Skip to content

The Sound of Silence: In Praise of Voter Abstention

2010 November 10

Republican David Vitter and Democrat Charlie Melancon

This past November 2nd, Republican Senator David Vitter was voted into his second term by 57% of the citizens of Louisiana.  A glance at his voting history and a few of his various legislative proposals reveals an at once distinctly predictable and perpetually disappointing political agenda.  For the sake of clarity, I will provide an abridged history of Vitter’s political career to give as exact an idea as I can of what transpired earlier this month when Vitter was granted six more years of service.  The following account is sporadic and a-chronological, though, to my knowledge, it is factually sound.

Vitter voted against a $35 billion increase to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, designed to provide care to children whose families fall in the financial gap between eligibility for Medicaid and the means for private insurance.  In spite of Vitter’s persistence (three contrary votes in the proposal’s two-year history), the program increase was enacted last February. In 2007, Vitter helped defeat a bill that would have granted citizenship to 12 million undocumented immigrants despite support from fellow Republicans John McCain and then-President George W. Bush.  Later that year he introduced an amendment (which was defeated) that demanded the suspension of relevant funds to cities that barred their local law enforcement from inquiring about someone’s citizenship status after any interaction at all.

The following year, Vitter cosponsored ten bills that would have (had they passed) devastated the rights of human beings in America by, among other things, deporting any immigrant (legal or illegal) after one drunk-driving offense and making English the official language of the country, thereby revoking language assistance at voting polls (a uniquely un-democratic move).  He then proposed a new constitutional amendment which would repeal the 14th. If you didn’t know that the National Rifle Association rates its members, it does.  David Vitter has been rated A. Vitter, in 2007, also introduced an amendment that would freeze all federal funding to hospitals and clinics that performed abortions.  This didn’t pass, either. In this vein, it shouldn’t surprise one to know that he is a strong advocate of the decidedly impotent model of abstinence-only education.

In 2001, Vitter authored an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act, which allowed military recruiters access to the name, phone number and address of all students enrolled in federally funded secondary schools unless the student specifically requested the maintenance of their privacy. The Louisiana Family Forum, well known for its persistent demands that the theory of intelligent design be given equal time to evolution in the classroom, was earmarked $100,000 by Vitter in 2007.  Vitter said of the earmark that it was intended to help ‘develop a plan to promote better science education’ and simultaneously demonstrated that he doesn’t understand what the word ‘science’ means. In 2003, Vitter proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution banning same-sex marriage.  He has, in regard to this issue, called marriage ‘the most important social institution in U.S. history’.

Unsurprisingly, while he was condemning the family values of others he was compromising his own with a number of women he paid for the favor.  One resists generalizing about the correspondence of aggressive family-values politics and closeted sexual promiscuity, but this is difficult, given the  many precedents.

Living, as I do, in New Orleans, Vitter’s rather distressing history is regrettably, though necessarily, of great concern.  Certainly, David Vitter has not won my support.  Let us consider, then, Vitter’s opponent: 3rd district representative and alleged Democrat Charlie Melancon.  His political history is conversely remarkable in that it seems to bear almost no resemblance at all to that of his party.

Melancon voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act before it was signed into law by the President last March.  This act, as we know, prohibits the rejection of patients on the basis of pre-existing conditions, expands Medicaid eligibility and provides incentives for benefit provision by small businesses.  Melancon claimed subsequently that the act ‘doesn’t work for Louisiana’. As Vitter’s campaign had it, Melancon ‘may as well [have] put out a welcome sign for illegal aliens’, though Melancon voted for a border fence, just as Vitter did, and has been given the same B rating by immigration-control group, NumbersUSA.

Melancon also shares Vitter’s A rating by the NRA.  He claims that he will ‘always fight to protect [Louisiana’s] forests, marshes, swamps, and waters’, which would be admirable if the sentence didn’t continue by elaborating that this is expressly for the purpose of maintaining the state’s status as ‘a true sportsman’s paradise’. Similarly, in the wake of the April 20th Deepwater Horizon leak that devastated the paradise he and his fellow sportsmen so thoroughly enjoyed, he has argued for the development of Louisiana’s oil and has sworn to ‘protect and expand’ off-shore drilling as an important part of the state’s economy ‘no matter what the politicians in Washington say’. In 2005, Melancon voted to make the PATRIOT Act permanent. Melancon voted against the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009, which expanded a federal bill against hate crimes.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising after all, as in 2006 he voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have banned by constitutional law the right of same-sex couples to marry.

I didn’t vote.

Voting is the truest expression of democratic freedom.  It is a privilege long fought-for and deservedly won.  Its importance to the advancement of human rights and the development of modern society cannot be overstated.  The strength of democracy lies in the bestowment of enormous power to the citizen.  This power, of course, is the power to choose one’s representatives in government so that the voice of each citizen may there be heard, considered and addressed.

However, since the birth of our own democracy we have created a two-party system that often looks regrettably like a one-party system.  There can be no doubt that the Tea Party has arisen out of discontent with centrist politics and that a similar discontent caused the ‘enthusiasm gap’ that found Democrats wanting and saw them at home on election day.  It has been said that we don’t need better politicians so much as we need better voters, and while this in many cases is quite true, a few better politicians surely couldn’t hurt.

Bill Maher recently said: “When it comes to voting, when we only have two choices, you’ve got to grow up and realize there’s a big difference between a disappointing friend and a deadly enemy.”  Voting always requires degrees of concession; this realization is fundamental to democratic participation.  However, this point is discouragingly muscled with aggressive and intimidating rhetoric that unfortunately tends to demean the entire endeavor by (abstractly and inconsequentially) threatening to revoke the privileges of political and governmental criticism of those who abstain.  This method seems childish.  Certainly, we should discourage apathy.  In many cases, lethargic ignorance is, in fact, the target of such bullying and, though the aggression is often overdramatized, its aim is true.  We must allow, however, for the possibility that the best exercise of one’s agency is abstention.

A vote is a powerful and important thing and maximizing its potential is essential to creating a thriving democratic state.  It must be kept in mind, though, that the idea behind such a government is that the citizens might accurately represent themselves in office by electing a surrogate in their stead.  What is to be done, however, when this is impossible?  Many take Maher’s track of selecting, as it were, the lesser of two evils.  I would suggest that we choose our friends more wisely.  Occasionally, Maher’s approach is adopted by the candidates themselves when an incumbent opponent has become unpopular.  This, we surely remember, was perhaps the most viable motivation for John Kerry’s 2004 campaign against George W. Bush.  In cases of extreme danger, such as the Bush-Kerry decision – in which it was quite feasible that the incumbent’s reelection would endanger the country – this unfortunately cynical tactic gains substantial merit.  It can also happen that dramatic circumstantial changes shift the focus of an election, as transpired before the most recent presidential election in the form of a rapid and veritable economic depression.  Thusly, the gaze of the constituency was forcibly refocused to the economic policies of the candidates and this no doubt played a decisive part in dividing and deciding swing voters.  Now, this is not to place the importance of one election over another.  Each is vital.  Voter abstention due to a misunderstanding of this fact is willful inattention and should rightly be discouraged.  But when confronted with a desperate ultimatum, where is the line drawn between concession and outright dishonesty?

On November 2nd in Louisiana, leftist voters were confronted with this question directly.  On one hand was a homophobic, xenophobic, gun-slinging conservative; on the other, a homophobic, xenophobic, gun-slinging conservative.  In cases like this it is essential to remember just how powerful a vote is and to consider the ramifications of so drastically misrepresenting one’s interests in office.  In neither case do we have a candidate speaking for his leftist citizens and concession here propagates the conservative agenda we would allegedly be voting against and perpetuates the system that stripped us of our agency.  It also devalues the integrity of the cast vote and surrenders it to manipulation and perversion by that system which is ineffective in its duty of supplying the electorate with viable and truthful governmental representation.

It is in such cases that one must wholly reject the notion of voting for voting’s sake.  By all means, we as citizens of a free democratic republic must strive to exercise our agency as fully and explosively as possible, but sometimes this means projecting our silence instead of our compromise.  Voting, thankfully, is not compulsory, and so we cannot be made to choose between two unworthy persons.  When our candidates fail us, abstention is left as a powerful method of rejection.  Of course, we must fervently encourage informed voting.  It is vital to the survival of democratic liberty and integrity to become knowledgeable about the available candidates and to develop a learned opinion to take to the polls.  However, this practice is undermined by the encouragement of blind, lazy or heartless voting.  We must never vote for the sake of it – we must vote because we are passionate and inspired.  In lieu of this, we must abstain.  Casting a dispassionate vote to an undeserving candidate mars the agency we strive to exercise.  We must know that we have a right as conscious, educated and informed voters to demand honest representation from our officials.    And we, of all people, have the right to criticize and question our leaders.  Certainly, bending to feeble and insufficient candidates does not earn us this privilege and could not possibly give voice to our dissatisfaction; conversely, it hides it.  Let us not mistake abstention for negligence or silence for voicelessness.

Active, intentional inaction is an option, and sometimes, sadly, it is our best.

Comments are closed.