“If You Don’t Vote, You Have No Right to Complain About the Government”

How often have you heard variations on this statement? Personally, I lost count long ago. It’s a perennial taunt from people who are, by and large, happy with the political status quo in this country.

So when I came across it almost word-for-word today in a comment thread of a national progressive political blog whose comment community I respect a lot, I took the time to respond.

And that response got a lot of positive response. So here it is. Feel free to borrow any portion the next time you need to slap down a comment like this:

Anyone that chooses not to VOTE has lost the right to complain about the Government. I am sick and tired of listening to the whining of people that do not vote.

My response:

“I don’t want to pick on you, but I hear this a lot, especially from older liberals who think the system works. It’s worth replying at length because IMO it’s a truly toxic opinion. Speaking as someone whose livelihood for several decades has revolved around civic engagement – and who has a perfect voting record, FWIW – it’s also bullshit. And it also comes from a place of enormous privilege, usually from someone who has the sort of class and educational background, and perhaps race and gender as well, where they just assume that their opinion matters.

“Fairly or not, there are a lot of people who think voting is pointless. And who can blame them? Most non-political people pay attention to voting primarily during the presidential races. I’ve lived in…uh…about a dozen different states in my life, in all four time zones. Even if there were presidential candidates with a chance of winning who believed in a lot of the things I do – which has never happened, ever – not once during a presidential election have I lived in a state whose electoral votes were in question at the time. Nine presidential elections. Not once.

“This is the norm in our country. If you don’t live in one of about a dozen states – except for Florida, Ohio, and maybe Pennsylvania or Michigan, they’re not even the more populous ones – if the outcome is in doubt in your state it means that nationally it’s a landslide and it’s over. And here on the West Coast, it’s usually decided before polls close regardless. And that’s in nine elections – for a millennial who’s only voted in one or two, the impression is even more skewed.

“The real place voting and civic engagement matters is in local politics. And how would anyone know to care about those? TV news doesn’t cover it – they’re busy chasing fires and car crashes. Even if someone happens to read a newspaper, they have a fraction of the local reporters or coverage they once did. Most schools certainly don’t teach civic engagement or explain why it might be fun or interesting, let alone effective. Unless you and your friends happen to be affected by an issue, local politics won’t be on your radar. Ever.

“And all this is beside the point. I participate in the economy. Therefore, I pay taxes. If I don’t have any meaningful say in how those dollars are spent – and most people, voters or not, don’t, because the incumbents making those decisions are very hard to remove from office if they want to stay there, and even if “your guy” is in office most people don’t have the time or interest to track budgetary committee meetings and go over line items – I forfeit my right to have an opinion if I didn’t cast a ballot? That is random, privileged, self-righteous bullshit.

“Our system is broken in a bazillion different ways – the infusion of the kind of money most of us won’t see in our lifetimes being only one obvious example. But you, and many others, think that someone who chooses not to bother trying to influence a system they think is unaccountable and beyond their ability to influence has no right to complain that the system is broken?

“Let’s try that logic in a few other settings where people perceive they have no influence:

“‘I don’t buy my favorite xxx any more because they’re cheaply made now and wear out or break immediately. Therefore, I have no right to complain that xxx’s wear down or break immediately.’

“‘Our local police department acts like it’s above the law. There’s no mechanism other than internal investigations for holding any officer accountable for illegal or criminal behavior, and those investigations always exonerate the officers, every time. But since I’m not an Internal Affairs cop, I have no right to complain about it.'”

“‘I won’t set foot in an airplane because too many of them blow up. Therefore, I have no right to complain that too many airplanes blow up.'”

“That’s how you sound to the people you’re criticizing. Now, I happen to think that they’re wrong, but I guarantee your judgmental harrumphing – as though they’re the problem, not a political system that isn’t worth their time – isn’t going to lead any of them to want to join you in being more politically engaged. Quite the opposite.”

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