This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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The example of Henry David Thoreau

Telling a patriotic American that you don’t vote is a little bit like telling a fundamentalist Christian that you don’t believe in sola scriptura. The immediate reaction is confusion, followed by moral indignation. Should you be brave enough to venture further into the conversation, you’ll be assailed with a series of arguments of an extremely common and simplistic nature, as if you just pulled your conviction out of a hat, and your decision was something you hadn’t really thought about at all. It’s like they think you only need a good one-liner in order to set you straight. In short, you’ll be treated like an idiot. In most cases, though, it won’t stop there. They will begin to accuse you, whether directly or indirectly, of negligence, or indifference, and you will get the impression that you are on trial for some perverse crime. And you are. You are on trial for not voting, and that is, to most Americans, an act of treason. Voting is, for them, something very much like a religious dogma.

The sort of encounter described above–which is not an exaggeration and faithfully describes conversations I have actually had–could have turned into a really good exchange about politics, participation, history, social issues, economics, etc. But for that to happen, the person you encounter has to respect your ideas as potentially having legitimate value, even if they disagree with you. When it comes to voting, that’s the one thing that can’t happen. The decision to not vote calls into question a conviction that is too precious to be laid open to criticism, and so the conversation devolves automatically into a matter of moral offense.

I wish it wasn’t like this. Non-voters aren’t nihilists. Non-voters don’t hate America. As a non-voter I can say that I’ve read more of the works of the Founding Fathers than most of the folks I know, and I’ve learned good things from them. I’ve taken this into account in my deliberations. My ideas about politics are the result of years of hard work, study, and observation. I’m not always right, but I have taken great care to make sure that, when I speak, I know what I’m talking about.

What I’m trying to convey is that, when I say I don’t vote, it is not that I don’t care enough to vote; it is that I care too much to vote. And I’m not alone. This section, therefore, is meant to be an aid to those like me and those who would be like me if they weren’t subjected to the nearly insurmountable social pressure to accept the status quo, no matter how unacceptable it may be.

If that sounds like you, then please know that you are not alone. Should you ever decide that you too care enough not to vote, it may also help you to know that you have predecessors in American history, and highly respected ones at that. Not only in recent decades, but even as far back as the mid-1800s. Henry David Thoreau might be the most notable example. In Civil Disobedience he wrote:

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it… What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

Thoreau’s reasoning was basically that the American citizen only has direct contact with his government in two ways: voting during elections and the payment of taxes. His method of protest was to maximize the impact of his will in these two points of contact, and in his view this meant simply not doing them. When he didn’t vote, they probably took little notice. When he refused to pay his taxes, they put him in jail.

What is unfortunate for us is that government has learned since then, and has removed one of these means of protest. Taxes can’t not be paid. If you are a wage-earner, the government gets their portion before you get yours. By the time we first see our paychecks, it is too late, and the taxes are already paid. That means there is only one of Thoreau’s options left: refuse to vote.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it? As I suggested above, most of us were taught to view voting as a pseudo-religious act, almost like a sacrament. The completed ballot is the Eucharist of democratic life. It nourishes the soul of all freedom-loving men and women. Woe to him who does not receive it with due reverence, and let him be anathema!

Isn’t it time we changed that? What if I told you that the ballot was nothing more than another piece of bureaucratic paperwork that you had to fill out during the year, like your taxes, except that the ballot also serves the purpose of a placebo, and is ultimately more for your emotional benefit than anything else? What if I told you that the ballot is a substitute for effective political action, and that a real assertion of your freedom–perhaps the only means of assertion you have left–involves tearing it to shreds?

To understand what I mean, consider what such an act represents. It is a refusal of participation. That may not sound like much, but allow me to quote from Theodore Lowi’s book, Incomplete Conquest: Governing America:

Participation is an instrument of [government] conquest because it encourages people to give their consent to being governed…Deeply embedded in people’s sense of fair play is the principle that those who play the game must accept the outcome. Those who participate in politics are similarly committed, even if they are consistently on the losing side. Why do politicians plead with everyone to get out and vote? Because voting is the simplest and easiest form of participation [of supporting the state] by masses of people. Even though it is minimal participation, it is sufficient to commit all voters to being governed, regardless of who wins.

To refuse to participate is to refuse your consent, and at the same time it removes that subtle psychological pressure to accept any outcome. By abstaining from the ballot, you may not be able to stop injustice from occurring, but you are, at least according to modern democratic theory, de-legitimizing it.

It is unfortunate that the notion of consent, which is found in the Declaration of Independence itself, gets so little real attention in actual practice. I can only assume this isn’t an accident. It sounds good in theory, but that is all it has ever been. As soon as the Revolution was over, consent could no longer have anything to do with it. The Civil War proved that much. The right of secession, which should logically follow from the principle of “government by consent,” is absolutely forbidden, under pain of death. “The consent of the governed” was a piece of rhetoric that served its purpose and then was discarded.

Nonetheless, even if you cannot explicitly or officially withdraw your consent, you can do so implicitly, which, even if it does not stop the government from doing evil, will at least absolve you of the guilt that comes from having cooperated with it by voting for it. It won’t stop them, but it will free you psychologically.

Of course, there is also the lingering fear that by abstaining you might fail to do some little good that might be accomplished along the way. For example, if some great social change is accomplished during a period when you did not vote, could it be said that you opted out of this effort? Well, not if we are to believe Thoreau.

Thoreau was for the abolition of slavery, but he also did not vote for or against it. This was because he believed that the vote usually followed social change rather than caused it. When society voted against slavery, it would be an ‘affirmation’ of a reform that had already occurred. He said:

When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote.

If a man or woman waits for issues like these to appear on the ballot. He will have waited too long. The ‘official’ mechanisms of social change are simply too slow to be taken into account when it comes to real, far-reaching change. That is why Thoreau thought that the best way to defeat slavery was not to dissolve the union but for citizens to dissolve “the union between themselves and the State–and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury.”

Ultimately, the insight we can draw from Thoreau is that we cannot, and should not, wait for the majority. Truth does not depend on the majority, and neither should the individual. In Thoreau’s words: “[Any] man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

This brings us to a final consideration before we move on. There are really two aspects to voting, and it is important to look at them separately in order to understand why you do what you do. First, there is the obvious external aspect: what does your vote do to the world? But second, there is the more subtle, internal aspect: what does your vote do to you?

Does casting your vote make the world a better place?

Does casting your vote make you a better person?

The answer to both these questions needs to be “yes.” If one is yes and the other is no, then something is wrong. What I mean is, you should never have to compromise your dignity in order to make the world a better place, and you should never have to be unjust toward the world in order to protect your dignity.

The reason I say this is because the internal and the external are two sides of the same coin. If you surrender your dignity, in a very real way you have been unjust to the world of humanity; and if you are unjust to others you are truly hurting yourself, because the humanity you disrespect in others is a humanity that you have in common with them. Human dignity is a shared good, as much public as it is private.

If this is all sounding a bit wishy-washy, let me suggest a different tack. Look at people in general. What happens to them when they participate in election culture? Do they become better or worse? Do they rise to the height of human dignity, or is it more often a disgusting affair where the grossest vices are not only acted out but condoned, usually “for the sake of the greater good”?

In my experience, participation in democracy through voting degrades people. Not just the voters, but everyone. You, me, and especially the politicians who personify the system. It has always been this way, if we are to believe Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed that in America all those who participate in politics end up taking on the characteristics of the “courtier”:

Democratic republics place the spirit of a court within the reach of a great number of citizens and allow it to spread through all social classes at once. That is one of the most serious criticisms that can be made against them… Among the huge throng of those pursuing a political career in the United States, I saw very few men who displayed that manly openness, that male independence of thought, which has often distinguished Americans in previous times and which, wherever it is found, is virtually the most marked characteristic of great men… It is true that American courtiers never say: ‘Sire,’ or ‘Your Majesty,’ as if this difference was of great importance, but they do constantly speak of the natural enlightenment of their master. They do not seek to question which is the most admirable of the prince’s virtues for they convince him that he has every virtue without his having acquired them and without, so to speak, desiring them. They do not give him their wives or daughters for him kindly to raise them to the position of his mistresses but, in sacrificing their opinions to him, they prostitute themselves.[1]

With that, I’ll simply say again: What does voting do to you? Do you come out the other end more dignified, or do you come out degraded, frustrated, disappointed, patronized, and servile?

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin, 2003), 1.2.7.

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