The non-voter as traitor

November 1, 2012 § 10 Comments

I don’t know how many times someone has suggested that refusing to personally endorse the liberal consensus in a concrete ritual act – voting – implies that one has utterly rejected one’s country.   Recently a commenter at another blog suggested with outrage that refusing to vote for Mitt Romney is tantamount to refusing to defend our country from invasion.  Folks have suggested that in order to take my view – that at this particular cul-de-sac in history there is no proportionate reason to vote in national elections – they would have to also conclude that the government is completely illegitimate and need not be obeyed: that we are in a de-facto “state of nature”.  Others have suggested that the view that for principled reasons one should not vote at all is so radical that if it were true, armed insurrection against the government would be warranted.

Despite its material triviality, declining to engage in this one particular, personal, ritual act is for many people tantamount to treason.

Even leaving allowances for the tendency toward hyperbolic raving on the Internet, I have been subjected to these sorts of comments by enough serious commenters over a period of enough years to take them seriously.  People really do think this sort of thing, and it isn’t just the freaks and nutcases.

One reason they might think this sort of thing is a very poorly developed imagination, I suppose.  For me, it is obvious beyond words that declining, with good reason, to make a particular personal ritual act of civic piety, is not the same thing as hating one’s country, refusing to defend it against a bona fide invasion, etc.  But again I’ve encountered this too many times and in too many places to be able to chalk it up to the psychological deficiencies of particular people.

So in the end, I am left with the inescapable impression that for a great many people, votes are just what I say they are.   Those of you who do vote on November 6th might want to keep your noses alert; because you just might smell incense.

§ 10 Responses to The non-voter as traitor

  • Paul J Cella says:

    To be fair, you are also taking the positive position that other conservatives should refuse to vote, even in local referendums or in races where a fully pro-life and pro-marriage candidate is on the ballot; and furthermore, you are also at least suggesting that we who take an alternative view of things are indulging in some particularly debilitating irrationalities. Now, as you say, of course someone who believes he is right on a point in dispute, lest he sink into relativism, is going to further assert that his disputants are wrong. Such is the nature of disagreement.

    Still, I don’t know about any “state of nature,” but the position laid out here certainly invites questions about other details of civic life in America. What about jury duty, say? What about standing for office, or serving in an elected administration? What about lobbying or legislative consulting? I know a fine Catholic man who sits on the Georgia Court of Appeals; technically he must stand for regular elections (though in practice no one ever runs against judges). One wonders how the same circumstances that enjoin a Catholic against the public duty of voting can permit him to enter public life in this much more prominent fashion.

    You have not elaborated on these matters, but have decidedly piqued interest in them.

  • To be fair, you are also taking the positive position that other conservatives should refuse to vote, even in local referendums or in races where a fully pro-life and pro-marriage candidate is on the ballot;…

    I object to “local”. I’ve acknowledged that in small and local enough elections the calculus changes. Mass state-wide referenda, though, sure: that is a late stop on the bus.

    you are also at least suggesting that we who take an alternative view of things are indulging in some particularly debilitating irrationalities

    I don’t know where I’ve stated “particularly debilitating”. I think I have this right, and I’ve seen no counterargument that I consider both sound and based on true facts.

    What about jury duty, say?

    Jury duty isn’t a mass market vote for public office, and it isn’t a personal endorsement of the liberal consensus. It is more like a board of directors, though temporary. Each juror has a substantial say in the outcome; therefore voting as a juror is not an inherently idealistic act in a game-theoretic sense. However, jurors should act idealistically for other reasons. You’ve asked this one before and I haven’t answered it because I am honestly puzzled why it is even pertinent, actually. Jury duty is (and paying taxes, and serving in the military, and resisting an invasion, and cleaning the streets, and an infinite number of other things are) wildly disanalogous to voting in mass market universal suffrage democratic elections.

    What about standing for office, or serving in an elected administration? What about lobbying or legislative consulting?

    The more local it is, the less problematic – like voting itself. There are all sorts of places in civic life that are problematic though. For example, the oath required of public teachers in California was totally unacceptable, last I knew, which was quite a long time ago now. Someone who used that as some sort of reductio – “Zippy says a good Catholic can’t be a public teacher!” or whatever – is merely pointing out the pervasiveness of the problem, not actually countering any of my arguments.

    Do I know where every bright line is in every question that all of this might raise happens to be? No, I don’t. It is a big undiscovered country, and the fact that I haven’t mapped every nook and cranny of it says absolutely nothing at all about the validity of my arguments. Sometimes, even most of the time, the putative reductio reflects a lack of imagination or a lack of understanding of what I’ve actually argued. Sometimes it is a real consequence in some particular case, but still no reductio.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Someone who used that as some sort of reductio – “Zippy says a good Catholic can’t be a public teacher!” or whatever – is merely pointing out the pervasiveness of the problem, not actually countering any of my arguments.

    Unless the argument they are attempting to counter is the one concerning the alleged exaggeration of your radicalism.

    I get back to the question of political obligation, and how a Christian ought to think about it. I start from the premise that no solid reading of Scripture or Tradition can supply us with a reason to expect honorable rulers; Christianity on the whole takes a very dim view of rulership in the world. Even in historical times when Christianity compassed far more decisive political authority, rulers were frequently cruel and treacherous. And yet both St. Paul and St. Peter in their epistles instruct us to honor our rulers.

    The teaching of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 is not easy. Rarely in my life have I felt that our rulers are due honor. We can’t escape the dilemma by adverting to the particular heinousness of our political order; the Roman Empire was ruled by exceedingly rapacious and immoral men, and would soon dedicate itself to the cruel repression of the early Church. And yet political authority is to be honored, even in this fallen world.

    Where we go from there is another question.

  • Paul:
    Unless the argument they are attempting to counter is the one concerning the alleged exaggeration of your radicalism.

    I think you mean “unless they disagree that the oath is unacceptable”. That may be the source of the disagreement, but if so the pretense that the conclusion is a reductio is a red herring: the source of disagreement is over the nature of the oath.

    And yet both St. Paul and St. Peter in their epistles instruct us to honor our rulers.

    It is easy to see how that would apply if there were, say, some mandatory (but not blasphemous) loyalty oath to the King. It is hard to see how it applies in such a way as to make mandatory a ritual which by its very nature is designed to be the free expression of my actual personal endorsement of the rule I favor: my personal exercise of “consent of the governed”. If I were to view voting as a mandatory loyalty oath that would entail a self-contradiction; an attempt to coerce free consent. Acceding to it would be a form of lie, it seems to me: so we’ve gone from an act which fails a prudential test to an act that is intrinsically evil.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    “Each juror has a substantial say in the outcome; therefore voting as a juror is not an inherently idealistic act in a game-theoretic sense”

    I am puzzled. As you have informed me, game theory is pure maths so where is idealism coming into and from?

    I do not believe that having 1/10 th voice or 1/millionth voice changes anything.
    Your vote (or non-vote) must be ordered to common good. That’s all.

    I am sympathetic to your arguments but I do not see how you escape the conclusion
    ” the government is completely illegitimate and need not be obeyed”.

    You must not mind John Wright’s –he is rather fond of hurling anathemas all over and he does a lot of posts and he is unlikely to read very carefully.

  • vishmehr24 :
    I do not believe that having 1/10 th voice or 1/millionth voice changes anything.

    I explained why they are different, and why that difference pertains to whether or not there is objectively proportionate reason to act under the principle of double effect, in this post.

    I am sympathetic to your arguments but I do not see how you escape the conclusion
    ” the government is completely illegitimate and need not be obeyed”.

    A lot of people say that but nobody shows their work. To show their work, someone would have to start from “Voting is remote material cooperation with evil, and there is objectively no proportionate reason to justify it as a personal individual act in our current conditions” and show how they deduce from that that “the government is completely illegitimate and need not be obeyed in anything.”

    I think one reason nobody shows their work is that many consider the latter a necessary condition of the former. But there is no reason to think that unless voting is not what it pretends to be: unless it is a mandatory loyalty oath as opposed to freely given consent of the governed.

    So either there exists no proportionate reason to do it (my view), or it is a form of lie (if people who treat it as an obligatory loyalty oath are correct) and we shouldn’t do it because lying is intrinsically evil.

  • Proph says:

    I am sympathetic to your arguments but I do not see how you escape the conclusion
    ” the government is completely illegitimate and need not be obeyed”.

    Really, you don’t see it at all? (I think this kind of sentiment ratifies ZC’s claims regarding the ritual importance assigned to the act of voting which is radically greater than its actual, proportional, mathematical importance).

    It’s pretty simple to me. Voting is a non-mandatory act of personal endorsement of the governing consensus, which we aren’t obliged to offer and the withholding of which in itself does nothing to delegitimate that consensus, especially when you understand legitimacy as essentially entailing authority and authority as being an objective fact that exists independent of people’s perceptions of it.

    So not voting on ZC’s principles amounts, essentially, to saying “I would prefer that things not be as they are” (where “things” includes both our current government and the broader political consensus sustaining it). His preference in no way changes the fact that the current government is legitimate and authoritative, and that to disobey it requires a good deal more than personal preference, as outlined in the just war theory, not the least of which is a real substantive chance of success.

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