What if you threw a party—and 100 million people refused to come? You could blame them for lacking festive spirit, but odds are it wasn’t much of a party if they preferred to stay home.
On Nov. 2, millions of Americans will troop to the polls to re-enact the quadrennial pageant. But nearly as many will opt out. They will be accused of sloth, though indifference is more apt—and remains the appropriate response to irrelevance.
If George W. Bush and John Kerry agree on anything —in fact, they agree on far too many things—it’s that we must vote. Elections maintain the illusion of opposing parties exchanging ideas rather than political animals competing for power. Selling voting as the ultimate expression of citizenship serves two purposes: it legitimizes the process that keeps them in control and makes the public docile by enforcing the notion that we rule ourselves.
But what value is participation if those who cast ballots go unrepresented? Is there virtue in the act if it allows no choice? Smash offending countries alone or invite friends along for the invasion? Tax-and-spend or tax-cut-and-spend? Open borders or open borders? Before herding to the polls because it’s What We Do—like fireworks on the Fourth or eggnog at Christmas—consider the possibility that voting has little to do with democracy and democracy is not the first cause of liberty.
Fault him for a thousand things, but Saddam Hussein knew how to get out the vote: his elections had far better turnout than ours. Yet we reckoned his government so undemocratic that it had to be razed, and next round, according to Donald Rumsfeld, elections in “three-quarters or four-fifths of the country” should be good enough. It’s not the chad-punching that makes a country free. It’s the democracy, stupid. Or is it?
After Sept. 11, the White House identified our enemy as forces that “hate democracy and freedom.” The coupling may have been as careless as the notion that men die for such abstractions, but in the public mind the concepts are twined as they are devalued. We export democracy to spread freedom to make our country more secure—or so the slogan goes. Real life is more complicated.
Venture into that crosswalk reserved for sacred cows. Democracy may be the West’s political grail, but it is not inherently just or moral. As Edmund Burke famously asked, “[Is there some difference] between the despotism of the monarch and the despotism of the multitude?” The rule of law—fixed by forces less capricious than the whim of the mob—is a far better guardian of individual freedom than electoral popularity. The majority may elect a tyrant. Neither is democracy the most stable social order—something we might have considered before we went planting political systems in security’s name.
Come January, our new colony is likely to school us in democracy’s shortcomings. A May survey by the Coalition Provisional Authority found that just 6 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. to stay as long as is “necessary for stability.” Thus any victorious candidate will have radicalized his constituents by running on an anti-American platform. Because we have enshrined democracy, we must accept the Iraqis’ choice and may quietly be grateful to be shown the door by these infant democrats. But so much for visions of Madison reincarnated in Mesopotamia and promises that Iraqi democracy will enhance U.S. security.
But they will be free, we comfort ourselves. After all, we wrote that book. Its latest version ensures that we don’t answer cell phones while driving in D.C. or smoke after dinner in New York. No complaints because we apparently brought this freedom from ourselves upon ourselves by democratic means. The old monarchs confiscated a far smaller portion of their subjects’ gain and would never have countenanced a trillion-dollar deficit. They weren’t leaving town in four years. But we feel more free because we elect our captors, having long since forgotten that the purpose of government is not to confer freedom but to restrict it. With regrets to Tocqueville, here the people do not rule—though marching to the polls creates a tidy front.
So if the act of voting is not sacrosanct and democracy, despite its “better than all the rest” pedestal, is not the sole—or perhaps even the best—guarantor of liberty, Nov. 2 may be just another day. This election the major candidates agree on the prerogative of politicians to bribe voters with their own money and that the fine print of the presidential job description obligates him to “make the world safe.” These issues are not open to debate. There is no conservative candidate.
Some will argue that voting third party is more responsible than staying home. But there is a more effective way to register a protest than lining up behind an asterisk. Four million evangelical voters refused to be corralled in 2000. This round, Karl Rove went looking for them.
“What about judges?” Republicans ask conservatives turned conscientious objectors. That argument no longer persuades. Six Republican-appointed justices sat on the Court that decided Roe v. Wade; Nixon appointee Harry Blackmun wrote the decision. And after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, the Court affirmed Roe in 1992. The GOP has no reason to register some votes as pertaining solely to judicial nominees. They collect them all and call it a mandate—affirmation of a foreign policy that plunged us into endless war and a domestic agenda that is driving us into massive debt. Full speed ahead.
By declining to be coerced we may yet salvage a scrap of liberty. We won’t be letting democracy down, for it has already disappointed us. Pace President Bush and his “forward strategy of freedom,” liberty was never government’s to give; the essential right to be left alone belongs to each citizen. This November, we can borrow a bit back by refusing to be counted by parties that don’t represent us. Silence is a profound expression, and enough unraised voices eventually turn even the most partisan heads.