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Ideological Hegemony: the Tragic Reason Why People Don't Vote

"Ideological hegemony is the process by which the exploited come to view the world through a conceptual framework provided to them by their exploiters." - Kevin A. Carson
By Tim Hjersted /
Oct 18, 2018
4.3 ·
Ideological Hegemony: the Tragic Reason Why People Don't Vote

I believe deep, systemic change is necessary to solve the problems humanity faces. I also believe that voting is a flawed but important tool we have to alter the terrain upon which our year-round activism is based. I don't believe we have to choose between voting and systemic activism - ideally, we should all do both.

But currently, a majority of people don't vote and they don't engage in regular activism either. Given this reality, it would certainly help if more people decided to become activists at least one day of the year. But ask someone why they don't vote and they'll often have strong beliefs that help explain why:

"Politicians are selected not elected."
"The game is rigged."
"Voting doesn't change anything."
"Voting for the lesser evil is still evil."
"If you think something will change if you vote for a different politician then you might not understand how the system works..."

It was this last statement, shared in a comment thread shortly before the 2016 election, that inspired me to write this response:

"You know, I used to think a similar way, but lately, I've come to see how your statement represents the ideology of our oppressors. Their greatest weapon is to get us to think these demobilizing thoughts (the thoughts which serve and maintain the status quo) are our own.

Voting alone won't solve all our problems, you're right, but when combined with mass movements, collective action, and year-round, robust activist organizing, our efforts are collectively powerful.

It's quite a coup that our oppressors have gotten us to believe exactly what we need to believe to maintain our own oppression - that the one mechanism which can legally threaten their legitimacy, we believe holds no power.

Think about that. 

Roughly 60% of the United States doesn't vote because they believe it's pointless.

The one legally binding mechanism that threatens their power - we believe holds no power.

That's ideological hegemony. That's how the ruling elite rule this country; we have internalized the thoughts which uphold our own oppression.

If the 60% of people who believe voting and other forms of activism are pointless suddenly threw off those chains of powerlessness and started to get engaged, not just on election day, but every week... you can bet that this country would see a revolution unseen in the history of the world.

But first, we have to throw off those chains - the thoughts in our own heads - that tell us that we are powerless and ineffectual against the ruling powers that be."

Now, if you're pretty well convinced that voting is pointless, I wouldn't expect the few paragraphs above to be persuasive. I've also left out the most important bit that explains what I mean, so if you're still interested in this train of thought, let's dive a little deeper. 

In the video below, Noam Chomsky talks about the history of the people's struggle against the corporate powers which rule their working lives and which also control the state. 

"Business leaders and elite intellectuals recognized that the public had won enough rights so that they can't be controlled by force, so it would be necessary to turn to control of attitudes and opinions.

...So you had to create a mood of anti-politics, which leaves a very powerful interventionist state but makes people hate the federal government, and the reason to make people hate the federal government is it has a defect. But the things that they're worried about is not what's bad. They're worried about what's good. The government has a defect; namely it's potentially influenceable by the population. Now private corporations don't have that defect. Nothing you can say about the GE management. But you can do something about federal government policies. And that defect, for good Madisonian reasons, has to be gotten rid of. So they have to create a mood of anti-politics, where everything is blamed on the federal government, and you don't notice the real power behind it. You're not supposed to read the Fortune 500 issue." - Noam Chomsky @ 3:58- Noam Chomsky



Noam Chomsky's analysis is spot on here. The government's primary defect is that all of its legitimacy rests on the notion that the government is supposed to represent the people. So it offers us voting and elections to maintain its legitimacy because it can't rule straight up as an authoritarian force. It has to rule by covert means - giving the public a means to influence the government, but covertly doing everything it can to sway the elections in their favor. 

Non-voters have a lot of favorite sayings, which explain why they don't vote, some of which I mentioned above, but the one I hear most is a quote from Emma Goldman, who said, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."

This is admittedly a satisfying quote - it's got a great ring to it - but it actually ignores the political realities of the last century.

For one, during Goldman's time, voting *was* illegal for women up to 1920 and numerous laws kept African Americans from voting up until 1965!

"Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote."

Activist movements had to fight pretty damn hard to win the right to vote. This led the establishment to develop dozens of new and more sophisticated methods to legally and more covertly prevent or discourage people from voting.

Emma Goldman was a brilliant thinker in many ways, but on this point, she got it wrong. If making voting illegal or difficult is proof that elections do matter, then the evidence heavily supports the position that it does.

Business and political elites would certainly love to rule the country without the people getting in the way, but ruling America as an authoritarian dictatorship isn't realistically feasible. Every government rests on legitimacy. That's why most dictatorships sooner or later get overthrown in popular uprisings. The smart way to rule is to market the system as fundamentally democratic while swaying outcomes via "soft power" measures and more sophisticated propaganda techniques. 

Today, that system is quite elaborate and sometimes contradictory. There are now dozens of ways that the establishment attempts to tip the scales in their favor. Gerrymandering districts. Voter ID requirements. Early voting cuts. New requirements to register to vote. Limits on mail-in ballots. Provisional and absentee voting changes. Polling place closures. Voter roll purges. Citizens United. Super PACs. Establishment media. Suppressing third parties. Making everyone that goes to prison ineligible during their incarceration and 2 years after they're released. Voter misinformation at the polls. Electronic voter fraud. Restricting the available candidates to only options the establishment deems acceptable (Obama and Hillary in 2008 was one such false choice, as was Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 - with either pick being essentially favorable to the establishment).

One example of a contradictory strategy is revealed by making government so obviously dysfunctional and broken with endless bickering and gridlock that people look at the system as hopelessly broken. The more dysfunctional government appears, the more people will want to avoid politics like the plague - and yet, despite this level of dysfunction, the government is highly functional when it comes to bolstering corporate welfare, tax breaks for the rich, and maintaining a bloated defense budget which feeds our tax dollars into the coffers of the defense industry. The government is working great when you consider who owns it and who benefits from this state of affairs. 

Given all of these strategies, which the public is becoming more and more aware of, it's not surprising that so many people say the game is rigged and elections are pointless. But it's that final belief that stands as the ruling elite's greatest coup de grace. Apathy, disgust, and despair in the face of such injustice is their ultimate weapon. 

It's their greatest weapon because we cherish this belief as a badge of honor - as proof that we're awake to the utter corruption of our political system, and we're not so naive or foolish to believe that voting could change anything. It's our own belief in the futility of voting that protects the state against its primary defect. 

When we believe that "elections are pointless," "voting never makes a difference," "the game is rigged," "candidates are selected not elected" or that "if voting changed anything they'd make it illegal," it's very tempting to try to fit any new political developments into our existing ideology.

A promising candidate may run for office and we may write off their campaign without a second thought because that may be less painful than investing our efforts into something and then feeling disappointed if they lose.

Every cynic was once an idealist who has grown defenses around their heart to avoid the pain of having their hopes dashed yet again. But fighting this fight isn't about offering us security. Fighting this fight is about being vulnerable and courageous in the face of uncertainty.

We fight not because we can be certain we'll win, but because our hearts tell us it is right. We are sick of our apathy, we are sick of the oppressors that live inside our heads telling us what is and is not possible. We know there's no guarantee our collective efforts will be successful. But it's assured that if enough of us believe we can't win, and we stay home, we'll lose. And if enough of us believe we can win, and we get out and vote and get involved in activism on a regular basis, we'll win. It's that simple. 

Whether our oppressors continue to rule over us is entirely up to whether we choose to accept the oppressive thoughts inside our head or reject them. It comes down to our choice to choose action over apathy - not just on election day, but all year round.

That last part is key because as important as voting can be (depending on the specifics), voting on election day is only part of a much larger strategy that depends most of all on our day-to-day activism and movement building beyond, within, and around the sphere of electoral politics.

Voting by itself never was nor ever will be a silver bullet - but when combined with sustained activist organizing and movement building, we possess a power that is truly threatening to the ruling establishment. 

They know this. They are afraid of our movements because they know that if enough of us get engaged and vote, we'll win. While poll taxes, voter ID laws and the other schemes they have can stop some of us from voting, they can't stop all of us. Voter apathy is still their greatest weapon, and if they lose that, they know they'll lose.

That's why I believe the answer to a corrupt voting process isn't to opt out - it's to totally and completely overwhelm the voting system with numbers that the establishment has never seen.

Fortunately, in 2018, the tide may be starting to turn. Millions of people appear to be getting involved in ways we haven't seen in decades. With candidates and ballot initiatives that are finally worth voting for, they are choosing to attack the government's primary defect - that inconvenient rule that allows us to vote them out of power. 


"Voting is a chess move, not a valentine. And here's the joy of being politically engaged all year round every year; you get to work with a whole lot of chess pieces and players and strategies and longterm visions, so you don't agonize over whether this little hop with a pawn we call voting defines you. You get to define yourself by what you're passionately committed to, by who you align with, by your dreams and your visions, you get to move a lot of pieces a lot of times, you get heroic allies, and you play to win above, beyond, around elections. But you vote, because you know it matters too." 
Rebecca Solnit