Twice in my adult life I chose not to vote in a general election, and on a third occasion, I almost didn’t vote, only doing so with great reluctance at the last minute.
Each time my reason for not voting (or, in the latter case, almost not voting), was the same: I had become convinced that both candidates were bad, or that there was not sufficient difference between them to make it worth my while to take a side.
And each time I was completely, terribly wrong. In 1968 I refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey; the winner, Richard Nixon, presided over a pointless extension of the Vietnam War that cost 28,000 American lives and probably hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives. He also mired the White House in such a cesspool of corruption and chicanery that the reputation of America’s system of government has still not fully recovered.
The next time I chose not to vote was when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter. As a longtime California resident, I knew all the havoc that Reagan had wreaked on that state, knew how his sunny smile masked a callous indifference to human rights and liberties and a dogged determination to dismantle the New Deal, that bit of social engineering cobbled together as a response to the Great Depression that transformed and bettered the lives of millions of Americans.
But I just didn’t like Jimmy Carter, and in my stubbornness and youthful certitude, refused to consider that Reagan might be (as he proved to be) infinitely worse.
In the year 2000, I felt similarly about Al Gore, only dragging myself to the polls at the last minute, with extreme reluctance, because even in my muddle-headed state at the time, I had an inkling that George Bush might spell serious trouble.
We know how that turned out. Bush became the worst president of the modern era, possibly the worst ever. It was only because the government he inherited was in relatively good shape, the budget balanced, the economy thriving, that the damage he inflicted was not even worse.
But Bush’s wildly incompetent mismanagement and malfeasance—on a scale, I think history buffs would agree—comparable to that of the latter-day Roman emperors—took our country close to the brink of collapse. And because of the globally interconnected age we live in, it would have taken a large part of the world with it.
We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. In fact, even after the gradual stabilization that has taken place during the past four years, I still wouldn’t rate our chances of avoiding an economic and societal meltdown at much better than 50-50. Bush’s bankrupting the national treasury to pay for giant tax cuts for millionaires and two insanely expensive and pointless wars was, again, on a par with the follies the sealed the fate of ancient Rome.
And that is precisely why this year’s election is so vital. In a normal year, in a year when our finances and our social structure were on a sound footing, we could afford four or maybe even eight years of a cynical, mercenary buffoon like Mitt Romney. We’ve had presidents like him before—Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover come to mind—and survived.
But our position is far more precarious now, very likely as precarious as it’s ever been. Romney’s plan to apply the Bain Capital model to government—ruthless downsizing and outsourcing, looting the national pension system (aka Social Security and Medicare), and skimming off huge profits for a handful of the best-connected—would be stupid and brutal at any time, but in an economy as fragile as ours, it would be fatal.
I can’t say that strongly enough: if Mitt Romney gets his hands on our government, I think it’s unlikely that our system as we’ve known it will survive. It’s not just political rhetoric to point out that his so-called economic plan is a poisonous fantasy; any rational economist will acknowledge that it is mathematically impossible to accomplish his goals without massively impoverishing the working and middle classes and/or massively expanding an already almost unmanageable debt.
What does this mean for the average American? Very possibly a total wipe-out. It’s not just a matter of losing your health insurance—Romney has already promised millions of you will do that—or getting stuck with lower pay and poorer working conditions.
I’m talking about total collapse, where your money—unless, of course, you were smart enough to stash a few hundred million in offshore accounts—could become literally worthless, where a government stripped of its resources and income by the avarice of Romney and their ilk will no longer be able to provide you with the most fundamental of services.
Yes, I know that sound dramatic and alarmist, and I hope and pray that I’m wrong. But I’ve been following and studying politics and economics and history on at least an avocational level for some 50 years now. I’m no professor, no certified expert, but I can hold my own on these subjects, and everything I’ve learned leads me to believe that yes, the situation is indeed that dire.
I’m voting for Barack Obama. In fact, I already have, and I urge every single American who cares at all about the future of this country and this planet to do the same. You don’t have to agree with everything he says or does—I certainly don’t—and you don’t even have to like the guy. But it’s the least you can do, the bare minimum, to help save our country from falling into the hands of people who, whether from greed, megalomania, or sheer, bloody ignorance, might very well destroy it.
Now there are those of you—some of you are even my good friends—who will cling to nostrums like “A pox on both their houses” or “No matter who you vote for, the government wins.” I say to you, in the strongest possible terms, please consider that it may be time, at least for now, to put aside that kind of thinking.
In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay condemning British pacifists who refused to participate in the war effort to defend Britain against a Nazi invasion. He said, in no uncertain words, that under the conditions existing at that time, pacifism was “objectively pro-Fascist.” You could not remain aloof from the struggle, he argued, as long as there was no realistic option to either a British or a Nazi triumph.
Similarly you can not remain aloof from the present struggle to prevent the devastation that Mitt Romney and his backers would unleash on this country. You can trumpet your third parties or your principled abstinence from electoral politics as some sort of moral stance, but in fact—and this is, as Orwell put it, “elementary common sense”—you are voting for Mitt Romney just as effectively as any Tea Party fanatic or theocracy-fancying fundamentalist.
You can’t wriggle out of this one. The Greens aren’t going to win this election. Nor are the Libertarians, nor a coalition of anarcho-syndicalist communes. Beginning November 7, this country will either be in the hands of fanatics, criminals and crazy people, or it will remain in the hands of those who have demonstrated at least some degree of sanity and some degree of responsibility to the people who elected them.
So what is the moral case for not voting? This year, there is none. Not just for yourselves, but for your children, for the future of this flawed but still inspiring experiment in democracy, please, I beg of you, drag yourself to the polls. Regardless of whether you do so with a song in your heart or with one hand firmly holding your nose, it’s the least you can do. I believe—as passionately as I’ve ever believed anything—that this is one time when failing to act is a luxury none of us can afford.