I am routinely told that I am a terrible person. The criticism is not far wrong. More recently, the criticism is that I didn’t vote properly and have thus let down a thousand generations of noble strugglers who died for my right to vote.
Participating in democracy means enduring a plethora of micro-coercions. This is legitimate. We are legitimate. What you are doing is legitimate. Why is it legitimate? Because it is moral. You are participating. This is dialogue. This is discourse. Democracy. Voting. Ballots.
Democratic legitimacy relies upon the Absurd. We have to collectively accept an amazing amount of nonsense in order to think that power is legitimate and moral. The moment you try to interrogate those foundations, you quickly discover how flimsy and pathetic they are.
I recently had a left wing, progressive journalist try to explain to me that constitutions are based on consent and that Indigenous Australians have consented to being governed by the constitution. This rather surprising result is explicable only if you don’t question the Absurd structures of power: a constitutional democracy relies upon the consent of the governed; we live in a constitutional democracy; therefore everybody being governed has consented to this.
It’s for this reason that Conservatism is the best political ideology.
Needless to say, systemically oppressed people do not consent to being governed. Consent suggests that there was an alternative available. Systemically oppressed people are coerced into participating.
That last sentence might be read to suggest that only systemically oppressed people are coerced into participating. That’s not true, but their coercion is the most obvious and difficult to justify. If you agree that systemically oppressed people are coerced into participating, then it is easier to see that everybody is coerced.
But you might not agree. You might be really, really committed to the idea – as the progressive journalist was – that we’re all governed by consent. Ideological commitments run deep.
In the case of the systemically oppressed, the most obvious coercions are in the form of physical violence. If you do not participate in civilised society, we will ask the police and the courts to deal with you.
Similarly, we can see the impacts of economic coercion. If you do not behave, we will cancel your welfare, kick you out of housing, restrict your ability to drive, &c.
Finally, and most insidiously, we have cultural coercion. If you want to have access to the things you need, we need you to perform in particular ways and we need you to believe particular things.
The more privileged you are, the more you can escape these forms of coercion. I’m unlikely to be physically accosted by the State. In my late teens, I’d be sent to deal with the fuzz when we were drinking in the park. Why? Because my accent, demeanour, and skin colour meant that I was least likely to encounter problems.
I’m in a position where I can escape most forms of economic coercion. I don’t really have to worry too much about rent or where my next meal is coming from. I have the luxury of being able to pick and choose what sort of work I’ll take on.
Cultural coercion, on the other hand, I cannot escape. I dress conventionally in order to navigate the social systems of employment. I treat insufferable people with respect because I’ve been taught that insubordination is poor behaviour. I make sure my face is visible to all the security cameras. I act in ways that make everybody else feel comfortable so that society as a whole can function.
The rhetoric about ‘democratic duty’ and ‘suffragettes suffering so that you can vote’ are all ways that we are coerced into feeling an obligation to behave a particular way.
One place that the conservative and the radical might disagree is whether or not coercion can be good. So we have cultural and social norms that coerce us into behaving in particular ways – for example, not damaging other people’s property. I might think this is a good form of coercion; the radical might disagree for good reasons about the nature of property. I might think that public visibility is a good thing; the radical might argue that being coerced out of anonymity is bad for society.
But here I think the conservative and the radical might agree that being coerced into supporting a political party is not necessarily a good thing.
Compulsory voting (a good thing, by the way) means that we are compelled to vote. It forces political parties to ensure that they take into consideration the whole electorate and not just the minority who is able to be mobilised. Having the option of being able to cast an invalid vote deliberately also signals to political parties the need to engage with the electorate. Voters need to show up and be heard, but they do not need to consent to supporting a party or any party.
That’s important. I live in an electorate where there was no option but to return an ALP candidate. As such, the Coalition has no incentive to invest in good candidates to oppose the incumbents. As such, my electorate has the highest rate of deliberately invalid votes. If that rate increases, there emerges an incentive for the political parties to propose higher quality candidates: instead of trying to get a swing from one political party to another, they need to secure the votes of people who are saying that they don’t like any of the candidates.
We should not allow the privileged – and it’s always the most insufferably privileged – to reinforce the development of a norm that we’re morally obliged to cast a valid vote. When we do that, we take away from others one of the most important democratic rights: exit.