Monday, November 7, 2016

Slaves of Duty

One of the problems of democracy on an imperial scale is that no individual can choose his political rulers any more than can a peasant under a pantocratic tsar. Even if the drones have seized power from the queen, there are still too many of them for bee No. 8,493A to have any say over the honey quota.

The ballot that I just mailed in might have been eaten by a goat, and I’d never know it. Seven million other ballots in New York will decide every election tomorrow without regard to my preferences. Yet I still live, somehow, under the conviction that the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City have more claim to my obedience than a well-born king.

In a small and close community, the meaning of a vote is different. Take an election for president of the golf club, or Campus Whigs treasurer, or Pope. That is the native soil of democracy: a small group choosing a leader from its own numbers. Cardinal Adina wants the zealous Nemorino to be the pope, but Nemorino is only the third-most-popular candidate, and a vote for him would hand the election to the libertine Dulcamara. So he grudgingly votes for Cardinal Belcore, who wins on the second ballot. Adina’s mind throughout is occupied by all kinds of delicate practical considerations, most of which stem from the following question: ‘how can I reconcile my sincere preferences with the reality that my vote might effect something other than I intend?’ If the College of Cardinals enacts instant-runoff voting by the time Belcore dies, the question becomes even simpler: ‘what do I sincerely prefer?’ And this is no idle question. Adina has the power in his hands to bestow power over the earth on one man or another.

Very different is an imperial election like ours, which is formal and indifferent to individual voters. Only a tiny few know the candidates face-to-face. No one stands to gain or lose respect for his vote, especially if it’s on a secret ballot. Most important, the effect that any given vote has on the election is nil. Everything like “Make sure to vote if you live in [swing state]” and “My vote will cancel out yours” and “voting for McMullin will empower an evil goon”—and FiveThirtyEights’s voter-power index—is blather based on the lie that any political power is in the hands of any person, or even any hundred persons.

What value is there at all in voting under these circumstances, except to signal your virtue to your Facebook friends, yourself and your family? Is there anything other than sickly self-polishing to prop up democratic citizenship? 

In the absence of a living democratic impulse, an imperial election, if it’s to justify itself, needs to make demands on a voter’s mind that are not practical. In order to feel really compelled to look into candidates and vote (assuming we’re not wonkish hobbyists), we need to resort to a sense of thankless duty to our republic. Not only is this possible; if we are to be proud republicans, it is obligatory. Our republic will not be saved by our sentimental affection for it, which can always wane; still less by any thin intellectual belief in democracy, which can always be refuted by a Russian who’s clever enough. It will be sustained by its citizens’ unconsidered obligation to love and uphold democracy, and therefore to weigh candidates and vote.

A vote is only pointless if you have identified having a point with having an influence. This is admittedly an understandable conclusion, for influence is a real thing that you can measure, and duty only an invisible precept. Mass democracy does not give anything real to her children: voting, seen for what it is, does not confer a sense of being important, or even of being wanted. But this all goes to show the sole point of voting comes from the fact that it’s something you just have to do. The only thing that can drag an honest voter to the polls is a spare conviction that he must go. Go, then.

Corollary: When you are in the booth, you are not being asked to swing the election. You are being asked to give your honest opinion, and nothing more, about the best candidate for the job in question. It’s been popular to write thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces on the question of voting for a third-party candidate. My own piece of thought is that if you shrink from voting third-party out of fear of the consequences, you are throwing away the single benefit to be had from the powerlessness of your vote.

You are to vote because your conscience, not practical inducement, makes you do it. Why not vote with your conscience too? The inconsequence of your vote is disappointing if your goal was to be influential, but it can also free your conscience, which wants the best for your country, from the demands of tempering caution.


Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary Clinton. I did that because I thought she would be a better president than anyone else on the ballot. If there had been a better candidate, I would have voted for him, however unlikely to win.