Why we vote

Electoralist dogma accords voting with significant ethical importance. If elections are the centerpiece of democracy, a legitimization of government, an expression of the “consent of the governed” then seeing voting as anything less than a pledge of allegiance would be cynical. By casting a vote for a candidate the voter makes a declaration of support for the record and agenda of the candidate and to some extent takes on responsibility for policy the candidate implements if elected. The more extreme versions of this romanticized view apply these implications of support and responsibility to each and every act or position of the candidate. Other versions apply them only to the record and policy in total.

An alternative, less exalted view would be that voting in a mass election is a specific act with specific practical implications. It is no more than a political expedient. According to this view, when considering who to vote for – and indeed whether to vote at all – citizens simply need to consider which alternative can be expected to yield better policy. Voting is then not an assertion about the record or agenda of the candidate in isolation but the expression of a comparison between the anticipated outcomes of the available courses of action.

It could be expected that those whose interests are most aligned with the electoralist system, such as electoral candidates, would be the most steadfast supporters of the romanticization of voting. This turns out not to always be the case. Electoral candidates and campaigners are self-servingly inconsistent about this issue. When a candidate is making an argument that a voter should vote for them the straightforward, calculated comparative criterion – that they are better than other candidates – is easier to meet than the emotional, absolute criterion – that they themselves are worthy of support. At the same time, of course, when attacking other candidates it is easier to show that those other candidates do not merit allegiance. Naturally, once in office, it is convenient for the winner to pretend that victory at the polls indicates that the voters support each and every item on their agenda.

Another set of people who are privileged by the current system are mass media political pundits. These tend to be ambiguous regarding the moral significance of voting as well. Too earnestly explaining to their viewers that voting is an ethical commitment may risk having viewers refuse to undertake such a commitment with regard to any of the questionable candidates available. It is better to take an aloof, scientific viewpoint and talk about psychological effects rather than moral considerations.

The radicals vs. the reformist candidate

This consideration of the meaning of voting was triggered by the reaction of Left-wing radicals to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Sanders, a long time U.S. Congressperson and a self-described socialist, is running a primary campaign in which he presents various ideas that are normally marginalized both in political campaigns and in mass media in the United States. This campaign, which is getting significant popular support, is an unusual phenomenon and worthy of some attention for more than one reason. Here I would like to examine the arguments presented by Sanders’s critics from the Left against supporting his campaign.

It is inevitable that Left-wing radicals would find Sanders as far from being their model politician. Sanders is part of the establishment. He has been collaborating with the Democrats for decades and while he does have a political record that is unusual for an establishment politician, he also holds conventional views on a number of issues. On the other hand, Sanders is undeniably significantly closer to the positions of the Left-wing than any credible candidate in memory, and he is also stressing the differences between himself and the conventional center as part of his campaign. It seems likely that a strong showing for his campaign, whether or not he finally manages to get elected, could have a substantial impact on the political discourse in the U.S. (and, due to the prominence of the US, in the world).

It seems, then, that while Left-wing radicals would have a hard time supporting the Sanders campaign if they perceive electoral support as signifying allegiance, a cost-benefit calculation should lead them to see his campaign as being a tool for progress. It appears that the former consideration prevails. Radical Left-wing writers do not tire of recounting those points in Sanders’s record that demonstrate his closeness to the convention of the political elite (1, 2, 3). They attack him for running a primary campaign within the Democratic party rather than as a “third party” (really, a minor party) candidate.

The arguments made are not explicitly romantic. To some extent, the objections presented to the Sanders’ campaign are based on calculation: the campaign will not lead to long term change because Sanders is not a movement builder or because he will lose to Clinton. The political calculation, however, is never seriously developed. A side-by-side comparison of the alternatives available to the voter is not presented. The potential effects of his campaign and his rhetoric are not explored. The weight of the argumentation falls on the easily demonstrable fact that Sanders is not a radical.

It seems that the Left-wing critics are unable to shake off the electoralist dogma. Despite their dismissal of the existing system as being irredeemably undemocratic the alternative they offer is not a non-electoralist one. As a result, they still see the act of voting as being more than a political tool: they still see it as the expression of the ideals of the voter so that voting for an imperfect candidate is an act of moral compromise. And so they present their readers with the unresolvable ethical dilemma of having to choose between one of the following options:

  1. Avoid voting altogether,
  2. Delude themselves into thinking that one of the credible candidates does have a record worthy of support and emotional attachment, or
  3. Vote for a virtually unknown, unelectable candidate whose record (or at least what is known of her record) can be supported without reservations, but whose chances of making any political impact is minute.

While many citizens choose the first option and quite a few opt for the second (leading to the perpetual cycle of electoral disappointment) very few choose the third option which is the one recommended by the critics. In any case, none of those options seems very appealing to a reform-minded citizen, which is why the strident critics have to keep lecturing their audiences about the moral degradation that befalls those who vote for false reformists.

Voting as a political tool within an oligarchical system

The way out of the dilemma is to realize that it stems from a misconception about elections. Once it is understood that elections are an inherently elitist mechanism, and that rather than being the centerpiece of democracy they are in fact incompatible with democracy, the notion that voting for a candidate carries some sort of a moral attachment to the candidate becomes absurd. Voting, like any political act within the oligarchical elections-based system, should be seen as a tool for overthrowing this system and replacing it with a democratic system.

Critics of the status quo should be asking themselves not whether a particular candidate is worthy of their vote but whether voting for that candidate promotes their goals. Critics who see voting as signifying a moral attachment to a candidate are being inconsistent: they claim to propose a radical critique of the status quo, but at the same time are implicitly accepting the inevitability of elections – the foundation of the established oligarchical system.

13 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    >Voting, like any political act within the oligarchical elections-based system, should be seen as a tool for overthrowing this system.

    I assume this statement and the cartoon of the class-conscious worker and capitalist fat-cat puppet-mastert at the head of the article is some sort of post-ironic deconstruction of my earlier claim that your views owe more to revolutionary post-Marxist dogma rather than being serious attempt to improve modern political practice. Every call to “overthrow the system” and every depiction of existing politicians as self-serving lackeys of capitalist fat-cats dooms the sortition movement to ongoing marginalisation — a similar suicide note to that being currently penned by the UK Labour Party (although they have a lot more to lose than us).


  2. *** Following various Keith Sutherland comments about relationship between sortition and leftism / Marxism, I think interesting to give some data about the French situation. It is not sociological inquiry with well-organized files, but an impressionist landscape.
    *** The one known French thinker who supports the idea of political lottery is the philosopher Jacques Rancière. He endorses lot as the perfect equalitarian procedure, a “scandalous” affirmation of equality. But as far as I know, he did not develop a systematic theory about a democracy-through-sortition.
    *** As for all other ultra-leftist or Marxist discourses I encountered in print or on the Web, either they ignore sortition or they fight it. Some endorse more or less openly the model of dictatorship of a militant vanguard. Others support a “really democratic” version of the electoralist-representative model, incorporating procedures as very frequent elections, easy representative recalls, imperative mandates etc.
    *** The ultra-leftist/Marxist discourses against sortition rehearse usually known arguments. But I will quote one which I found interesting – herewith translated into my own words.
    *** “Real advancements for oppressed groups against the ruling classes come only by the action of conscientized active minorities, given the mental inertia and the ideological conditioning of the masses. Against these activist minorities the ruling classes will use the democratic myth. But in polyarchy this myth is not so strong; in a democracy-through-minipublics the democratic legitimacy will be much stronger, and that will create a situation noxious for the revolutionary movements”


  3. Andre,

    Yes – Marxists usually cling to the old and unconvincing Engels/Lenin formula of reforming electoralism via “workman wages” and recallability.

    Who is the person whose argument you translated?


  4. Andre,

    I agree that many ultra-leftists, Marxists and post-Marxists* are (or would be if they knew about it) hostile to sortition-based democracy. Apart from C.L.R. James and Ranciere (who only mentions it briefly) it’s hard to think of any other sympathy for the idea. The point I was making was slightly different, namely that there was an overlapping worldview between ultra-leftists and some of the frequent posters on this forum (presumably the reason for illustrating this piece with an anti-capitalist cartoon), namely:

    1. Societies can be categorised into two camps, the elite and the masses.

    2. Both categories are determined by (primarily economic) interests** — ideological factors are derivative or, at best, secondary in nature. Political theorists and others who claim some sort of dispassionate perspective are really just servants of the interests of the ruling class.

    3. Political change will only come about when the masses demand “real” democracy (“true” democracy in Marx’s term), as political elites will not share power willingly. The role of the vanguard is to raise mass consciousness by replacing electoralist dogma with democracy through sortition.

    4. As such EbL is less of a debating forum (the language game of political theorists) and more a public medium to counteract indoctrination and false consciousness. Those who are guilty of opposing this viewpoint should be exposed as “obnoxious liars” and counter-revolutionaries, only there to sow seeds of doubt and negativity against the prophets of real democracy. Class enemies like this should not be tolerated on this forum.

    5. Elected politicians and other public servants are motivated by their own private and class interests, rather than the interests of the public that they are supposed to serve. This being the case electoralism cannot be reformed or improved, it needs to be swept away.

    * This includes cultural Marxists, critical theorists and others who have moved on from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy

    ** Hence the disproportionate interest in the Gilens/Page article.


  5. *** Yoram Gat asks for precisions. But I said it was an impressionist landscape. Well, to give an example, I can indicate the blog by Tommy Lasserre, MEDIAPART; “Tirage au sort en politique; la fausse bonne idée” which is more or less representative of the ideas I described. Lasserre is member of the Parti de Gauche headed by Mélenchon.
    *** It could be said that people like Lasserre would not waste time to write against sortition if they would not be afraid of some appeal of this model among their readers. It seems that there is some appeal of sortition among the common people of leftist sensitivity, but much less among the “militant elite”.


  6. *** Keith Sutherland wrote:” I agree that many ultra-leftists, Marxists and post-Marxists are (or would be if they knew about it) hostile to sortition-based democracy”. I noted in this sentence “if they knew about it”. Maybe this restriction is valid in Britain, but in France I think most people with strong intellectual interests in political thought know the model of democracy-through-minipublics. More or less recently I encountered by chance a big article about it in the daily newspaper Libération, and later I found a shorter one in the weekly magazine Marianne, both important mass media. If I remember well, the last one concluded against sortition. But anyway sortition is no more an idea external to common political thought. It is not in the center, sure, but it is here. If some militant thinkers ignore it, it is willingly, to drown it under their theoretical contempt.
    *** There is in France a tradition of interest to theoretical politics which helps the sortition idea.
    *** The most known supporter of sortition on the French web is Etienne Chouard, and some prefer to attack the political personality of Chouard and some of his debatable positions and links, to attack indirectly the sortition idea. But maybe it is too clearly tricky: if Chouard presented his candidacy in an election, it would be very interesting to uncover “his dubious links”. But a political mutation to minipublics would not give automatically weight to Chouard’s specific ideas or links.


  7. Hi Andre,

    Thanks a lot for the reference. The title certainly looks intriguing, and I’ll see if I can make sense of the article from the machine translation. Your idea about the differences between the Leftist elite and the rank-and-file on the Left is both interesting and plausible.

    It does seem like sortition has made it much closer to the center of political discussion in the French-speaking world than in the English-speaking world. I feel that non-French speaking people like me are missing out on a lot of the discussion and I would be grateful if you keep an eye on the discussion in French and keep us up to date by posting here (or by emailing me so that I can do the posting, if you prefer).


  8. To Yoram
    *** Ok but I will begin only in October, I have no files where I am staying in September.
    *** During the 2006 presidential election in France, Ségolène Royal (later defeated by Sarkozy) introduced the idea of alloted Citizen Juries to oversee elected représentatives. Even if she later dropped the proposal, that was, as far as I know, an exceptional push for sortition by an important politician.. I intended to present the file about it, but I could not do the work for personal reasons. I hope to come back to this interesting event..

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Andre:

    >in France I think most people with strong intellectual interests in political thought know the model of democracy-through-minipublics.

    I agree with Yoram that the French-speaking world seems to be the exception that proves the rule (the ongoing spirit of 1789 and 1968?). The professor who teaches anarchism in the politics department at Exeter told me that the only reference to sortition that he was aware of was in Ranciere and, apart from a couple of classicists, no-one else in the department had even heard of the term (and they still call it sortation). I put together a sortition panel for the Manchester Political Theory workshop a couple of years ago and neither of the convenors (who have both written extensively on Marxist political thought) had ever heard of sortition. It’s no coincidence that the only programme on sortition has come out of the graduate school of Sciences Po in Paris. Fishkin is probably the best-known advocate of sortition in the Anglophone world, but he’s tarnished it in the eyes of academia by seeking to trademark the intellectual property rights for Deliberative Polling. When he gave a lecture at the British Academy he turned up in a stretch limo.

    The only problem I have with Etienne is the personality cult. This is strange because when you talk to him one-to-one he is modest and unassuming, but his followers see him in messianic terms — perhaps the rhetoric he uses appeals to French leftist sensibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Andre,

    > Ok but I will begin only in October

    Thanks – that would be great.


  11. *** About the appeal of sortition to rank-and-file French left
    Source : blog of Romain Blachier (now member of Great Lyon Council, for the French Socialist Party, the main left party), 2010-08-19, post reporting a Summer Meeting of the militants of the French « Green » party, « Europe Ecologie et les Verts », at Nantes in 2010.
    *** Blachier reported that some in the audience evoked the possibility of alloted « citizen juries », prompting some amount of applause. The Green bigman Cohn-Bendit ridiculed the cheering militants by asking « Do you want to choose the party’s leaders by lot ? ». Blachier in his report says “amusement de la salle prise à contre-pied” I try to translate “the audience, caught off balance, is amused / laughs ”
    *** Cohn-Bendit has a smart mind and that was a good comeback. But the reasoning was not so good: the party’s leaders in polyarchic political game are kind of « stratêgoi » , and the Athenians elected their stratêgoi (with civic screening by an allotted jury). Cohn-Bendit discourse confuses the role of sovereign (kyrios) and the role of manager (as a stratêgos).
    *** Anyway, this event gives an example of difference between rank and file militants, who feel some appeal from sortition, and the militant elite (here a leader, but it is wider) who rejects it. Rejection is by ignoring, or, if impossible, by ridiculing and going quickly to another subject.


  12. *** About the interest to sortition, Keith Sutherland agrees with Yoram Gat (!!!) that French-speaking world seems to be the exception that proves the rule and adds “the ongoing spirit of 1789 and 1968?”
    *** Well, the French-speaking world has been specifically interested to political theory since prerevolutionary times: Montesquieu and Rousseau spoke French – whereas Adam Smith spoke English and Karl Marx spoke German …
    *** But we must remember that the 1789 revolution did not consider at all political lot. As for 1968, I remember sortition was on the fringe (I was student then, and my views for sortition were eccentric). The classicist Vidal-Naquet, co-author of a famous book about Cleisthenes, proposed lot, but for university authority only. A wider interest for sortition is a recent phenomenon – the result I think of the popularization of the idea of “representative sample”.
    *** I don’t follow the ideas in the Spanish-speaking world, sortition is present on the web (“suerte y democracia”, “sorteos y democracia”), and maybe especially in relationship with movements as Podemos in Spain; but which is its actual appeal ? The discussions I saw look like the French-speaking discussions. But maybe it would be interesting to follow more closely.


  13. Andre,

    Regarding sortition in Spain and the Spanish speaking world: The two notable recent sortition related events in the Spanish speaking world that I am aware of are (1) the fact that it was briefly considered for internal governance in Podemos (but quickly dismissed by the elite of the nascent party) and (2) that it was used by Morena in Mexico for selecting congressional candidates.

    I am not aware of an active discussion of sortition in Spanish. We have a couple of readers who are Spanish speakers, I believe, so they can comment more intelligently on this matter.


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