Ab absurdo, ad libertatem
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Voter Apathy

Mar 17, 2009

I imagine it's much the same around the rest of the world, however in the matter of voter apathy I can only speak about my specifically Ontarian/Canadian experience. In the aftermath of an election, a popular refrain amongst political commentators is that any voter who abstains from casting their vote loses all rights to put forth political criticism. For many this is a difficult issue to unpack, because this claim appears to possess a basic or even prima facie credibility. Here I present a general overview of the statements I've encountered in this vein of argumentation: "people did not vote because they were unmotivated"; "they could not be bothered to familiarize themselves with party policy"; "they could not be bothered to familiarize themselves with the candidates in their riding"; "they could not be motivated to lift themselves from the couch"; "if someone did not vote then they do not have the right to criticize the government." I've come across these and many similar speculations numerous times during conversation, and worse, while reading the news.

The issue at hand is simply this: did a peasant living in Russia during the 1930s have the right to criticize their political system? Assuming the absence of totalitarian proclivities on the part of the reader, the response should be an emphatic "I am offended that such a question might even be asked. Yes. Of course, yes." Do not presume that I make this comparison lightly. An obvious response to my question might be not to answer it at all, but rather to claim that I've been ludicrous in setting up the question because Canada is nothing like Stalinist Russia, and so the question does not deserve a response. This might be a marvelous rejoinder if we were not discussing voter turnout.

The primary claim I am taking issue with here is the claim that he who does not vote loses his right to criticize the government, and consequently I take aim at the insinuation that high voter turnout implies some sort of all-around superior political environment. Recall the Canadian elections of December 17th 1917 and June 11th 1945, which had voter turnouts of 75% and 75.3% respectively -- among the highest in Canadian history -- elections that found the elected government disgorging xenophobic propaganda, and in the latter case interning or forcibly relocating and restraining hundreds of Germans, thousands of Italians, and over 20,000 Japanese, for the crime of ethnicity.

Those who decry "Everywhere apathy! Voter apathy!" reveal less about the abstaining masses than they do about themselves. Of course it's important that people vote, but refraining from voting is not a defeater of free speech. Do not be misled -- by your own unexamined prejudices or those of others -- into believing that abstinence abrogates free speech or implies apathy. The person who proclaims that abstinence equals apathy runs the risk of presupposing: i) that they understand more about politics than all abstainers, ii) that they are well-versed as regards the intentions of voters and abstainers, iii) that the only legitimate political expressions are those that take place within the established political system, and iv) that the existing political system itself is valid. The fatuity of points i and ii is plain. Point iii is remedied by reviewing the historical development of our political system. Point iv is inescapably contentious; however, being of a libertarian socialist bent, I will simply note the existence of extensive opposition to the current regime and its power structures, and ask: by what criteria does one judge validity? (The answer certainly isn't numerical support, which on its own is an argument in support of fascism, genocide, and intolerance in general.)

Is the problem voter passivity in the face of genuine options, or is the problem actively contributing to the imposition of self-limiting political norms? Zizek suggests "[t]he threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to 'be active,' to 'participate,' to mask the nothingness of what goes on."

People are motivated into action when they believe their action counts. As such, the reactionary who stands prepared to accuse 40% of Canada's eligible voters of apathy, and follows this proclamation with the declaration that an abstainer's natural right to the freedom of expression has dissolved, must first extensively research and answer the following questions: why do you value voting? Why do you think it must be done? Why do you think another person might not value it? Why do you think another person might not undertake it? What is it that causes you to take this particular action? What reasons might there be that cause an abstainee not to take this particular action?

Has the person who imputes apathy upon abstainers done their best to answer these questions? Have they studied alternative political activities and reviewed their relative popularity and merits? I ask you then, who is the apathetic one?

All of this being said, I do not dispute the fact that voter apathy is a real issue. But is telling a genuinely apathetic voter they are not allowed to talk critically about politics the best way to get them to participate?