The usual counter goes something like this: our choices are restricted to two parties run by the rich elite that operate within a destructive discourse that upholds various forms of structural violence and racism. It is a false choice, and no matter who you vote for, you cannot create real change because both parties are faithful to the same entities, all of which have a vested interest in upholding the status quo. By voting, you legitimize and perpetuate this system.
(There are other critiques and more details, but I’ve only got so much space here.)
There’s a lot of truth to these assertions, but they don’t work as an argument to justify not voting.
From a big picture perspective, it may indeed appear that there are no real differences between the two parties. Neither one is going to cut back on our worldwide military presence, or end capitalism, or do any other number of things that a radical might want to see happen.
But from a more personal perspective, there is a world of difference. One party thinks the wealthy can afford to pay more. One does not. One party supports abortion and contraception rights. One does not. One party is mounting large-scale pushes for criminal justice reform, voting rights reform, campaign finance reform, and LGBTQIA protections.
(Figured out which party I support yet?)
You’d be totally right if you were to argue that the Democratic Party has been abysmally slow in catching up the grassroots movements that fuel it. As recently as 2008, Democratic Presidential candidates were espousing support for civil unions over marriage equality. Democrats have been better than Republicans on racial issues, but in many ways, that’s just because Republicans set the bar so low.
But even with that haphazard track record, there are still legitimate policy differences between a Republican Congress/President and a Democratic Congress/President. Donald Trump has promised to remove 11 million people from this country and Hillary Clinton has not.
The system may be corrupt and horrible, but that is still a stark contrast, one that affects the lives millions.
Even in the foreign policy realm, where there are only the thinnest of lines dividing the parties, Hillary Clinton is likely to bomb fewer people than Marco Rubio is. In the grand scheme, that may not make much of a difference, but it makes a world of difference to each of those people that won’t be killed.
As for legitimization? To some degree, that’s true. A vote in support of Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy (which is only somewhat less bellicose than Hillary’s) will lend your backing to the actions he takes as President.
Even under Bernie, the United States is likely to continue its drone strike campaigns (if you doubt that, go read some things Senator Obama said about our foreign policy in 2007 and 2008 and compare them to his track record). Do you really want to support that?
Well, what exactly are you saying by not voting altogether? I would say nothing. It’s not like you’re going to make his Presidency illegitimate. Only about a third of the country voted last year, but that didn’t do a thing to restrain the GOP at the federal or state level.
And what happens if the candidate who is worse on your chosen issues wins? By not voting, you don’t absolve yourself of the victor’s crimes. You chose to remove yourself from the process. Your refusal to vote for the flawed but better candidate helped the nightmare candidate win.
Refusing to vote so as to deny legitimacy to the victory is a lovely principle, but it’s an empty gesture. No one cares.
If you don’t vote, then you are not heard. That is ridiculous, yes, but that is how it works.
If you vote, though, you can make a difference. Look at what has happened with the Republican Party since 2010. Conservatives have dedicated themselves to turning out and voting for only true hard right believers and it has worked. Even when Tea Party candidates lose, they pull their more moderate competitors further right.
In the Democratic Presidential primary this year, you see a similar effect. The democratic socialist is currently polling at 33% and has dragged Clinton further left than she has ever gone before. That’s pretty significant. In 2008, the more progressive candidate actually beat Clinton. That’s hugely significant.
The larger a block of radical voters in a party, the more similarly radical candidates will be encouraged to run – and the better a chance they’ll have to win.
When you vote, you force candidates to consider your preferences and you enable them to cater to those preferences, both in primary and general elections.
That being said, if you’re radically to the left (or right) of the mainstream, you shouldn’t let voting substitute for activism. That’s how you get attention, momentum, and converts, and it’s obviously crucial.
But if your converts don’t vote, candidates and office holders aren’t going to give half a damn.
Voting is the simplest and most powerful tool we have. No, we’re not likely to transform or replace the system through voting.
But your votes, or lack thereof, have real effects on real people. They should not be taken for granted.
So vote in the primaries! Vote in the general! Vote in the midterms and the off-years!
Otherwise you’re just going to cede the election, the country, and the world, to people that vehemently disagree with you.
I don’t think that’s the end you really want.