The Protest of Nothing

Burning a registration card, circulated on Facebook with great enthusiasm.

Michael Moore states the case, bluntly and eloquently why although Obama may have disappointed most of us on the left, the fatalism of sitting out the vote this time makes no sense.  Moore’s point underscores the fact that we need to use every tool in the box this time, which reminds me of a post I recently  saw on Facebook  showing someone burning a voter registration card.  Like a 1920’s Dadaist’s wet dream; the Protest of Nothing.

In the 60’s, young men burned their draft cards. Draft cards mandated by law that men had to go to war to suffer unimaginable horrors or death, wherein refusal warranted direct jail time. Burning draft cards represented an exercise of the belief that no state supersedes the laws of humanity and that justice is suborned when citizens refuse to stand up.  Refusal to participate in the draft constituted an act of civil disobedience that represented not simply an individual “choice” but a popular mandate that society take a deeper look at the machinery of capitalist oppression.

On the other hand, what act of oppression does burning a voter card represent again?  Let’s break this down to the simplest terms possible.  Democracy demands participation.  Like an engine; the machine parts cannot move without the force of energy pushing against them.  Thus, democracy will not activate without the forces of the citizens pushing against one idea or another; creating the tension that spurns beneficial social structure.   So basically if one group wants effective change with the existing system, engaging with that system is mandatory.

Our culture is replete with demands to doubt the “system”, to feel disengaged and uncounted.  Mass media inundates people with the message that consumption equals democratic participation and that celebration of nationalistic barbarism equals patriotic service.  We as a culture are told repeatedly that watching a news program, engaging in conversations on the internet, all equal democratic participation.  The drive to consume is also pushed as a patriotic duty (remember Bush the Younger extolling people to get happy and go shopping when gas prices rose?) and the result of longer times engaged in making money to survive and pro-war hyper nationalism do not serve the interests of democracy.

They do though serve the interests of the owners of production, of the marketers and sellers of the machinery of war and endless meaningless junk that serves to distract the electorate.  If one feels satisfied talking on Facebook or watching the latest reports on CNN, then what else is there to do? Who’s got the time anyway?

While protests and other acts of defiance against unjust laws or systems have their place, we cannot discount the easiest process available in this country; the voting booth.  The anti-Obama forces proved this in 2010 when across the country people came out to elect far-right state legislatures as an act of protest against the election of a black president.  Even with a large number of people standing down in 2008, Obama’s message, that the right loves to sneer at, the message of “Hope and Change” caused a momentous move in this country.  —- people stood up and said they wanted change and expressed it through the voting booth. Now, whether Obama stood acted on those promises certainly is another issue and one that requires voter awareness and engagement for critical action.

Many alternative candidates and parties exist within our democracy, many theories, not all of them coming from the pro-plutocracy right wing.  But knowing about alternative parties and candidates requires engagement within the process.  It requires the effort to research the issues, talk to people about the issues, take the time to attend meetings and most of all, support those issues and candidates at the voting booth.

What is the plan with those who refuse to engage? Do they have a larger message or have they completely capitulated all their decision making capacity to those who will get up and engage with the process on all fronts?  Most importantly, do those who step in the vacuum have our best interests at heart?  Would it have been smarter to keep moving forward, no matter how slow, instead of allowing us to slip back ten steps?  While there exists an argument for deconstruction, within a social system where the free press, the voting booth and free speech remain, there exists the possibility for transformation through reformation.

What’s really astounding with those who refuse to vote as some form of protest is the apparent failure to understand that one can in fact participate in democracy, rebel against the present system, protest, engage and go and vote for the best candidate offered all at the same time!  It appears as though the right has this concept down pretty well; theocrats, outright fascists and plutocrats who express nothing but contempt for the democratic process know full well that participation within is their best hope of shaping this country into their dream state.  So far, they’ve been going at a pretty good clip forward thanks to low voter participation rates.

Democracy demands engagement for success.  Opting out is not an option; you’ve got skin in the game whether you like it or not.  Might as well go pull that lever.  If you want to change or overthrow it, better to study it and to whatever extent possible, move within it and outside it.  Only then can one begin to have some understanding of the system in order to fashion a better one.

Also, as Michael Moore points out, there’s no lack of justifiable anger to meet out to both political parties, but there is no reason to let the truck slide off the cliff and disintegrate into a burned heap.  What have you to work with then?  Nihilism was never considered a way to get anywhere but to nothing.  If nothing came out of doing nothing this election or any election cycle, then we’d have nothing to worry about.  Obama has been no prize for those seeking justice; Gitmo, drone attacks, his appeal of the court’s over-ruling the NDAA indefinite detentions.  His shameless refusal to use the bully pulpit and the Democrat’s own contradictory hold on power that often undermines the very values they claim to support; none of that should go unnoticed.

But to sit out and hand the reins over the the mad kings of the GOP just makes no sense.   The platform offered by the Republican party threatens to put working people into a tailspin faster than anything since the days before the New Deal or possibly even the days before the Civil War.  They threaten with their deep cuts in basic social programs, which are social welfare programs — not entitlements, because they are based on the idea that the social welfare is everyone’s welfare.  In a just society  there is no parsing of social well being and health, there is no judgment of who is entitled to not starve, who is entitled to not die a long, slow death by preventable disease. While most of America goes on with their lives, content to watch the political process as if they were viewers of some show they have no real connection to.  The GOP and often the Democrats as well, serve the interests of global capital and imperial power while using their corporate owned media to deceive and disarm the public and keep them away from the voting booth in every way possible.

So is burning a voter registration card an act of defiance against this oppressive corporate state?  No.  By committing an act that breaks no laws and requires no great courage to perform, sends no message to the public except that some people have no problem dropping out and leaving the hard work to others and leaves open a giant hole that others who have the money and will make the time, will eagerly fill.

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10 thoughts on “The Protest of Nothing

  1. terrilee says:

    You sure spent a lot of time and effort writing about ‘nothing’. When something doesn’t matter to me, I just ignore it.

    Interestingly, the show about ‘nothing’ — SEINFIELD — grossed 2.7 million in reruns alone.Sometimes ‘nothing’ is ‘something’, eh?

    • Oh yes, but the people watched — they participated about the nothing, causing the gross numbers to rise eh? So it seems that those watching the nothing on Seinfeld participating in enriching those involved in the show.

      Not unlike those who refuse to vote as a protest of a system they say is rigged to benefit the few. By not participating those few get all thrilled too. Now that really taught them something didn’t it?

      • terrilee says:

        Hey there! Did you know that Election Boycotting is a common practice world wide? It’s about time that the US gets into the act and in 2012 it is. This is the year to organize the Election Dissenters — which we are. Our official site is


        “Palestinians should refuse to participate in elections while public freedoms are suppressed, former minister and detainee Wasfi Qabha said Tuesday.”

        IN EGYPT

        “Some activists boycotted the election, calling it illegitimate or claiming that the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) would rig it in favour of Mr Shafiq.”

        IN BELARUS

        “One off-limit subject is the call for an election boycott. RWB says: “Those who mention the boycott, such as opposition groups on social networks, are immediately sanctioned.”

        IN ASIA

        “The Democratic United Party pushed ahead with its second primary vote in the southeastern city of Ulsan on Sunday despite the boycott of the election by three of the four contenders.”

        IN JORDAN

        “The Islamic Action Front political party in Jordan has denied that it has pledged to review its position on an election boycott.”

        IN AFRICA

        “Namibia: NDP Threatens to Boycott Sibbinda Election”

        IN LIBYA

        “Libyan Tabu tribe threatens election boycott.”

        IN MOROCCO

        “Morocco: Stop Harassing Election Boycott Advocates”

        And now in the US, too!

        And, Progressive Action – “You’ve got to stop voting!”

      • The issues faced in those countries do not in anyway replicate what we suffer in America and in fact should be a loud warning call of what kind of system we’ll be under if we refuse to vote here.

        Also, didn’t your mama tell you that just because some folks want to jump off the bridge, you shouldn’t go and do it too?

      • More thoughts..I’d just like to use an analogy as someone who worked in the building trades for a bit, I got to thinking of building a house. It has a lot of processes involved and how you have to work to build depends on many existing factors as well. Is the ground level? Is there already a structure to start with and so restoration or improvement is in order?

        Now, let’s take democracy. If we all didn’t vote, then who pray tell would make sure they found the time to get to the polls? What group would that be? Possibly those who don’t want what the majority wants? Wow, that’s like when a law you didn’t really like got suddenly repealed, but to keep it in place, you have to click a box that says “Yes” and puts people in government to make sure you get other bad laws repealed and cool ones you like put in place.

        So, when presumably all those people that refuse to be commodities of capital but stand up for themselves as workers, mothers, children, family.. hell members of the human race saw that the overlords were taking over? Should they just throw up their hands and go home?

        You see, in other countries whose people live under true tyranny, participating in a anything close to a real election is about as far off as the moon. Where people are imprisoned, disappeared and slaughtered daily, they are overworked, under paid or never paid and living in conditions no American could imagine (often supported by the US for years).

        So they don’t really have a foundation, they don’t have even the pretense of a duly elected body, they have no means of redress or comfort for the most basic necessities. So let’s say that’s going to be a whole-house build with possibly some earth work involved. So, a lot more effort and time required.

        But say in America, where there exists a semi-functional governmental body, where people are used to voting and participation, where we have institutions such as public ed and so on. I could go on, but let’s just go back to the analogy.

        Not voting in America amounts to allowing the complete destruction, demolition and violent ruin of each and every right we as citizens have. It makes no sense, it assumes that not-participating will wake up whom exactly? The way I understood democracy works, the ones responsible for checking the system are the ones responsible for changing it. I’d rather work with what we have and transform from the pillars of ideal, active democracy in whatever form that may take. I’m not all for long, drawn-out suffering, destruction and death just to get where we are now.

  2. terrilee says:

    And they weren’t burning voter ID cards right next to Obama headquarters in ’08………….the political climate has shifted, as is evident by the action by Occupy Chicago called for by The Call to Boycott the 2012 Election!

    • That would be all great if there was evidence of a greater plan to take place once the plutocrats have a firmer hold on the system and have been given the power to completely turn the country into fascist state. Nothing excites so many of us more than envisioning the day when due to lack of voter participation those left in state legislatures and Congress will see to it to destroy whatever rights anyone thinks of enjoying today.

      Just baffles the mind why one wants to start the revolution by retracing their steps and starting at zero instead of revolutionizing starting at this point.

  3. jeff armstrong says:

    Speaking of cliches, how about fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
    Voting for Obama a second time would legitimize his war on the Bill of Rights and international law. If he is our last bulwark against fascism, we might as well admit defeat and report to the camps. Given the similarity of his rival and the exclusion of opposition parties from the electoral process, the only meaningful way to resist is to withhold our consent to what is at best an undemocratic and increasingly repressive system by not voting for president.

    • Which brings up the question again, if you are going to surrender completely to the worst of the elements, then is there a plan when those elements take complete control? Or is it better to work with what we have to force change on all fronts, using all tools. The argument for boycotting the vote has validity on the ideal front, but in reality, it just seems to be surrendering to the very worst and hoping for the best.

      If there was a strong alternative movement in this country ready to offer an alternative participation and road to justice, sure, but right now that hasn’t completely formed yet. And again, if you think the Democrats are only a light shade variable from the Republicans then I’d suggest you haven’t been paying attention.

      Speaking of Democrats, this non-participation also assumes that there exists nothing salvageable within the Democratic party or that there wouldn’t be allies for forming a new party. Hate to see the baby thrown out with the dishwater.

  4. […] Obama and Mitt Romney, in response to Katie Talbert’s opinion piece, The Protest of Nothing:  There’s been a lot of buzz about an election boycott this year.  Over the past few months, […]

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