Not voting is not a ‘privilege’

I hate the term “privilege”. Its flatness allows it to facilitate spurious claims masquerading as the work of liberation, which is why it’s so overused in neoliberal social justice spaces. It promotes dangerous assertions lacking any sort of nuance whatsoever, like “third-party voting is the height of white privilege” or “refusing to vote for Clinton & risking a Trump presidency is a privileged choice.”

“Privilege” is often code for “something that someone with more (perceived) social capital than me does and I do not like, so will therefore disregard.” The charge is self-satisfying and cannot be argued against. At the same time, it ignores that there are many practices people with “privilege” partake in that they have not initiated, and many causes they adopt for which they are not remotely sole representatives.

We all know “privileged” people appropriate practices and behaviors from marginalized communities. In attributing these practices to the appropriator, we reinforce the dehumanizing power of appropriation. For instance, by ignoring that there are many Black folks who choose not to vote or to vote third-party, we erase their existence as much as any white person who presents radical Black stances as their own when we call these beliefs “white privilege”.

Sometimes, marginalized people also espouse ideas we do not like, especially if they encourage us to self-reflect and take accountability for our own participation in systems of oppression. Rather than face those frightening aspects of ourselves, aspects often rooted in our own “privileges,” attributing them to oppression allows us to dismiss challenging ideas altogether in the only way that keeps liberal moral integrity intact.

The fact is: Black, poor, queer and Indigenous people have made the strongest arguments for divesting from this two party political system, and always have. Many of us who do not occupy the margins of the margins of these spaces—especially, I have noticed, middle class Black people and white women—blame “privilege” just so we don’t have to reckon with our own privileged proximity to whiteness by engaging with them.

It is a privilege to thrust a limited political imagination that can only conceive of liberation if it involves two imperialistic parties onto others who are trying to conceive of something freer.

It is a privilege to ignore the work a person does on the other 1,460 days of every 4 years to make filling out a bubble on one day a matter of their morality.

It is a privilege to pressure those for whom violence will rain down unimpeded, regardless of who occupies the mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to do something that may benefit you but won’t do anything for them.

It is a privilege to disregard those whom both parties have no problem bombing, locking away, and dehumanizing; those in Haiti and Honduras and Palestine; the poorest of the poor, the Blackest of Black, and the margins of the margins, just so you can defend the scraps thrown to you in screeds written on thousand dollar laptops at jobs that allow you to keep from worrying if you might die tomorrow because of policies Democrats have upheld.

It is a privilege to erase the history of Black thinkers like Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, and W.E.B.  Du Bois, who have questioned the validity of voting for the liberal party for numerous well-thought out reasons, just so you can continue the lie that their thoughts are wrapped up in whiteness.

It is a privilege to call not voting a “privilege” while 5.58 million people and counting are disenfranchised because of a racist criminal justice system, and neither party intends to do anything about it.

While the masses having little impact on this country’s governance is obviously something the “privilege” of whiteness desires, divesting from the political system is not.

In neoliberal times, it is important that our government retains the façade of democracy and fairness while maintaining oppression at all costs. This is why conservatives will never own up to the true purpose of voter I.D. laws and why the question of felon voting rights is hardly taken up with any seriousness. But part of this illusion is encouraging everyone to believe they have a fair and important role to play in this system when they do not, and things of importance to gain when, likewise, they do not.

Yes, keeping some people from voting has kept many oppressive systems in place, but we must recognize how those systems have evolved to the point where you hardly have to keep someone from voting to keep their vote from having effect. The system evolves to protect itself, and privilege is the opposite of giving up on the belief it will self-rectify.

We are so used to what I call “talking up”—stepping on the backs of the marginalized to be seen and heard by systems of whiteness, that we can only think of issues on their terms. If we are to get anywhere, we have to recognize there are many different roads being debated outside of the white gaze and many different reasons why we should or shouldn’t take each one.

Yes, many white people refuse compromising their vote because their whiteness protects them either way, but the conversation cannot start and end there. Just as many, if not more, refuse to compromise their conscience because their Blackness prevents their protection whether they vote or not.


Photo: Wiki Commons

  • someone

    What an incredibly disingenuous argument. Speaking of “spurious claims masquerading as the work of liberation”, you say that “5.58 million people and counting are disenfranchised because of a racist criminal justice system, and neither party intends to do anything about it”. The very website you link to shows that Democrat Governors of VA and KY are restoring unjustly restricted felon voting rights for nearly HALF A MILLION people. President Obama has commuted a historically high number of convictions. And Republican-led legislatures are challenging these efforts at every level. The Democrat-controlled Maryland legislature is working towards restoring felon voting rights. You say neither party is working on this issue, and you are incorrect.

    Further, you say it is not worth it to vote “1,460 days of every 4 years to make filling out a bubble on one day” important. Of course not, If you do not vote in the primary, your choice will not be represented in the general election. Vote in the 2-3 elections held each year, not just when the Presidential election rolls around. Believe it or not, progressive voices are being elected across the country, including independent and nonaffiliated candidates, at local and state levels because of the work of progressive activists. Using the presidential election to justify never voting is just lazy.

    Vote, vote often, but do not leave your hope at the ballot box. Engagement is the key, and voting is just one aspect.

    • Hari Ziyad

      I was referring to “the racist criminal justice” system when I said “neither party intends to do anything about it,” which was admittedly unclear. Referring to drives against felon disenfranchisement, I used the term “serious”, as Neither party has laid any serious foundations against the idea that no “criminal” should be barred from voting, period. The 5.58 number will continue to grow into the foreseeable future. However, as I mentioned, outright disenfranchisement is less likely to appeal to those in power as neoliberalism progresses.

      And no, I did not ever say “it’s not worth it to vote…” at all, what to speak of in that passage.

    • Mob Squad NYC

      The Democratic Party is a fucking disaster.

      Wiser words have never been spoken:

      The Democrats are evil, just like the racist, bloodthirsty GOP.
      Corporate power = the white power structure. Fight it on all levels, vote if you like, I do, but never for these monsters in suits. Never.

      I vote #Green.

      And to the author, very thoughtful piece, thank you for writing it!

  • Austin Williams

    I’ve never really heard of privilege referred to in this way, an excellent article. It’s making me think.

  • WinterGriffin

    “Trying to conceive of something freer” is great, but only when reconciled with the objective realities of the political context. A third party or write in will not win the race this november, this is a fact. Clinton and Trump have incredibly different policies they have layed out clearly, this is a fact. I’m voting for Clinton in spite of her myriad problems, and the myriad problems of the party she’s running under. I’m doing this because she is the best candidate that could actually end up in the white house. Am I expected to be ashamed of being pragmatic with my political decisions? Am I the problem because I take this shit seriously? That I want to use the tiny amount of power this system gives me as an individual citizen in the most effective manner available? And is it presumptuous of me to expect the same of my fellow citizens? Are you seriously going to ask me to throw away my vote so that I can feel more radical? Because if so, that’s fucking bullshit, and frankly I think you know that.

    I’m particularly skeptical of people who balk at two party politics but only when there’s a presidential election. I do not see the two party system as ideal, but the year of an election is not the time when that’s suddenly going to change. If this matters to you you should be spending years, possibly decades building the infrastructure of a third party that’s more meaningful to you. Organize to get candidates of that party elected on school boards and local commissions and move up slowly from there. Build the image, build the brand, show that your politics can work on the ground. THEN I’d consider voting for a non-democratic candidate as anything but a protest. Because until that happens, third party candidates aren’t anything but the idea of an alternative. A story you tell yourself so you can feel like you get it in a way nobody else does. And maybe that’s all politics is to you. Maybe it has nothing to do with the actual real world consequences of who’s in power. And if that’s the case you’re nothing but a naive irresponsible narcissist.

    • Nellie D

      Nobody shamed you for voting. But nice job shaming and name calling those who actually might have legit reasons for their choices. As far as I see it, fear is a terrible reason to make a choice. Hillary is a mouthpiece for Israel, a violent war proponent, and that has a HUGE affect on Tohono O’odham lands…. Israeli corporations are planning spy towers, BP agents often plant drugs and target indigenous people…. I can go on about how her and her husbands policies have wrecked havoc on the borderlands, but most people ignore the fact that indigenous people have lived there since time immemorial. I could go in forever about each horrible policy but I’ll spare it. We live in a police state under the barrell of a gun. Checkpoints just to leave town and get supplies. And half our people on the other side don’t get to vote either. Either candidate is effing terrifying when it comes to policy decisions affecting our people. Yet, we can’t even talk about that….. nobody even knows how shitty things have gotten, and they have absolutely gotten worse under this Democratic candidacy. Spare me the shame, vote if you want… that’s cool. But I’d freaking die before advocating Hillary.

      I know you scared, and that makes you name call to the point you think you are pressuring others to vote…. but seeing that kind of shaming just makes me want to move into a remote cave somewhere and completely isolate myself far away from society.

      • Nellie D

        Do you really think calling the author of this brilliant piece a narcissist actually helps your cause??? “You’re nothing but a nieve irresponsible narcissist.” REALLY?!? You perceive yourself as socially conscious and you speak that way to people?

      • WinterGriffin

        I would characterize the decision to vote for Clinton less as voting out of fear and more as sacrificing your rook to save the queen. You could blurt out platitudes all day long about how unfair it is to have to make that choice, but that doesn’t change the game, and that doesn’t change the fact that someone who doesn’t make the obvious choice is a bad chess player. All of the values in this article are good. All of the values in your reply are good. I’m sick of values and I’m sick of people who’s only approach to politics is based entirely around symbolic personal stands. I’ve said some things that you’ve either found personally hurtful, or at least you seem to find inappropriate in this context. But those are my feelings. I can’t think of anything to call a political orientation concerned only with optics and ideological purity but narcissistic. I think not voting is irresponsible. Period. One thing I find very odd about this article is that while it makes numerous arguments that voting is basically meaningless, it’s not really a “Why you shouldn’t vote” article, but a “Stop being mean to non-voters” article. The way I see it there’s only two possibilities: Either voting is a waste of time or voting is an effective means of influencing our political system. In the latter case everyone who is able should do it, and people that don’t should get a bit of shit for it from their peers, maybe. If voting IS such a waste of time I’d like to see less about why it’s super great that some people don’t vote and more about alternative action. I mean that’s something everyone can benifit from. Even in my view, voting isn’t even the bare minimum of engagement. If voting’s such a complete waste of time the only difference between a voter and a non voter is maybe fifteen minutes of life we’ll never get back. It’s not like I don’t have time for something else.

        PS: I hope you’re not reading the end as me putting you on the spot “justify your view by doing all my research for me” it’s meant rhetorically. My point is, I wish abstainers would write more about the action they see as meaningful, and less about the one action they see as meaningless.

        • Nellie D

          Why assume it’s from a place of ideological purity and not in complete opposition to the candidate? Why insist I use my personal choice, which is supposed to be on my own volition, for what you see as the only solution? There are absolutely effective methods of pursuing change outside the electoral box. There is good reason many no longer trust the systematic approach. Questioning the ethics of an election and the problems with the choices we are given… This type of is discussion is important for a society to have – if such elections are to have any resemblance of legitimacy. We should be doing a lot more of it.

          • Nellie D

            Personally, I don’t think it’s meaningless. Whoever takes the national stage will affect our lives. Trump will be outright atrocious in his complete disregard for humanity, while Hillary will parade herself as a champion of human rights – all while selling policy and power to the highest bidding corporate lobbyist, escalating the war, and making bank for the weapons and prison industry.

            I can see we have different world views, but my greatest hope is in the people calling for effective change through demand. A long shot, maybe, but I’m just not convinced using their tools is the only means to an end.

          • WinterGriffin

            Why do I assume ideological purity? Because you either care who wins or you don’t. If they’re really the same to you that’s reason enough not to vote, though I’d add a difficult the us to support. If you do at the very least see one candidate as worse than the only reason not to vote is pride. And that’s silly. Furthermore I do think voting is the only solution… To the problem of trump trying to be president. I’m not trying to sell a miracle cure here. I absolutely agree the system needs to change fundamentally but those major shifts aren’t going to happen in 1 week, I assure you. Why can’t we vote for the better candidate now and fight for more substantial victories now and into the future? That’s really what I don’t get about your view. Just what are you accomplishing be NOT voting?

        • Ham Rove’s Ghost

          So how does the continued vilification of people who exercise their right to vote for Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, or Jill Stein fit into this picture? A significant number of HRC supporters decrying the act of ‘not voting’ are actually angrier at those who will be voting for Stein. Look at the comments section on any article about Susan Sarandon this week. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the Democratic party has spent the last 16 years fear mongering about the futility of building a genuine leftist alternative.

          Ziyad raises a very important point here: people ARE using privilege discourse to discredit nonvoters (read: those not voting Clinton) who aren’t white, middle/upper class, or male etc. And it ought to be recognized that they haven’t said anything here to shame those POC, women, or working class people who ARE voting Democrat, presumably because they understand that such a conclusion would be equally divisive and dehumanizing. Voting Clinton to prevent a national registry of Muslims is valid, but so is not voting for her because you can’t bear to vote for the person who will be bombing civilians in Yemen 3 months from now.

          • adolescentghost

            It’s not that anyone’s reason is more valid or less valid than any other, after all it’s hard to separate voting from being a very personal act. It’s the fact that we’re not talking just about any single issue. There are a lot of issues. I can’t understand why people struggle with focusing on more than one thing at a time. Of course she will be bad for Yemeni’s and civilians, and of course that is atrocious. But we are talking about healthcare, women’s reproductive rights, education, foreign policy, trade, taxation, justice, legislative signing, court appointments, diplomacy, executive action, etc etc etc. There is so much there to enumerate, so to reduce either candidate to one issue is lazy. It’s your right to decide not to participate, that’s fine, but also understand that despite the binary choice between the two parties, both have very different ideas in a lot of aspects (while they admittedly do share some, as many have pointed out). Enough so that to not acknowledge those differences is the definition of intellectual laziness.

            If you don’t like beets and strawberries because they are both red, that’s fine. But to not take into consideration that beets are a root vegetable and strawberries are a fruit, that beets have a darker color than strawberries, that beets taste much different than strawberries, that beets grow in the ground but strawberries grow on a plant, well then you haven’t really done your homework and I can’t take your decision seriously.

          • Ham Rove’s Ghost

            For the record I would absolutely vote for Clinton if I were an American, what I wouldn’t do is shame other people for not making the same choice. For your part, you didn’t address any of my points re: how Jill Stein fits into the discourse of mandatory voting, and you made an incorrect assumption about how I would vote.

            “I can’t understand why people struggle with focusing on more than one thing at a time.” So, do you honestly think that just because I only used one example, I don’t understand that this election is about more than one issue?

          • adolescentghost

            I support people voting for Jill Stein. I support Jill Stein’s ideas, and besides Bernie Sanders, she is the one candidate that I agree with the most. But the unfortunate truth is that life is harsh and unfair, and I prefer to play chess when the stakes are high. Not voting is indefensible, and I stand by that if you are a privileged white person. Not voting because you are a minority who has lost faith in the system is understandable. As a POC myself, I completely understand, and Malcom X is correct in his assessment about white liberals and the Democratic party. But let’s all agree that not only is voting just a tiny aspect of being politically active, but that there are scores of elections which we can actually make a big difference on in terms of policy, such as state and local ones.

            As far as what you mentioned with the single issue, I apologize, but I was speaking broadly. I think a lot of young Americans have a difficult time making a decision when both choices are bad. It’s like the thought experiments when you have to choose to switch the train track that will kill a couple of adults, or a bunch of children. Both are severely awful choices, but this is the world we live in. I am less comfortable letting random chance, or in this case, other voters, decide.

  • audenc

    I’ll just leave this here:

  • Merovie

    The Latin roots of the word “privilege” are “privi – private” and “lege – law.” To say someone is privileged is to say they have their own “private law” by which they live. Another way to say this is that people with REAL privilege can drink and drive and kill a pedestrian because they golf with the city district attorney and two circuit court judges. They are authority. They are your bosses, lawyers, judges, cops. They run the schools that tell your children what to think and make the rules that control your life and change them as they see fit. They can rub their poop in your hair, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.

    THAT’S privilege.