Must one vote?

We must move beyond the sense in which we see voting as the beginning and end of the citizen’s political activity.

One of my favorite themes in literature and film is dystopia. I find that seeing things go wrong helps us think more clearly about what it would mean for things to go well. The upcoming presidential election might well be described as dystopian. Something has gone horribly wrong when, in January of 2017, either Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump will be sworn in as the next president of the United States. The question that this dilemma raises is what a conscientious voter is to do. When faced with two terrible alternatives, how should one respond? One possibility is simply refusing to vote, but two recent pieces, by Christopher Love and Nathan Schlueter, argue that we have a duty to vote. There is much that one could say to these excellent presentations, but I will focus on what I believe to be a fundamental question overlooked by both. It is not simply that the current candidates are particularly bad and thus unacceptable choices, it is that voters do not have a true choice. There is systematic debate regarding what precisely is the common good being entrusted to these candidate, and each candidate emerges only by means of wealth and the influence of elites. In this arrangement, there is a structural barrier preventing genuine dialogue between elected officials and those whom they represent. Without such engagement, we must ask whether or not we are obligated to support such a system.

The duty to vote

Both Love and Schlueter believe that we have a duty to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Love believes that we should adopt what he calls a “fluid view” of voting. He sees “voting not as endorsing a person and/or platform—at least not directly—but rather as buying time. In other words, voting is a matter of choosing the candidate (or party) that seems most open to continued dialogue about crucial matters concerning the common good. Thus, in ‘buying time,’ one secures the continued space for undergoing that second and more crucial step of political action: persuasion.” By “persuasion,” Love means “our attempt to convince others—through our words, our deeds, and our prayers—of our vision of the good life and of the policies that are conducive to that life. The ‘others’ I have in view include government officials but also opinion leaders (in the arts, media, and business), educators, ministers, and neighbors.” Rather than consider the candidate’s views and platforms as fixed and static, we should instead vote for the candidate whom we reasonably believe will leave more room for discussion and conversion. Through these methods of dialogue, we will be able, Love hopes, to change the prevailing culture.

Schlueter argues that we have an obligation to vote because of the good of common action. He argues that “the obligation to vote is the solution to a collective action problem: although each individual has an incentive not to cooperate and is unlikely to alter the final result, everyone is better off when everyone cooperates. It is the necessity of solving this collective action problem that generates the obligation.” We have an obligation to vote because we must all contribute to the common good. All individuals, ordered as they are to the common good, must participate in the formation of policies and decisions for how best to achieve the common good. How do citizens do this? They vote. What if someone wishes to abstain? This individual must give some reason for why long-term goods will outweigh present evils of non-participation. One famous advocate for so abstaining is Alasdair MacIntyre, but Schlueter suggests that MacIntyre offers no clear grounds for his opposition to voting.

MacIntyre and the duty not to vote

As Schulueter mentions, prior to the 2004 presidential election, MacIntyre authored the essay “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November.” MacIntyre, in this piece, argued that the only vote worth casting was no vote at all. He reaches this conclusion not, or at least not solely, due to how unacceptable Bush and Kerry were as candidates for office, but more importantly because a vote for either would be a vote for a system of exclusion. This system prevented those affected by political policies from having any but a merely symbolic participation in the decisions that lead to those policies.

MacIntyre argues, “When offered the choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who arrogate to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.” Thus, the reason why MacIntyre believed that one should not have voted in the 2004 election was because those voting had no meaningful say in selecting the nominees.

The exclusionary nature of contemporary politics is a common theme in MacIntyre’s political writings. In another essay, “Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good,” he argues, “What is lacking in modern political societies is any type of institutional arena in which plain persons—neither engaged in academic pursuits nor professionals of political life—are able to engage together in systematic reasoned debate, designed to arrive at a rationally well-founded common mind on how to answer questions about the relationship of politics to the claims of rival and alternative ways of life.” Political action goes on without the participation, outside of voting, of almost all of those affected by those actions. The mechanisms by which candidates for office are chosen are a complex mesh where wealth, power, and connections are a pre-requisite.

Why not vote?

We might respond to Schlueter by noting that the grounds for MacIntyre’s opposition to voting are that one should refuse to support a system that structurally bars all but a few from making meaningful contributions. There is no method by which individuals can, as a community, come together to discuss what precisely is the nature of their common good and how best to achieve that good. Schlueter believes that we are obliged to vote because of the good of common action. Such action, however, presupposes that there is some more than vague group we might identify as the subject of action. MacIntyre’s basic argument, however, is that the lack of communal deliberation and debate renders much “common” action as the action of a few presented in the name of a many. It is common in only the thinnest of meanings. Thus, rather than vote and thereby affirm such an exclusionary system, we should simply withdraw.

This absence of communal debate is also one reason why Love’s “fluid model” would likewise seem to fail. Love urges us to vote for Trump, not because of any of his stated policies and positions, but because we will have more time for persuasion under a Trump administration. We might ask, “Whom are we to persuade?” Love mentions government officials, opinion leaders, educators, ministers, and neighbors. How, precisely, are we to persuade governmental officials? If MacIntyre is right, and the evidence certainly seems to be in his favor, most average citizens have virtually zero direct access to their representatives. The average person certainly has no way to reach the president, and any access to senators and congressmen will be indirect at best. The “opinion leaders” Love mentions (those in the arts, media, and business) are likewise inaccessible to those without vast amounts of wealth or influence. Perhaps educators, ministers, and neighbors are more available. These individuals, however, are open to dialogue regardless of those we elect, and thus nothing should stop us from speaking with these individuals directly. We need not reinforce an exclusionary political structure as a means to dialoguing with others. Thus, it seems that the “others” whom Love believes we must persuade are either unreachable by all but a select elite, and thus it is not clear why the ordinary voter should take that into account, or already open regardless of who occupies the White House.

On one important point, however, Love and I are in complete agreement. We both believe that we must move beyond the sense in which we see voting as the beginning and end of the citizen’s political activity. Rather, we should see engagement with others in discussions regarding the common good as a vital duty for any citizen. It seems where the two of us would disagree is precisely at what level those discussions should take place. Rather than view large-scale nation-states as the primary locus of political life, I argue that we should look to local civic life as our first responsibility. Echoing E.F. Schumacher, we might say “small is beautiful.” If nothing else, we should, as MacIntyre notes, rid ourselves of the “ingrained piece of receive wisdom that voting is one mark of a good citizen, not voting a sign of irresponsibility.”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About John Macias 2 Articles
Dr. John Macias serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. Patrick's Seminary & University in Menlo Park, CA. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. His research interests include political philosophy, natural law, and the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre.