Monday, July 09, 2007

Wendell Berry always provides thought-provoking commentary. The following post comes from a piece he published recently in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Why I chose not to vote

By Wendell Berry

I am well aware of the proposition that citizens ought to exercise their right to vote at every election. Even so, I did not vote in Kentucky's gubernatorial primary on May 27. I did not vote because there was nobody on the ballot whom I wished to help elect. I could not bring myself to submit again to the indignity of trying to pick the least undesirable candidate; nor did I want to contribute to the "mandate" of a new governor, who would be carried into office by corporate contributions, and whose policies I would spend the next four years regretting or opposing.

I am entirely opposed to land destruction by mining, to air and water pollution by factory farming, to unsustainable land use of every kind, to the delusion that our "way of life" can be preserved by liquified coal or by biofuels, to the extreme emphasis on research in our public universities, to education as job training, and to state-sponsored gambling as a substitute for responsible policies of taxation and spending. I consider to be utterly offensive and contemptible any revenue-raising scheme that exploits, and encourages, a human weakness.

Is it not presumptuous for a mere citizen, one voter, to insist that he or she should be offered an acceptable candidate? I am sure it is. Should I, for example, not suspect that I may be too odd to be satisfied with any gubernatorial candidate likely to be presented by either major party? Indeed I should, and of course I do.

But my concern has to do not so much with the candidates' "positions" as with their willful refusal to raise and deal openly with substantive issues of conservation and stewardship, fiscal policy, and the economies of energy, land use and education. There is nothing merely personal about this. It is a fact that voters concerned about conservation and economic responsibility had no candidate in the recent primary. Such voters had a vote but not a choice, for no candidate of their choosing was on the ballot. If you have a vote but no choice, then not to vote is the only available choice.

There has not been in Kentucky, so far, an open public discussion of the ecological, economic and social effects of surface mining or of factory farming -- to name just two issues of paramount importance. There is one reason for this: Money talks. When money talks, people who speak merely with words or facts will not be listened to. You can't have a satisfactory public discussion when money is talking, because money does not listen. Money talks, of course, because political "contributions" become in effect bribes, purchases of power.

So non-voters believe, and so do many voters. If the electorate in general were not convinced that state government is corrupt, and if politicians were not convinced that the electorate is so convinced, then why would gubernatorial candidates conventionally promise to "clean up Frankfort?"

Frankfort always needs cleaning up, because when money talks, only money can talk. This is hard to conceal from citizens, who are at least as smart as their representatives, and this is the reason that so large a number of eligible voters do not vote. Why should they believe that their small preferences might outtalk money when "their" representatives are under obligation to listen to money?

Because Frankfort perennially needs cleaning up, because opponents or critics of the big contributors do not run and are not represented, voters either do not vote or they vote cynically and despairingly. The voters don't trust the government, and they don't feel represented by it. This is a crisis of our democratic system -- to give the people a vote but not a choice is a procedure common to modern dictatorships -- but it is a crisis that has been officially unnoticed for a long time.

That I did not vote does not mean that I no longer believe in voting. I take my citizenship in this state as seriously as I can. I want to vote, but I want to vote for a candidate who I am sure takes seriously the thoughts of mere citizens, and who will not listen only to the largest contributors. I think I have a "right to vote" for a candidate who is at least trustworthy.

Because I do want to be a citizen and a voter, I suppose it is likely that I will sooner or later return to the polls, grit my teeth, hold my nose, and give my vote to yet another candidate for fame and fortune who has done nothing to earn my respect. But such a vote is not a right. It is a humiliation and a disgrace.

What then could be done to restore the confidence of our state's thousands of disaffected or disappointed voters?

First, if the candidates cannot make themselves trustworthy by limiting the size of contributions to their campaigns -- that is, by refusing to be, or to seem to be, bribed by rich contributers -- then all contributions should be outlawed and elections should be supported by public funds only.

Reason for Doubt

We have many reasons to doubt that politicians can be made honest by requirement; there is a fine absurdity in laws against outlaws. But even more absurd is the argument that campaign contributions amount to political speech protected by the First Amendment. This has the curious effect of subjecting our freedom under the First Amendment to a merely quantitative measure: Those who have the most money have the most freedom. And that is precisely the reason for the disaffection of voters.

A second possibility is that of printing an additional entry on the ballot to make it formally possible to vote for "None of the above." This would be cheaper and easier than passing a law to control contributions. It might also be more effective. I admit that, for all anybody can tell, only a few cranks would vote for "None of the above." But it might also happen, for all anybody can tell, that "None of the above" would win the election. If a few of the more exalted state offices were to be occupied for a term or two by "None of the above," there would be less need to clean up Frankfort.

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