Andrew Fiala

Nobody for president? Anti-establishment votes winning the day

A growing number of Americans are taking the advice of the late comedian George Carlin. Carlin proudly proclaimed that he never voted. He described voting as a meaningless exercise in self-gratification. He said he’d rather get his jollies doing something more productive.
A growing number of Americans are taking the advice of the late comedian George Carlin. Carlin proudly proclaimed that he never voted. He described voting as a meaningless exercise in self-gratification. He said he’d rather get his jollies doing something more productive. Associated Press file/2003

Henry Ford told his customers they could have a car painted in any color, so long as it was black. That’s a Hobson’s choice. It’s a joke, not a choice.

Something similar is confronting California Republicans. They can choose any candidate they want, provided his name is Donald Trump. Our late primary means that Californians are stuck with a Hobson’s choice.

Some Republicans are fed up. Jeb Bush said he won’t vote for Donald Trump or for Hillary Clinton. The whole Bush family is planning to boycott the Republican convention. And Mitt Romney has said he will not vote for Clinton or Trump.

Romney explained, “I wish we had better choices, and I keep hoping that somehow things will get better, and I just don’t see an easy answer from where we are now.”

Many of us wish we had better choices. For long decades, we’ve wished for better choices all the way back to when Romney and the Bushes were running things. Most of us showed up to the polls and cast our ballots anyway, naively thinking that this is what citizenship required.

But a growing number of Americans are taking the advice of the late comedian George Carlin. Carlin proudly proclaimed that he never voted. He described voting as a meaningless exercise in self-gratification. He said he would rather get his jollies doing something more productive.

Carlin would have loved the irony of Romney and the Bushes ending up in his camp. He famously declared, “They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

That sort of cynicism is now mainstream. Republican lions are echoing the sentiments of the radicals they would have once disparaged. This election is creating some very strange bedfellows.

Cynics and anti-establishment types have long argued that voting is a mug’s game. A hundred years ago, the anarchist Emma Goldman suggested that if voting changed anything they wouldn’t let us do it. Radicals routinely complain that rich power brokers narrow the field for the masses before we get a ballot. This populist anti-establishment idea is exactly what has propelled Trump and Bernie Sanders into the limelight.

What is remarkable and appalling is the fact that a cynical anti-voting message is exploding in the heart of the establishment. This is a bad sign for the health of our democracy.

Protest votes and abstentions have always existed. But it is ominous when leading politicians, including former presidents and presidential candidates, pick up their marbles and go home. What kind of a message does that send to young people who are being introduced to our democracy?

Young people have often embraced the anti-establishment idea of a protest vote. The icon of Mad Magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, was a protest, write-in candidate in the 1950s and ’60s. In the ’70s, a psychedelic clown from the Bay Area named Wavy Gravy led a campaign to elect “Nobody for President.”

The Nobody for President campaign continues in 2016 with a website that explains its goal. “If a majority of people voted for ‘None of the Above’ rather than ‘voting for the lesser of two evils,’ it might force a situation where Americans would have to find someone competent to lead them.”

The fact that Wavy Gravy and Mitt Romney have stumbled upon a similar idea is enough to make you fear the second coming of George Carlin. These may be the last days of a once-great democracy.

But this side of the apocalypse, the lesser-of-two-evils argument, is worth considering. Is Clinton really worse than Trump? A non-vote could end up getting Trump elected. Are Bush and Romney willing to tolerate that?

A common cliché says that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain. Carlin claimed the opposite. He said that voters have no right to complain. His cheeky point was that by voting you endorse the process and shouldn’t complain about its outcome.

I doubt that anyone will stop complaining anytime soon. Democracy is more than voting – complaining is part of it, as is comedy. But there is something symbolic about a vote for president. Our leaders should attend to this symbolism. The next generation of voters is watching.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: fiala.andrew@gmail.com

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