Written on the night of the 2012 US presidential elections, in disgust at the utter lack of anything that could be confused with real politics in America.
I have a Patreon, here, where you can subscribe to support my security and systems-focused writing. You sign up for a fixed amount per essay (with an optional monthly cap), and you'll be notified every time I publish something new. At higher support levels, you'll get early access, a chance to get in-depth answers to your questions, and even for more general consulting time.
If you like the work I do, you can also support it via Flattr:
This year, you are facing a killer robot. A robot designed to strip your soul away, to turn you from a human being into a quiescent husk. That robot is not the drone overhead, waiting with Hellfire missiles to kill you if you step out of line, but rather the voting machine that many of you probably just pulled the lever (or, worse, tapped the touchscreen) of.
We're told time and time again in America that voting is our sacred duty. That it's at the core of our democracy. That voting keeps us free. That voting means civic engagement. That voting is at the heart of politics. That voting is how we tell the system what we think. That voting is how we hold politicians accountable.
I've voted in every single election I've been eligible for, until now. Not just the presidential elections, but the even the local ballots, with only a half dozen initiatives most people can barely name. This year, though, something broke. I can't do it anymore. My problem isn't with voting conceptually, although how we do it in the US is a big part of it. You could say that my problem is with the candidates, but it's much deeper. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama are men I can believe in, or even stomach. I'm definitely not saying they're identical — as a queer woman aware of the way we treat the majority of Americans and how it could get worse, I can't possibly say that. However, as candidates, they both threaten directly the foundations of our society. If you believe you have a right to bodily integrity, how can you vote for a man who believes he can shoot you in the street with no trial, no cause, and no accountability? If you believe you are basically free, how can you vote for a man fighting to be able to throw you in a military prison on a whim? If you believe in humanity at all, how can you vote for a man who refuses to even discuss climate change that will, without a doubt, kill most if not all of us if we do not act dramatically and immediately?
It doesn't matter who I vote for, because the man who will win can shoot me in the street. Any third party candidate that gathered enough support would be the same, because you don't get the billion dollars required to win a presidential election if you're not going to play to the line of the status quo. The problem, then, is not the man but what made him.
Voting is a ritual of civic engagement. In a functional democracy, it's one of many political acts. You first vote is your entry into true citizenship. Voting signs the compact that says, “I approve of this candidate, and I agree to be governed by whoever wins this election”. Voting, that agreement, clearly matters.
In the US, rigging the vote has been turned into an art form. We invented Gerrymandering and we have done fantastic things with it. We rig elections with a mix of deeply calculated subtlety and stunning boldness. We build fraudulent voting machines (but never too obviously so). We pass voter ID laws, make lines longer, disenfranchise felons, lose votes, mis-design ballots, and generally act to ensure that the government that is elected by the people's apparently free choice always supports the status quo of power.
The trick here is that everyone buys into the narrative of that close-fought election. That everyone sees the fraud, the deception, and the horserace, and thinks that that's the story. We so thoroughly believe in our identity as the voting public that we think that our vote matters, when what really matters is our consent to the system of governance. All that the election does, in the end, is pre-define the scope of what is thinkable, solidify the Overton window. If any specific action once a politician is in office actually matters, the leash attached to the millions and billions of dollars that got them elected is snapped, and they fall into line. There is no accountability here, because everyone in office is on the same leash — literally in the presidential election, where Goldman Sachs is the biggest donor to both candidates.
The spirit in which we act matters. The notion that voting is a meaningful act of civic engagement poisons any other potentially political action you perform. If you believe your vote in a rigged system matters, you're likely to get pulled further into that notion of politics. Instead of acting in the world you get out the vote. Every election, every battle, will always be the most important battle of your life. There will never be time to withdraw, to act outside the system, to fail to compromise. If you accept that consenting to the system is the most important thing you can do, no matter how rigged the system is, you cannot leave. You will never see that only people to whom voting really matters are the politicians.
If you speak to a system and it does not respond, you stop talking and do something else. You are more powerful than you can imagine. A thousand committed people can shake a city. A million, a country. We are told that not voting is apathy, and it can be, if that was your only civic engagement and you just shrink away quietly. That's not the same as loudly refusing to consent to a system that's not listening and instead taking up the banner of real political engagement, of real action in the world.
You have been taught to vote and then to leave your politics behind. One doesn't talk about sex, money, or politics at the dinner table, at the office, with strangers in public — it's not polite.
Politeness will get you nowhere. Politely follow the house rules, and the house wins every time.
Yes, when you pull the handle, you'll get just enough crumbs, just enough of the time, to keep you coming back. This is basic psychology — a random reward leads to addictive behavior, and you'll be constantly second-guessing the system, trying to understand it. Voting means acting like a slot machine zombie, politely waiting for a few more crumbs, a few more rights to roll out of the slot, wasting your life and your agency, pouring it into the machine.
Get out a sledgehammer and claim the real right you have to remake the system. If you're not American, if you live in a place where your vote really can change the fundamentals of your world, great; go do that first and then act. For everyone who lives in the US or a place like it where your vote is consent and nothing else, don't vote in the booth, vote in the street. Don't consent to a poisonous system that isn't listening or let it confuse you into thinking the consent you give means anything. Organize. Strike. Demand. Whistleblow. Speak. Build. Rebuild. Insist that the world treat you and those around you with decency, dignity, kindness, and equality. Start by making sure you do the same to those around you. Keep doing it until your vote matters again, and then keep doing it some more.
Do not consent to be governed by a man who would kill you in the street just because the other man would kill you in the street and piss on your corpse. Do not consent to be governed by the system that made them. Do not give your life to a machine designed to absorb it without a trace.
Don't vote. Do.