Elections are about who to vote for. We assume that the question is answered with names of candidates.
But notice that the phrase ‘who to vote for’ is ambiguous. It could also have the sense of who to vote on behalf of, who to vote for the sake of. We standardly think about who should receive our vote, but not about who our vote should represent, who stands behind it—who our vote is for.
The second reading is what I will mean by the phrase ‘who to vote for’. It is, in fact, primary and fundamental to our representative democracy—more so than the first, default sense of the phrase. Why? Because before you vote for a candidate, you bring values and principles to bear on your choice. The same is true in case of not voting. Implicit in both acts is an assumption about who your vote is for. If we hope to be good citizens, we should consider the assumption explicitly. It will have implications on the choice of who, if anyone, receives your vote.
So the core question is one we rarely consider before elections: Who should you vote for?
The widespread assumption is that an individual votes for themself. Your choice to support a candidate is informed by your experience, narrowly construed: the taxes you pay, the job you lost, the health insurance you have, the benefits you receive, the citizenship you claim. In short, we assume that, just as in the market, it is acceptable to be selfish in the ballot box.
The assumption is evident in how we condone voter disinterest or disillusionment. It guides the actions of candidates in their campaigns.
- A cliche of punditry is that Trump supporters were fed up with a political establishment that had (seemingly) forgotten them.
- The assumption is invoked to explain why Hillary Clinton pandered to people of color and why voter turnout was low.
- People who don’t vote justify their choice by pointing out the lack of benefits they receive personally. When you say that voting doesn’t mean anything, you’re saying that it doesn’t mean anything for you.
All three cases buy into a broader framing that what we expect of all voters is a consideration primarily or only of themselves.
After we make the assumption, we close our eyes and hope that, when we aggregate the concerns of the parts, we can derive a concern for the whole. We start small and then scale up to bigger contexts.
Unfortunately, the assumption leads to destruction—environmental, political, social, and personal calamity. We are never able to motivate collective action for the good of wholes. People point to this as evidence that democracy is inherently flawed. But that is a mistake. Democracy is only flawed when combined with an individualism that defines proper voter motivation as what best helps individuals, typically the single person casting the vote.
I want us all to consider an alternative. There is only one way to move forward together: to vote for the whole.
What does this mean? It is importantly different from voting for others, which is still individualism, though of an unselfish variety. Many people already vote for others. My proposal is that we consider the bigger contexts first. For example, the biggest of all would be the health of the planet, the whole in which our well-being is possible and intelligible. Then we use our considerations in that context to inform our choices in smaller contexts (national, state, local, and personal). We start big and then go smaller, realizing that the small is necessarily situated in the big.
This approach to voting is the only way we can preserve democracy while having any reasonable plan for fixing what we’ve destroyed. Under individualism, the environment (including the lives of nonhumans), the wellbeing of other countries and their citizens, long-term stability, historical awareness, and the prospects of revolutionary political, social, and economic change will suffer. We need a democratic holism—a collective voting for the whole. We need it to be embraced by all individuals.
This is a more radical suggestion than it might seem. Changing how we view the vote requires a drastic revaluation of values. For those who are benefited by the current slate of values, there is an interest in preserving the status quo. For them, any collective action is a threat. And since an election is a prime candidate for collective action (for the structure of democratic holism is in place already), it must be robbed of its power by making it the mere expression of narrow self-interest. Individuals seal themselves off in their small contexts and surrender the power latent in the whole of which they are a part.
We are persuaded to embrace democratic holism together when we notice that the default selfish orientation benefits the powerful. They have constructed a whole world in which our attempts to pursue self-interest involve giving money, time, and energy to them, increasing their power all the more. The logical consequence of their drive to protect and grow their power is an entire political ideology that valorizes self-interest. We are indoctrinated into worshipping the wealthy: we assume they are hardworking, wise, and virtuous. If they run for office, we vote for them. We assume—despite the contradiction in terms—that they will be greedy on our behalf.
The ideology, of course, works its way into politics. It is in the interest of the wealthy for the economic to swallow up the political. And, in point of fact, it has. The wealthy realize that they can purchase entire political parties, not simply by funding candidates, but by poisoning the minds of citizens with the ideology that leads back to the powerful’s benefit. When the market motivation becomes the voter motivation, the effect is the same: powerful individuals become more powerful. Wholes suffer.
The psychological effects of the ideology are more widespread. Social movements—inherently holistic in form—are interpreted as extending from mere individualistic aggravations, and hence on par with any other person’s complaints. They are seen as going from the part to the whole, like the rest of politics. They become mere ‘identity politics’, which, under individualism, sounds like opportunistic nonsense.
But the interpretation is fundamentally mistaken. Genuine social movements start in a holistic context. They go from whole to individual. They see injustices across a planet, nation, or region first. They recognize that the meaning of personal experience is only possible within a whole. It is wholes—systems, institutions, unifying ideologies—that must be changed through, and only through, collective action. (Indeed, the tactic of reducing social movements to the actions of select great men is part of the individualistic ideology that shrinks history and undermines hope for progress.)
When we recognize this, we see that those who reject social movements are rejecting the whole of which they are a part. At bottom, such an act amounts to rejecting reality! It means failing to see others for who they are—namely, as equal parts of the shared whole. With that failure, there can be no democratic holism. As a result, what suffers is the whole. But, recall, an individual’s worth and experience is only intelligible within the whole. Hence, insofar as the whole suffers, the individual who rejects the whole out of self-interest suffers. The suffering might not be apparent on the terms of individualism, but the superficial success leads to collective destruction. Without the whole, there are no parts.
From the standpoint of individualism, people who think primarily about the goods of wholes are seen as offering incoherent and impractical philosophies. This is true only because individualists don’t recognize the possibility of an alternative to their philosophy. In that, they fail us all. The rhetorical drive to criticize collective social movements functions to dilute votes by minimizing the voters’ perspective and, consequently, their experience. It is done to empower the few while destroying the whole.
That’s not what the vote is for.