Conscientious Non-Voting 2006: Liberation from Within

In 2004, I did something that I had not done since I turned 18 years old: I didn't vote. At the time, I gave my act a name: conscientious non-voting. Since then, I have studied a lot of pacifist writings and have tried to eliminate acts of aggression in my own behavior whenever practical. I view conscientious non-voting as one step among many I have taken in an attempt towards reducing aggression in my life (although I must confess I am nowhere near where I'd like to be). In 2004, I said voting for a person to serve in government (which by its very nature is forceful) is an act of aggression. I still believe that. Surely it is not aggressive as pointing a gun at another human being, but it is aggressive action nonetheless.

In most US elections, about a third of eligible Americans vote. Being the contrarian that I am, I feel as if that participation rate is far too high. When that rate falls to 10%, our social problems will begin to be solved from the grassroots up. Government is the problem, not the solution. And before you ask, I have tried the third party scene. I voted Libertarian from 1992-2002.

This year presents a double dilemma for me in that Chris Lugo is running for US Senate from the state of Tennessee as a Green. His main platform is peace. I have worked with Chris for three years and respect him immensely, but in the end I will not vote for him. I hope he appreciates my position. There is also an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Tennessee constitution on the ballot this year. I believe this to be a violation of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, and I oppose it. Since this is voting for an issue and not a person, I am inclined to vote. That is not my final decision, but it is the way I am leaning.

Voting could also be viewed as a greedy act. Every religious tradition with which I am familiar frowns upon greed. When we vote, we vote 'for' someone or something at the expense of others for our own self-interest. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha tells us that greed is one of the main causes of suffering. The political process is the cause suffering, not the path of liberation. Therefore, voting in hopes of using the political process to lessen suffering in my life is futile. Lenin said that the ends justify the means. Gandhi preached the opposite, that ethical means must be used to attain ethical ends. Gandhi's core belief was ahimsa, which loosely translates to 'non-harm to living things.' This non-harm includes fellow human beings, animals, insects and oneself. Who will go down in history as the greater man, Gandhi or Lenin?

It is not that I don't care about what is going on around me. In fact, quite the opposite; I am very socially conscious. Perhaps you call me foolish. You may say that by not voting, I am part of the problem, not the solution. That is your right, and I respect your opinion.

Voting is especially not going to solve anything in the American corptocracy. We have a one-party state with two players: Demopublicans and Republicrats. There is an old saying, 'If voting made any difference, it'd be illegal.' It is an especially useless endeavor in the US House of Representatives. With the help of gerrymandered districts, the voters no longer choose the House member, the House member chooses the voters. The computer programs used to design the House districts may not be able to determine how Joey King voted, but they can tell how the voters on Joey King's street voted.

Less than a dozen House seats are competitive each election. Short of a constitutional amendment to require Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and/or a proportionally representative parliamentary system, this situation will not remedy itself.

I wish to share with you something I ran across in the March 2006 edition of Shambhala Sun (a Buddhist magazine) in an editorial by Melvin McLeod:

"What does Buddhism--what does any religion for that matter--tell us about politics, about living together as human beings? I think Buddhism's most important political message is that we can't pick and choose among people. As the Dalai Lama often tells us, all beings are equal in seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. How can we favor some over others? An aspiration called the Four Limitless Ones, one of the foundational practices of Buddhism goes like this:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering

May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice

Those four lines (the Brahmaviharas in Sanskrit) represent the heart-wish of the Buddhas. I think the word we have to focus on in this prayer is 'all.' It doesn't say 'only those of my family, neighborhood, party, race, gender, class, religion, or nation.' It includes people we don't know and those who cause us harm. According to Buddhism, we always have a dog in the fight. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that only this impartial love and universal sense of community will get us safely through the twenty-first century."

Maybe it is not appropriate to quote the anointed leader of Tibetan Buddhism when the topic here is clearly democracy. My own studies, like Thich Nhat Hahn's, have tended towards Zen. But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, the Dalai Lama is right on this one.

I am a firm believer in being 'for' something when I propose being against something else. What am I advocating in the place of electoral politics? I like the Thich Nhat Hahn vision of a 'universal sense of community.' Gandhi and Thoreau also had great ideas when it came to self-sufficiency, non-participation tactics, and community.

'Societies,' 'political parties,' 'corporations' and 'countries' separate us. They are composed of individuals. It is the collective action of misguided individuals that is the real problem. The existence of 'countries' and 'political parties' oftentimes obscures our common humanity.

Mark Twain had it right when he said, 'Nothing so needs changing as other people's habits.' We agree that the world needs to change; however, we can only change ourselves. Indeed, change must begin with us, so change into what you want the world to become.

Karl Marx said, 'All that is solid melts into air.' The Buddha preached the same thing 2,400 years earlier, and took it one step further in saying that nothing is permanent except our actions and the consequences of our actions. Voting is an aggressive action that I will be avoiding in 2006.

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Mr. King is a Tennessee activist and writer.