. A democracy with these traits is called Participatory Politics. Participatory Politics is a democratic system proposed by Steve Shalom and it goes hand-in-hand with Participatory Economics.
But in spite of all that I know is wrong with representative democracy; in spite of the corruption, the injustice and the harm it does; in spite of believing there to be a better way to govern and make decisions and in spite of wanting to reject the system and never vote again, I also accept that it’s a privilege to have the right to vote when not everybody does. And so, I accept that I have a responsibility as a citizen with suffrage to exercise that right, at least some of the time.
But it would help me greatly to have more than simply a sense of doing the right thing. If in addition I could be presented with arguments in support of voting, even in this deeply flawed and broken system. It’s in this spirit that I respectfully lay down the challenge to Steve Shalom to convince me of the merits of exercising my right to vote. If he can do that, I promise, I will happily whistle all the way to the polling station come next election day.
Analyse That: Here’s Why You Should Vote (Some of the Time)
Steve Shalom replies to Bridget Meehan
Bridget Meehan is unhappy with the existing political system – as well she should be because in so many respects it fails to reflect truly democratic values. Bridget concludes that therefore it makes sense for her to refuse to participate in the existing political system by withholding her vote. Frustration at the deficiencies of current political arrangements is totally understandable. But I don’t think Bridget’s conclusion follows from her critique.
Elsewhere I have outlined what I consider to be a far better way to handle politics in a good society. I don’t believe, however, that I need to draw on that political vision in order to comment on her argument. It seems to me that Bridget would be right not to vote only if (1) refraining from voting actually brought us closer to having a more democratic political system in the long run, and (2) if the short-term costs of refraining from voting are not excessive – costs in terms of failing to get our preferred policies enacted and the policies we oppose blocked. I don’t find that Bridget has made a compelling case for either of these.
- The long-term benefits of not voting
There are sometimes good arguments for opposition movements refusing to participate in an election. This is particularly the case when the election rules or procedures are corrupt and undemocratic. For example, if all the popular opposition candidates have been disqualified from participating in the election, it could make sense for the opposition to call for a voting boycott. This won’t risk causing a bad electoral outcome, since that was already foreordained by the candidate qualification. And it might make it harder for the regime to claim the mantel of legitimacy for its corrupt election victory. But such an opposition tactic has to be engaged in with care. If the election corruption is not obvious to the general population, then boycott just looks like a party with no chance of prevailing on its merits acting like a sore loser.
In any event, however, electoral boycott gets its strength as a tactic from the campaign surrounding it. That is, the boycotters are organized, and they work to educate the public as to why the ruling party is illegitimate. They are out there campaigning for the boycott with a level of energy equal to or greater than that of candidates who are part of the election. A quiet boycott, on the other hand – that is, where an individual determines that because of the corruption of the election they will refuse to vote – educates no one. They are indistinguishable from other people who did not vote, for any number of reasons. Some may have refused to vote because they considered all the candidates too leftwing, some because they considered all the candidates too rightwing, some because they were lazy, some because they feared UFOs. Trump brought out many voters who hadn’t voted before, but opposition to Trump also brought out many voters. The point is: the non-voting of an individual does not send a clear message.
Voting for a minor party with no chance of winning a seat (a “third” party in the United States) sends a much clearer message than not voting, and it is a collective activity (unlike, for example, writing-in the name of your cousin). When a party with a known platform wins votes, the public learns that there are alternative policies that people support. Voting for a minor party can have other long-term benefits as well: it can secure a ballot line for the future, it can build up the infrastructure of the minor party so that it can compete more successfully later on.
So voting for a minor party, one with no chance of winning this year, might make sense in some circumstances. An organized election boycott campaign might make sense in a narrower range of situations. But it is hard to see the political benefit of separate individuals refraining from voting.
- The short-term harms of not voting.
Against the potential long-term benefits of not voting or voting for a minor party with no chance of winning are the short-term harms. Since the benefits of voting for a minor party are generally greater than the benefits of non-voting, let’s focus our analysis on the former.
Imagine an election that involves two major parties and one or more minor parties. (I assume a “winner-take-all” election, to use U.S. terminology, or “first-past-post” election in British jargon, technically single member plurality voting.) By voting for a minor party you give up the possibility of having a say in which of the major parties wins. This won’t matter much in several cases. It won’t matter when one of the major parties is a sure winner, for in that case, with or without your votes, the outcome will be the same. It also won’t matter in the situation where the two major parties are politically indistinguishable. If the policies that will be enacted will be the same regardless of which party wins, then nothing is lost by casting one’s vote for a minor party.
But it is not infrequently the case that two conditions apply. (1) The support for the two major parties is close enough that the votes that might have been cast in favor of a minor party could be used instead to determine which of the two major parties will prevail. And (2) the difference between the political positions of the two major parties matters.
Now how big a difference does it take to matter? Obviously, from a socialist non- patriarchal anti-racist participatory perspective, both major parties are awful. But that’s not the question. What matters is whether one awful party will be less awful than the other in terms of its impact on people’s lives. In the United States it is easy enough to list the many ways Biden has betrayed the people who voted for him, and indeed has continued Trump-era policies. But whatever the disappointment in him, it is not the case that the election made zero difference in people’s lives. Just by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement – as moderate as that was – he has helped push back the date of climate catastrophe compared to what it would have been under Trump. And there are certainly other differences one can point to as well.
Trump, of course, may be a special case: defeating him in 2020 may well have been a requirement for maintaining American democracy, which is still not secure. But even in elections where the gap between the candidates is narrower, given the tremendous power of the U.S. president or the British prime minister, small differences can have a tremendous impact on people’s well-being.
So while it is quite appropriate for us to criticize the lesser of two evils for failing to pursue egalitarian and democratic policies, it is not appropriate to be indifferent between the lesser evil and the greater evil by sitting out the election when our vote could determine the result.
This is not an argument for always voting or always voting for a major party candidate.
The circumstances matter: Can our votes change the outcome of the election? Will a different election outcome change people’s lives?
Finally, let me say that I do hope that those who are persuaded that voting can be worthwhile will not simply, in Bridget’s words, “happily whistle all the way to the polling station come next election day.” I’d much prefer that they were leafleting and talking to others on the way, making clear that while we sometimes cast ballots for lesser evils, we need to be constantly working for a far better world.
Read Matic Primc’s response to these articles, Analyse That Again: Vote, But Know That Is Not Where The Change Happens.
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