[The author is deeply indebted to the research and scholarship of Mark E. Warren. Composition of this essay draws heavily on both the ideas and language of political theory so eloquently set forth by Professor Warren in his paper "Voting With Your Feet: Exit-based Empowerment in Democratic Theory" published in the American Political Science Review, Vol. 105, Number 4. Mark E. Warren occupies the Harold and Dorrie Merilees Chair in the Study of Democracy, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia. Citations of Professor Warren's work are all italicized in the essay.]
"Democracy is about including those who are potentially affected by collective decisions in making those decisions. For this reason, contemporary democratic theory primarily assumes membership combined with effective voice. An alternative to voice is exit: Dissatisfied members may choose to leave a group rather than voice their displeasure. Rights and capacities for exit can function as low-cost, effective empowerments, particularly for those without voice."
—Mark E. Warren
(Swans - February 27, 2012) "We can vote, yes. But what does it mean?" When Helen Keller asked this in 1911, she was both expressing the frustration of a disenfranchised socialist and, at the same time, questioning the value of the goals of the suffrage movement that promised to gain women only the right to cast their ballots in elections tightly controlled by men who harbored little regard for any separate concerns or interests of American women. The challenge she raised, how to make meaningful use of the right to vote within the context of a process heavily manipulated by powers whose interest in the outcome is dramatically opposed to your own, is one that remains relevant today, extending not only to women and socialists but, by some recent accounts, to ninety-nine percent of the American voting population.
One emerging idea that has been gaining traction in contemporary political theory is that of empowerment through exit. In exit strategy, dissatisfied members of a collectivity, given the opportunity, may choose to exit the collectivity rather than to seek reform or response by voicing their dissatisfaction. When individuals choose organizations that best serve their needs and exit those that fail them, the theory holds that this should translate into a form of empowerment that draws political accommodations from the organization in the interest of preserving their supporting membership. Unfortunately, in a transaction of this kind the degree of empowerment generated for the individual is contingent on and proportionate to the degree of concern the organization holds for the loss of membership. And this concern, in turn, is closely tied to both the number and diversity of competing organizations the individual can choose to turn to after breaking ties and withdrawing his support. In this sense, a strong argument can be made that the exit strategy is a weak instrument within the context of the monolithic duopoly that comprises the American political landscape. An equally compelling case could be made, however, for some form of exit being the most effective available tool for building a foundation capable of eroding and undermining the powerful forces guiding both the Democratic and Republican organizations.
Exit-based empowerment is a strategy often associated with those who are excessively individualistic, who fail to recognize common dependencies, and who parasitically ride on the contributions of others. Some may argue that the very presence of an exit alternative can tend to atrophy the development of the art of active voice. In fact, governments that tend to exercise a more overtly authoritarian approach to their citizenry, such as those of China or Cuba, have been known to actively encourage their most vocal dissidents towards exit as a means to reducing internal pressure for reform. In these ways, the exit strategy can be portrayed as an undesirable alternative to participatory democracy or even an irresponsible shirking of civic obligation.
On the other hand, exit may legitimately be viewed as a means of breaking a relationship of unrewarding domination, as in escaping a bad marriage or quitting a dead end job. The availability of an exit option within the structural makeup of an organization can help to induce the leaders of an organization to provide rank and file members with meaningful voice. In fact, if treated as a right rather than a privilege, the exit option becomes nothing more nor less than the right to repudiate authority, inherent in the "no right" of any authority to coerce people into becoming or remaining members of an unsatisfying community. Because the authenticity of any mutually agreed upon social or political compact necessarily implies that parties to the agreement could abandon it without penalty but choose not to, the presence of an exit option serves to raise the media of social organization from that of a relation of one-sided domination to one of consent, making the availability of exit viewable as intrinsically promoting consent as the sole test of the very legitimacy of state power.
So what potential empowerment value, if any, does an exit strategy carry within the context of the existing American political reality? I think it's fair to state that exercising an exit option cannot be seen to be directly effective, or for that matter even authentic, within the constraints of our deeply corrupted two-party system. That said, it may still be the only strategy available to many of us under a system in which active voice has become increasingly resource intensive, favoring those members with the greater political resources, or deeper pockets as the case may be. As such, it must be seen not as a device to help achieve active voice within the system towards eliciting recognition and concessions from the holders of power, but rather as a low-cost and universally accessible tool to undermine and weaken the component political structures that support the current entrenched empire builders and to dilute the pools from which they draw their power.
It is important, in this context, to remember that the US Constitution embodies no specific mandate requiring, favoring, or even recommending us to formulate or preserve an electoral process limited to accommodating only two competing political parties. This is simply the system that evolved naturally in order to best serve the interests and preserve the advantages of our founding aristocracy whose influence resided solely in the fact of their ownership of property. We are under no obligation as good citizens to maintain or support the limits of a two-party system. Therefore, the option to exit the two-party system is just as built in to the fundamental framework of the democracy as the option to exit one party in favor of the other. Multiparty systems inherently enable and promote response to popular voice due to the effective expansion of the broader and more diverse spectrum of voting options.
The paradox we face begins with an electoral model represented by a duopoly of relevant power structures limiting the conditions under which exit empowerment is allowed to apply by blocking the development of alternate suppliers of political goods, thus diminishing the value of choice and the authenticity of voice. On the other hand, the dominance of the prevailing model is vulnerable to change only by making the choices that legitimize the vitality of a democratically modeled society providing a range of choice sufficient to cover the diversity of interests of all those within the broadest possible community affected by the decisions of collectivity. In other words, while exit-based empowerment may be the weakest possible tool for the reform of a corrupt political dynamic, it nevertheless remains the only tool available for the use of the disenfranchised majority. Fortunately, it is also one that can only grow stronger through its persistent use.
In discussions concerning the desirability of a paradigmatic shift in American politics towards a multiparty system, the question often comes up, "Considering the frequent state of legislative gridlock that results with only two parties needing to come to a considered agreement on policy, how can you possibly expect to get any governing done with five or six parties squabbling over the issues?" There's a simple answer to that concern. What the corporate media disingenuously report and portray as "gridlock" is actually the stasis achieved by two nominally-opposed organizations, well-funded by a shared sponsorship and collaborating to preserve the status quo while suppressing any possibility of reform. There is an ample history of multiparty systems that have thrived in other political cultures that have historically been very successful in finding enough common or overlapping interests to form tentative coalitions long enough to get legislation enacted. The multiparty model encompasses an exit option exercisable among a broader spectrum of potential contracts serving a wider array of values and interests. Integrated into our existing constitutionally protected fundamental democratic devices, the possibility of a rigorously applied exit-based empowerment could begin to develop and support a vibrant, pluralistic society associated with a state apparatus responsive to a far more inclusive portion of its members than currently exists.
So, how do we get there from here? How do we encourage the emergence of a viable multiplicity of organized alternative political options? We first have to send a clear signal that we're ready to move on and are prepared to embrace real change. What incentive or motivation does a marginalized organization now have to put forth the enormous work and assume the considerable expense requisite to getting onto the ballot when election, after election, after election, after election ninety-four to ninety-six percent of us go to the polls and dutifully cast our ballots for the same damned trough feeders about whom we never tire of complaining? You can't expect to achieve a greater good by continuing to throw your support to a lesser evil. We can't expect to affect the outcome of the 2012 elections by voting outside the system. But if we choose to exercise the exit option in significant and increasing numbers over the next several election cycles, we can hope to eventually change the process enough to overturn the system. If you truly believe in the integrity of either the incumbent or his Republican challenger, and think you share their respective values (best determined by what they do, not by what they say) you should, by all means, cast your ballot for that candidate. If, however, you find yourself among the majority of Americans who deep down know that neither of the candidates that your television has pre-approved for you actually represents your own interests or values, you cannot allow yourself to choose one of them over the other. Look for another name or party on the ballot. If there are none there, or none that appeal to you, write in the name of someone you admire and trust. It could be your father. It could be Stephen Colbert. It could be Stephen Colbert's father. It really doesn't matter what name you decide to write in, because the statement you're making is that you are one more voter who is rejecting the two-party trap and open to considering other options. If you choose not to vote at all, another perfectly legitimate exercising of the exit option, don't just stay home. Take the time to go to the polling place, wait your turn in line, let them check your name off the list, and then drop your blank ballot in the box. Your blank ballot by itself has no significance, but if ten to fifteen percent of ballots found in the boxes across the nation's polling places turn up blank, your message is out there and your voice will be heard. As today's marginalized organizations sense an eroding commitment to the two-party domination over the electoral process, they may well begin to emerge and organize to compete for your next ballot. If you can't vote for what you believe in or don't believe in what you vote for, then, to answer Helen Keller's question, it means nothing.
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Michael DeLang is a self-defined middle-aged blue collar worker in the trucking industry who lives in Golden, Colorado. (back)