Voting for the Status Quo


When it comes to dysfunctional national elections, few countries not named Russia bring the crazy like we bring the crazy. The sleaze and “ick” that have characterized the 2016 presidential campaign have created a race to a moral bottom not yet in sight; feeding the narrative of irreconcilable differences at home and shaming the republic abroad.

Little wonder then, the steady numbers of eligible voters indicating they’re taking a pass on 2016. Disillusioned with and alienated by what they deem an outdated, either/or party system, these (majority 35 and under) non-voting voters have become “political conscientious objectors” rather than “endorse the structure itself.”

Students of American presidential elections recognize this pattern is more common than many suppose. As early as the 1760s, a Quaker meeting in Philadelphia counseled pacifist Friends to refrain from seeking office: “Liberty of conscience being ... essential to the well-being of religious societies, we ... therefore advise and exhort all in profession with us, to decline the acceptance of any office or station in civil government, the duties of which are inconsistent with our religious principles …”

The minutes of the meeting indicated a further step was necessary for Quakers to square their convictions with their political realities: “Friends ought not, in any wise, to be active or accessory in electing, their [brethren] to such offices.”

Summarizing the meeting’s intent, Friends Journal contributor Paul Buckley noted in an Oct. 1, 2016 article, “In other words, don’t hold office, don’t work for candidates, and don’t vote.”

Buckley uses this chapter in Quaker history to suggest an interdependent if not always ethical bond between government and franchisement:

“Voting creates a contractual relationship. In exchange for the right to vote, the voter confers legitimacy on the resulting government. Voters grant the election winners the right to act on their behalf. The government speaks in the name of all, not just those who favored the victors.

Friends in the 18th century realized one implication of voting was that when the resulting government waged war, it was entitled to act in the name of all those who voted. Every voter bore an equal share of guilt for the blood spilled. To Friends, voting ensnared them in an inherently violent and corrupt system. Complete withdrawal seemed the only acceptable option.”

There is no evidence of a similarly considered and articulated philosophy uniting today’s non-voting voters – no galvanizing Occupy-style movement for abstainers. (To the contrary, self-styled libertarians such as Bloomberg Review columnist Megan McArdle have long been urging dissenters to stay home for decidedly more superficial reasons: “If you don’t feel like voting, don’t bother. It won’t matter. The statistical odds of your vote making any difference at all are infinitesimal. And the fact that you don’t care enough to swing yourself out of the chair and head down to the polling place is a good sign that the country does not need your ill-informed, half-hearted opinion.”)

But even if like me you’ll be casting a vote come Nov. 8, the principled Friends of yore are an inconvenient reminder that voting, by definition, maintains a highly unprincipled status quo.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2016

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