Voting as it is practiced under U.S. “democracy” is a process by which eligible people are obligated to choose between narrowly determined policies and politicians. All youth under the age of 18, convicted felons, undocumented folks (including permanent residents), citizens in U.S. territories (like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam) and those the state deems “mentally incompetent” are ineligible to vote.
In the 2020 election, there was much at stake, but there is an important distinction to make between a reason to vote and a moral imperative to vote. For a lot of people, Joe Biden’s campaign boils down to “I’m not Trump,” and a choice for the lesser evil only serves to compromise voters’ true ideals. Compromise is not a politic that is equally accessible to all.
Perhaps representation in American politics has always been fiction, a story to propagate the myth of political freedom. Firstly, even the most faithful of politicians couldn’t possibly represent their constituency. As the U.S. becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, constituencies become more heterogeneous. It’s less than likely that any legislation could be crafted to serve everyone’s interests.
Secondly, we shouldn’t assume that politicians even care about the concerns of their constituents. Political scientist Michael Barber conducted an empirical study of political representation within the United States Senate, finding that Senators’ preferences diverge dramatically from the preferences of the average voter in their state. In fact, the differences are so dramatic that it’s almost as if citizens were randomly assigned to a Senator. Yet, in spite of all the evidence that elected officials neither know nor care about the preferences of voters, we are still told that our democratic government is representative.
Long-term data shows that working families, marginalized populations and those living in poverty do not benefit from either party’s victory. This is evident due to the rise of income inequality in the U.S., which has been inexorable for over 40 years no matter which party was in charge. In fact, there is almost no correlation between income inequality and partisan affiliation.
Mass incarceration has been a thoroughly bipartisan issue but still remains at disproportionately high levels. Incarceration rates skyrocketed under Reagan, H.W. Bush and Clinton, and declined under Obama. Whether insured or uninsured, overall access to healthcare also hasn’t been advanced by either party over the years. Energy-related carbon emissions were about the same under Obama as they were under Bush, and although Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Obama fought to keep its accords voluntary and watered it down to a level where it could never reverse climate damages.
You could weigh these harms against each other, but at what point does choosing one harm over another become morally reprehensible? Differences in violent policies should not be weighed against one another in political decisions. Barack Obama’s presidency resulted in mass deportations (more than any other president), bailed out banks and auto companies on the backs of the working class and massively expanded drone warfare in Afghanistan.
Supposedly, Obama was the lesser of two evils. Similarly, you could argue that if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election over Donald Trump, hundreds of thousands of Americans may not have died due to COVID-19. You could also argue that the detention camps at the border would be as prolific under a Clinton administration. Thus, we see the problem with harm reduction: How can you morally justify evaluating lives lost as if they are merely statistics?
Harm reduction relies on the view that each individual election is held in isolation and evaluation of the pros and cons for each candidate; but a closer look at the issues at stake reveals this isn’t a useful tactic. For many, voting becomes democratic participation in their own oppression, and voting as harm reduction is a politic that keeps them at the mercy of their oppressors.