It is commonly believed that the most pertinent question to ask at election time is, "Who should I vote for?" Moreover, it is generally held that this question's answer is eternally novel, varying with the candidates, the key issues, the parties, the platforms, the state of the world, and the whims of the media.
This is nonsense.
The real question of interest is, "What is the purpose of voting?" The answer to this may compel different actions under different circumstances, but the factors to weigh in considering it are largely constant through time.
The Lisa Simpson Answer
A useful place to start might be the shallowest: Voting is the mystical bond between citizens and state that makes the state legitimate; it is a sacred right and duty that is the alpha and omega of citizenship; it is the essence of democracy, and if we get to do it every once in a while then all is right with the world.
I find it hard to engage with this understanding of the liberal-democratic state, because I have trouble believing that people actually believe it. It assumes that legitimacy derives from adherence to a certain abstract structure while ignoring actual experiences and outcomes. I would say that for overall social and political structures to be legitimate, they cannot be oppressive. The liberal-democratic states of North America are oppressive -- they oppress working people, they oppress people of colour, they oppress women, in some cases directly and in others by helping to perpetuate other structures and systems that are oppressive, both at home and abroad. These are systems that prevent action from being taken to stop people from dying of homelessness; they are systems that prevent action to allow people to have control over their own workplaces; they are systems that are consuming our natural resources at an unsustainable rate and in unsustainable ways; they have never demonstrated any more than a tactical interest in women's equality; they systematically underresource communities of colour; they are complicit in genocide of Aboriginal peoples -- etc., etc.
Of course these structures are what we have, and social change must always start from where we are and not where we would like to be, but to say that getting to tick a box once very four or five years makes the above list okay is just ridiculous. It assumes that this is the absolute best that humanity can do. I do not believe that.
Eat Your Ballot
This is the other extreme. It essentially paraphrases Emma Goldman and argues that if voting were actually useful, it would be illegal. It points out that formal democracy exists within a great number of structural constraints which so limit its ability to get at issues of core importance that you are better off dramatically illustrating the futility of electoral politics by bringing condiments of your choice, garnishing your ballot, and eating it.
I agree that the window for change in electoral politics is very narrow, and is certainly narrower now than it was 30 years ago (though still perhaps slightly wider than when Goldman was writing). I am not going to try my own half-baked version of the many analyses which illustrate these constraints, but the resources are out there. They include the way the mainstream media functions as a filter for the world, the role of money in politics, the ability of capital markets to constrain
governments, and the threat of imperialist intervention for states that deviate too much from the neoliberal ideal.
Narrow, however, is not the same as nonexistent. In a way, this answer suffers from a similar flaw to the romanticized liberal-democratic answer, in that it flows from abstraction rather from peoples' experience. Even within the narrow spectrum that is available for voting, the outcomes do make a difference. Though fundamental change will not come about this way, the suffering of people is reduced by a government that invests small amounts in social housing rather than none, or that grudgingly concedes that same-sex relationships are valid rather than vigorously opposing them, or that raises welfare rates too little rather than cutting them.
If we are in this social change game to actually make our world and our lives better, it is immoral to value adherence to abstract ideology above making the lives of ordinary people a bit better. The lesson from this response, however, is we need to be realistic and critical about what voting on its own can achieve.
It Is The Path
Generally speaking, people who give this answer acknowledge some systemic problems in the world and see the ballot as the exclusive or at least central tool for fixing them. In terms of their politics, this answer might come from the "social liberal" wing of the Liberal party in
Canada (if, indeed, that wing has not been completely amputated by Paul Martin), from the NDP, or from the Green Party. In the U.S., a Democrat or Green might also respond in this way.
Generally speaking, this answer ignores the constraints discussed under the previous answer. The classic illustration that even when progressive forces are strong they still cannot escape systemic constraints came in 1914. It was pretty clear that a major war was coming in Europe, and all of the social democratic parties of the European nations had a conference and made fiery speeches about how they would be loyal to the international working class and oppose, in their respective parliaments, the voting of money for the purposes of war. Keep in mind that this was a time when such parties got elected on platforms not promising mildly less cash-strapped social programs, the way they do today, but promising the ballot box as a path to full-scale socialism. It was also a context, in at least some of those countries, in which the power and militancy of organized labour was in an entirely different league from what we have currently in North America. Despite such favourable conditions, not a single European social democratic party voted against war funds when the time came, the Socialist International was splintered, the radicals in each party disgusted and disillusioned, and the path opened for the rise of the Communist International (with its very different take on the path to socialism) towards the end of the war.
Still, subsequent to that there was some evidence that long-term support for social democracy would slowly but surely lead to improvements. During the years after World War II there was a historic social democratic compromise in the industrialized nations. State intervention was popular, and elites were extremely keen to stave off the kind of alternative (however oppressive in its own way we know it to be now) of the Soviet Union by granting popular reforms from the social democratic wish list. This was more effective in Europe, less so in Canada, and least of all in the United States. Social democratic governments never really broke decisively with the rich states sucking resources out of the rest of the world, and left a lot to be desired in terms of race and gender issues, but generally speaking it was plausible that incremental improvements could be achieved by a long-term commitment to supporting the social democratic party in your country. I don't think I would have bought that argument even at the time, for reasons I won't go into, but it was at
With the resurgence of conservative forces starting in the 1970s, and the reshaping of the global economic and political order that is often called "neoliberalism," the promise of slow but inevitable progress by social democracy went from tenuous to laughable. The details have varied from country to country, but whether it is the Social Democrats in Germany or Labour in Britain or the NDP in Canada, no social democratic party in a First World nation has come up with a way of dealing with the constraints of the neoliberal world that is any more than a rearguard defence of past accomplishments. (The fundamental issues are similar in the rest of the world, but the space available for action even less, for all the usual reasons.) Some parties in some countries are even enthusiastic about trashing whatever progressive heritage the party once held (yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Blair).
So what this means is that there may be some value in helping a social democratic or green party get elected in terms of practical benefits for ordinary people, but it is a mistake to believe it is
Bust Up The Parties
This answer is kind of an obscure one, and I'm not sure I can do it justice. I include it because there is a small Canadian political party which advocates for this position and I have done some work in the community with members of that party, and so have had discussions with them about it. I think it goes as follows: Yes, the current electoral system is imperfect. However, one of the important mechanisms it has for constraining real democracy is the major political parties. People follow the "it's the path" argument above, invest tons of energy for progressive change in one or another party and/or buy the strategic voting argument and don't vote their conscience, and somehow fundamental change never ends up happening.
I think this is accurate as far as it goes, though it may overstate the importance of parties. The party that advocates this answer to "Why do we vote?" advises citizens of all stripes to run on their own -- run as a worker, run as a welfare recipient, run as a person with a disability. If a critical mass of people run as who they are, and a critical mass of people vote for them, that will cause a crisis that will disrupt the domination of the mainstream parties.
I think this is actually similar to the "it is the path" answer that its supporters vigorously criticize in that it gives far too much significance to what can be accomplished via the ballot box. Parties are an important mechanism for limiting what popular movements can accomplish through electoral politics, but they are hardly an exclusive or necessary one. Disrupting the party system may be useful (though, to be honest, I don't think its a very practical intermediate goal) but on its own, I think it would be easy enough for elite-responsive institutions to adapt.
I suppose in a way my answer to this question is not very satisfying to some people because it does not have (suffer from) ideological clarity. I would say this: Electoral politics exist within a fairly narrow range, and the variation possible within that range leaves many fundamental issues untouched but still has an impact on the lives of ordinary people. Voting shapes where within that range the government functions. The purpose of voting, therefore, is to try and get a government that exists towards the less oppressive end of an oppressive range, using what is bound to be a very individual mix of conscience and strategic voting.
This is obviously not a very hopeful answer to the question posed at the start of this posting. However, I maintain that if you are looking for more than provisional hope in electoral politics, then you are looking in the wrong place. What keeps this from being an answer full of despair is that social movements have the power to shift and expand, or even in some circumstances completely disrupt that narrow range of possibilities. We must vote when given the opportunity to do so, but it is the investment of energy in social movements that has the potential to create real transformative change.
What Does It Mean For 2004?
Of course I have my own individualistic way of interpreting my answer, and this would vary even among people who think roughly the same thing. In the Canadian federal election of 2004, obvioulsy I would never consider voting for the Conservatives, who are doing their best to drag Canada in the opposite direction of countries like Spain and India, which this year have gotten rid of governments that were slavish in their devotion to George Bush. I doubt I could ever bring myself to vote for the Liberal Party, either. Paul Martin seems to be doing his best to dispense with even the illusion of a progressive strand in his party, but it has never really been true. Yes, there has historically been some space for social liberalism, and a willingness to pilfer bits and pieces of the social democratic platform when necessary to get elected, but from Aboriginal genocide to the War Measures Act to the cuts in the 1995 budget, voting Liberal has never been something my conscience could take. The federal Greens appear to have taken a turn to the right, with a former Tory in charge, a complete lack of redistributive policies in their platform, and a neoliberal model not only on economic issues but even, strangely, on environmental issues. I have friends running for various left fringe parties, and if they were running in a riding that was only and always going to be Liberal or Tory I might vote for them. But the riding I get to vote in has a good chance of going NDP, and with a certain degree of distaste and all the provisos listed in the discussion above, that is who I am going to vote for.
And as for the United States, where I live but am not eligible to vote -- I'm less enthusiastic about Ralph Nader than I have been in the past, but given that John Kerry is an admitted war criminal from his Vietnam days who supported the PATRIOT Act, the Clinton gutting of welfare, and the invasion of Iraq, my conscience could not let me vote for him even for the benefit of getting rid of Bush.
But regardless of who wins in Canada or the U.S., it is active and energized social movements which will constrain their bad behaviour and force them to do useful things. Voting matters, but only so much.