What must be said to the young on the subject of voting, but is all too rarely said Ruthless Criticism

What must be said to the young on the subject of voting, but is all too rarely said


I remember a telling passage in The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela in which he expresses his astonishment about the democratic procedure in states whose governmental power comes about by means of parliament, thus in which all state decisions are made according to the principle of majority rule. In his village, he reports, the village elders would discuss the needs of their community and take action when everyone had come to an agreement on the matter to be settled. In cases where this agreement could not be reached, decision would be postponed until a later time when discussion of the matter under dispute would be picked up again. How can it be, Mandela once asked himself, that large sections of the people affected by a political decision have to submit to it even though it still contradicts their concerns, wishes or interests? This question could be extended: What is the majority thinking of by so indifferently ignoring the concerns of other human beings? They can never be happy with their majority decision in a consensus-oriented society, one would think, if they are constantly confronted by the fact that those who were out-voted are discontent. Etc.

Mandela’s cautious criticism – he later embraced the majority principle as leading politician of the Republic of South Africa – grasps something: It would in fact be reasonable in a community that is united in its purposes in life to only make decisions on its interests if, first, all objections have been raised; put to a vote only when it has been supported with good arguments and not just reduced to a mute raising of hands. There would also be no reason to object to leaving debate and decision-making to “village elders” if they enjoy the trust of the community and are thought capable, because of their knowledge and their experience, of making decisions that are beneficial to the inhabitants of the (village) community.

Confronted with this argument, anyone whose mission is to educate the young to be good democrats would now argue – after dutiful words of appreciation for this fighter against apartheid – that Mandela is no doubt unduly transferring the procedure which led in his village to decision-making onto such a “complex structure” as a state system. In this, they will explain to their students, such a process, which is reasonable in principle – that’s their feigned concession – couldn't work. And they also know the reasons to give: first, this procedure would take too much time; second, it would not do to simply postpone decisions; and third, one can’t always reconcile all interests. These are not good reasons: because often a lot of time is spent in negotiations between parties in coalition governments or even in parliament in order to wrap up a decision, sometimes parties with different programs seek unanimous decisions and reach out to each other in order to help promote “viable” decisions.

The principle of Mandela’s “village democracy” certainly has nothing to do with the procedure of parliamentary democracy in whole states. However, this is not because – as social studies teachers claim – such a thing couldn’t work. It’s not the case that a principle which is actually recognized as rational does not apply in democracy because of the difficulties implementing it. It’s a different case. A democracy is not a procedure in which the interests of all concerned are taken into account in order to make decisions. At least this much could be gathered from the principle of majority rule.


In parliamentary democracy, the principle of majority rule is applied twice: in the election of members of parliament by the people and in the passing of resolutions by the legislature, the assembly of elected parliamentarians.

The democratic election which, in the words of any democratic state constitution, ensures all government is “based on consent of the people,” is the only form of coming to power of rule in which the people regularly participate. Only: how and for what purpose? One must only read the constitutions accurately in order to arrive at a first answer. These formulations never state that people by majority pick representatives of their interests who then have to get to work carrying out the peoples’ interests. Rather, the vote serves to constitute a “power” that is necessary within and for the community because apparently the people are not as homogeneous with respect to their interests as the concept “people” likes to suggest. That is, it conflates all citizens of a community regardless of their position in it as identical free and equal voting citizens, and indeed regardless of the question whether the citizens consist of industrialists or workers, professors or students, shareholders or unemployed, homeowners or tenants, etc.; those who “collectively make up” – or better: “individually grapple with” – modern bourgeois society. “Power” also originates in the vote only “from” the people, and it then exists separate from the people as a system of three interrelated powers which the whole people submits to with the election and whose decisions, existing in the form of laws, they have to obey; again, regardless of the question how in each case the law affects the citizens in their position as producer or worker, homeowner or renter, etc. A law, for example, that allows landlords to raise rents to comparable rent levels must be “obeyed” by the tenant and the landlord; a new law that allows employers to employ parts of their workforce at the minimum wage applies equally to “job creator” and “job seeker.” And if tuition fees are abolished by a law, university administrators and students have to “accept it.” Whose interest in each case is served and whose is attacked can immediately be gathered in these examples, which were not randomly selected; which is why saying that all voters have to observe the new rules, although true, is nevertheless comparatively ridiculous: Some want the new laws because they suit their interests, and the others must respect them even if they only cause them anger and annoyance. This is ultimately ensured by the government as a state force whose juridical institutions serve – this forms the state monopoly on force as a whole – for the fact that a state force first originating from the people comes back as a force at the people when segments of the people have wrongly understood their electoral participation and might even want to use extra-parliamentary means to commit the free government authorized by an election to their everyday interests.

That’s also why the voting process is set up so that it does not just allow the daily interests of citizens to be expressed – whether those of people who have a lot of property or those who don’t have any, whether those who work or those who don’t. This is the meaning of a procedure in which everyone’s completely freely and secretly cast vote counts equally: only as a vote in the form of a check mark – (x) – on a ballot that lists parties and party candidates who present themselves to the electorate not as advocates of citizens’ interests but profile themselves in bitter campaign skirmishes as the best qualified leader of the state’s business. Anyone who misunderstands this procedure and makes additional notes on the back of the ballot about the special interests he wants the candidate or party to serve must be told that he has thus invalidated his ballot; and anyone who after the election still stubbornly clings to the illusion that somehow the one he voted for must stand up for his concern is reminded that the elected official is only subject to his conscience, not to orders and instructions from the voter.

The whole democratic freedom realizes itself thus in the act of voting as – literally – an inarticulate vote mark in which there is no substantiated conviction or articulate opinion to be found. That’s exactly what this freedom is and how it should be, namely: the individual contribution to a collective expression of will which entirely lacks any moment of free common will formation, any hint of communication within the collective of voters. The principle of confidentiality underlines at the same time how totally alien to the democratic act of voting is any community of reflection, deliberation, let alone resolution.

The intentional insignificance of the vote mark thus consists precisely in that each vote only counts purely quantitatively as one individual atom in a sea of handed-in pieces of paper. What role a vote then has in the sum of votes is not determined by the voter with his check mark. And what emerges afterwards as a government, who the election winner is afterwards, is even less so his decision.


The result of the electorate’s democratic orgy of freedom is then the parliament in which the weight of the political parties and their candidates is decided by the quantity of votes they have won in the election. The added-up numerical ratio sorts those elected by majority and minority, whereby the majority is for that reason alone good for taking over that part of state power called “the government,” or the state executive. The rest are recognized as the opposition and have their critical-constructive role to play in the legislature. This also involves – free and equal – votes in parliament: The majority of parliamentarians determine what counts as law for the governing (the executive) and the governed (the electorate). This majority decision, however, is regularly preceded not by a secret debate, but one that is publicly broadcast on tv. And sometimes decision is postponed or referred to committees when further discussion is required. In parliament, counting those in agreement and disagreement only takes place at the end of a debate about the matter. Whereas the voters with their decision give their consent once every four years on election day to being governed, here the majority decision of elected parliamentarians applies to the government’s tasks, and that means: to the substance of national politics. That, of course, must be argued about; the national common good requires that, and all parliamentarians demand responsible deliberations. Both fit together nicely: With the mark on the ballot slip – an insubstantial and almost illiterate opinion – voters cede decision-making to the elected officials; and only in this way can the parliamentarians then do their work of governing free from any voter mandate about the substance. They negotiate as legislators and executors according to their respective political orientation over only one thing: What’s best for “our country”? And: how is the people – in all its subdivisions – best used for that? But since “our country” has a market economy for its material substance, the program can be more precisely formulated: How is the people to be used for our market economy and success on the world market – today, this means: be more competitive?

Participation in the free, equal and secret democratic election by the voters is thus not only consent to being governed; it is at the same time consent to a government program set in its basic principles to the bourgeois political system. Each vote – voters may think whatever they want – is at the same time consent to the market economy, to the nation-state, to the existence of a state force with a monopoly on violence, to an interest in imperialist attacks on other states, etc. All that's for sure, because none of that is up for a vote. All that is assumed to be the subject of approval in going to the polls.

That the government business is not tied to any particular voter’s interest, and that the government team formed by the majority of voters has a free hand for at least one term, is the desired result of the democratic process. Governing is easy when parliamentarians, after being empowered by the people, dedicate themselves as the governing faction or the opposition to their great national tasks free from the people’s wishes; and this is easier for the elected officials to the degree that the people every four years go again and again to the ballot box and hand over responsibility for their own interests with their vote. It is not surprising that all the party representatives who have just competed with each other in campaigning to prove that they would be best at leading the state’s business are very interested collectively in assessing voter turnout after the first projections. It is for them an indication of how much the people are willing to once again hand their decisions over to elected officials, and that they want to continue to be governed despite – or perhaps even because of – their notorious dissatisfaction with the results of politics.


Mandela’s naivety – whether genuine or meant as criticism – consists in taking a procedure of communal thinking and deliberation which reflects the fact that life in the village, although very varied, is nevertheless not defined by mutually exclusive conflicts of interests but by the shared concern to organize survival within and by means of the village community as best as possible, and then carrying this over to a state system which shows, solely by the existence of a power separate from the voters in an executive branch, that the conflicting interests must be hindered from being argued out and must be forced into functional cooperaton. In Mandela's village, a rule that is separate from the village or that stands above it is not only not necessary. It would be the end of it.


This begs the question: Why really do so many citizens regularly participate in elections? The simple answer is: because they are allowed to! And yet because voting is a freedom established from above, it feeds the illusion that one might not only use his vote to express his dissatisfaction, but minimize it a little. One learns, for example, that anyone who criticizes should vote for a different party next time! And so the protest voter is born who even imagines that maybe if he chooses a different party in the next election, his vote will “effect” something. He can also only choose between parties that are authorized by the Federal Election Commission. And whether the party of his (protest) vote gets enough votes to be noticed at all is as uncertain as it is certain that a vote for any parties under 1% rather limits the free pleasure in the protest vote.

And because they are given permission, even seasoned critics of the “electoral circus” often do not refuse to participate in elections. They seek arguments for the “lesser evil” which they therefore always find within the party spectrum because the place of a “lesser evil” has now been taken by a rising “greater evil,” so a new “lesser evil” regularly lines up for votes. “Lesser evils” are not sought, they are found, because this route is guided by the decision that one may not give away his free, equal and secret vote – even when one actually doesn’t find anything one can vote for in good conscience.


No criticism without constructive reflection, we have all learned; and this morality should also come into its own here. My six constructive final recommendations are:

First, a majority is a majority of votes cast; nothing more. A majority vote is not to be confused with reason or even with truth. Even if a majority vote is valid, one must still not yet embrace it.

Second: Just because one is eligible to vote, one should not declare voting a moral duty. If the freedom to vote -- this functional procedure for appointing rule -- is transfigured by its propagandists into a higher value, this does not speak for the freedom to vote but against the higher value.

Third: one should not fall for the proposition that only those who vote may complain. Bitching is permitted to voters and non-voters between election periods. Both are allowed to voice their dissatisfaction as their – once again – free opinion. And any free opinion is valid – according to the rules of the dominant discourse – if it only matters insofar as it also accepts all other free opinions; thus has to relativize itself in every other free opinion. And therefore everyone must also understand that they may not insist on their criticism. They may express it as a bunch of wishes, but to apply it practically, to insist on its realization, violates the democratic ethic of freedom of opinion.

Fourth: And one should also not believe any national moral blackmail that every non-vote cast “benefits the right.” Because, on the one hand, enough sit on the “right” for the established people parties in parliament, which then on the other hand ensure with requests to ban “right wing extremists” that the political customs of fascism do not die out even in democracy, completely regardless of any voter turnout.

Fifth: the alternative to voting is not non-voting. Because neither the ballot box nor abstention change the fact that nothing improves in the daily lives of most citizens.

Sixth: “people’s rule,” this contradiction of a rule in which the people choose a rule over the people, is the perfect form of bourgeois rule. Anyone who does not want that should also not go looking for a “true democracy.”

[Adapted and translated from an article by Freerk Huisken]