America’s abstainers are about to betray democracy

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On November 9th this year, tens of millions of Americans will wake up feeling absolutely indifferent to the result of their presidential election. Polling indicates currently that between 10 and 20 percent of the US electorate will vote for alternative candidates while the number not voting at all is expected to be well above the 45% who did not vote in 2012 – let alone the 43% figure for 2008, which was the lowest since 1968.

That statement is blatantly, obviously untrue. Of course those people who vote for neither Trump nor Clinton care about the result. But by not voting, they are saying essentially that they have no preference whatsoever between the two candidates. This is merely an acknowledgement of political reality: none of the alternative candidates will win and so if a voter would rather have Clinton than Trump, then they must vote for her.

Abstention is not an act of moral courage: it is the socially acceptable way of neglecting your duty as a democratic citizen. When we listen to the arguments of the abstainers, we learn how to some people the vote is a means of self-expression rather than a way of improving the world. It is this privatisation of politics that I wish to warn against.

First things first, the choice between Clinton and Trump is not the lesser of two evils. Both are equally untrustworthy, unscrupulous and careless but Hillary Clinton will not stand in front of the White House and condemn an entire ethnicity or gender. The importance of this is not just symbolic: if those who already despise Mexicans know that the most powerful person in the country shares their loathing, they may assume he does not intend to expend resources punishing hate crimes. Trump would be prevented by Congress from enacting most of his manifesto but merely with the words he says he would savage America.

Ironically it is the flamboyance with which Trump has exhibited his faults that has led many Americans to complacency. The very theme of his campaign has been what most of America identifies as his weaknesses: bigotry, erratic behaviour and vulgarity. By embracing his demons, Trump has accepted the fact that they exist and moved on. In contrast, Clinton has ignored or tried to fight accusations that she is corrupt – unlike Trump, she has declared herself implicitly guilty by playing down her stereotype whilst he has continued as if there were nothing wrong. It is for this reason that Trump, who has defrauded countless customers and taxpayers, is seen by many as the more honest candidate. People accept Trump for who he is because Trump accepts Trump for who he is – or claims to be. Thus he is an evil they know and it is this familiarity which breeds complacency. Trump and his antics have become so regular a feature of the news agenda that they are now indelibly associated with American politics: he has conditioned Americans to a new normal.

Abstention is not an act of moral courage: it is the socially acceptable way of neglecting your duty as a democratic citizen.

When recently I discussed the election with some American acquaintances, I discovered that two were planning to vote for Clinton and three were abstainers. The latter’s argument was simple enough: neither candidate was worthy of the presidency and thus they did not deserve their votes. It wasn’t that they believed Clinton would be equally bad as Trump: they just could not bring themselves to vote for her. Voting for them is primarily an internal experience, an inner journey to define their own moral code. To anyone with this mind-set, supporting Clinton is impossible because she does not meet their expectations of suitability. Certainly it is not unreasonable to expect better candidates than Hillary Clinton, but refusing to support her in order to keep out Trump is not so much conscientious objection as an utter disregard for those whom he will hurt the most.

The abstainers’ greatest victims are not politicians: they are society’s most vulnerable, as was the case in 1930s Germany. The vote is not social media, it is not a platform to express anger. It is not a gift or a plaything for the politically engaged, it is not the ultimate form of argument. The vote is a responsibility to other people to force the eradication of their potential suffering and by not using it because of some incomplete moral code millions of Americans will be complicit in a national atrocity.

Another acquaintance said they would prefer the election of Trump because four years with him as president would make America reconsider and elect a better candidate than Clinton the next time around. For them, the end justifies the means. But it is not this active disregard for the consequences of Trump which may hand him victory: it is the belief by a much larger group of people that those consequences will not be their fault. It is the idea that the vote is personal property, not a social responsibility. Trump claims to have the support of the silent majority, but if he succeeds it will be thanks to the selfish majority.