But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance. – William Shakespeare, Hamlet (I, iv)
In the United States, today is Election Day. We’ve been putting up with partisan idiocy for over a year now, and for the past few months it’s become intolerable: normal election years are bad enough, but presidential election years are a kind of evil circus which turns even normal people who pay too much attention to it into raving lunatics. And the worst part of it? Despite the mindless glorification of their own candidate and equally-mindless vilification of the other, the modern US presidential elections have about as much impact on the future of the country as choosing a new color of paint for one’s house. Don’t believe me? Then please explain why every president going back to Reagan, no matter what his campaign rhetoric, mostly continued the policies of his predecessor once he got in the White House. My husband says he imagines that on the evening of inauguration day, the new president goes into the Oval Office alone and meets with a mysterious old man in a gray suit who puts a binder on his desk and explains for the next six hours or so exactly how things are going to be.
While I don’t necessarily believe that’s literally true, it is correct in principle because this country is not run by elected officials, but by an entrenched bureaucracy. The “progressive” philosophy of the late 19th century held that ordinary people could not be trusted to run our own lives; instead, we should be governed by “experts” who would determine what was best for us. As this mentality took hold over the next few decades, burgeoning federal and state bureaucracies insinuated or forced their way into areas of life which had throughout human history been considered private and personal. Since the people could not be trusted to choose those who would run these rapidly-multiplying bureaus (and by the 1930s there were far too many of them to elect anyhow), they were hired and progressed upward by supposed “merit”, much like the military. And like the military, they stayed in place when the elected officials changed. As the federal government metastasized after World War II, the number, reach and power of these positions dramatically increased; then, as anti-discrimination and other employee protection laws multiplied, the career bureaucrats in those positions became virtually impossible to fire. The final tipping point came sometime during the Reagan administration, not because of anything he did but simply as the end result of the interactions of layer upon layer of contradictory, vague, ill-considered legislation, regulation, guidelines and official procedures. Sometime in the 1980s, the unelected bureaucracy assumed the real power in Washington, not through a conscious act but merely because neither ruling party is willing (nor probably even able) to take the drastic steps necessary to shut it down, chop it into pieces and destroy every last cell of it with fire so as to prevent its regeneration. It will continue to grow until it collapses of its own weight or consumes all available resources, at which point it will perish and take the current system of government with it.
This is the main reason I don’t vote. In a republic, the electorate chooses representatives to act on its behalf; by participating in the system, each voter agrees to abide by the results of the process and tacitly acknowledges that the leaders so elected (and by extension the underlings they appoint and the bureaucrats those underlings hire, including police) have legitimate authority over them. People love to say, “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,” but this is completely backwards: it is the voters who have no right to complain, because by signing on to this devil’s bargain they agree to be bound by it. Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason explained it this way:
…In his 1851 book Social Statics, the English radical Herbert Spencer neatly describes the rhetorical jujitsu surrounding voting, consent, and complaint, then demolishes the argument. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then “understood to have assented” to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, “by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.” And what if he abstained? “Why then he cannot justly complain…seeing that he made no protest…Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted—whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this.” Indeed.
The chance of any candidate whose views come within 46 parsecs of mine being nominated to the presidency by either faction of the duopoly is so close to zero as to be mathematically indistinguishable from it, and the chance of a third-party candidate being elected in our current system isn’t much higher. Furthermore, even if such a candidate were to be elected to the presidency, the Republicrats wouldn’t allow him to accomplish anything. My vote is therefore not merely worthless, but assigned a negative value; it is worth more to me uncast, as a protest against the current system and as a symbolic rejection of the “authorities” produced by that system. For me, voting has become a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.