Skip to main content

What Russell Brand got wrong about voting

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
November 5, 2013 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
A possible future voter peeks out of the booth while his mother casts a ballot in a 2012 election in Metamora, Illinois.
A possible future voter peeks out of the booth while his mother casts a ballot in a 2012 election in Metamora, Illinois.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: Between 60% and 80% of eligible voters won't vote in Tuesday's elections
  • Liu: Russell Brand says it's a folly to vote, politics are rigged; we need a revolution
  • Liu says in a democracy, not voting amounts to voting for all you detest and oppose
  • Liu: If all young, poor, black, Latino, Asian voters cast ballots, that would cause a revolution

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- It's Election Day in America. Across the country, mayors, governors and other officials will be elected. The results will be dissected for meaning. Mandates will be claimed and trends extrapolated. And we'll all pretend not to notice that somewhere between 60% and 80% of eligible voters didn't bother to cast a ballot.

It's an off-year election, yes, with no compelling national contests. But even in years that we think of as high-water marks of civic participation, such as 2008, four out of 10 eligible voters stay home. In the world's self-proclaimed greatest democracy, a norm is now setting in that says, quite simply, voting is for suckers.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

That certainly was the message of a recent interview and essay by the comedian Russell Brand. Both went viral, especially among young people, and it's easy to see why. He's an irreverent, facile commentator. And his message, meant for a British audience but applicable here too, is that politics is now fundamentally rigged, making voting a folly and revolution a necessity.

But what Brand really ends up proving, in entertaining fashion, is that being half-right can be a very dangerous thing.

It's hard to dispute that politics in America has become a rigged game. Why else is Congress is in a mad rush to cut food stamps while shielding corporate subsidies? How else would more than half the $400 billion in annual federal tax breaks flow to the richest 5% of Americans? We live in an age when advantage and disadvantage are increasingly undeserved, when economic inequality and unequal political voice reinforce each other in a vicious cycle.

This is what the scholars Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson described in their book "Winner-Take-All Politics" -- a methodical, bipartisan array of national policies to disinvest in the middle class and the poor and to reward the privileged for already being privileged. And this is what gave us both the tea party and Occupy Wall Street, movements united by little except their deep-seated anti-elite anger.

Rep. John Lewis: Ruling is a 'dagger'
Voices from the voting war
High court halts key civil rights law

It's understandable, then, why millions of younger, poorer, darker-skinned Americans -- for that's who disproportionately fills the ranks of the non-voters -- would check out of politics and voting altogether. But the stark contrast between what the tea party and Occupy each did after their first bursts of anger underscores precisely why checking out makes a bad situation worse.

The tea party organized at the precinct level, fielded candidates, won elections and became if not a majority then a king-making (or at least government-shutting) minority in legislatures across the land, including the U.S. House of Representatives. The Occupy movement didn't. That helps explain why American politics still tilts more rightward on economic issues than its people do, and why a president re-elected by a wide margin a year ago is still playing defense.

Critics such as Brand may be astute in their diagnosis, but they're deluded in their prescription. There is no such thing as not voting. In a democracy, not voting is voting -- for all that you detest and oppose.

While abstaining from the ballot can be dressed up as an act of passive resistance, it is in fact an active delivery of power and voice to those who'd like to take advantage of you. Far from weakening an unjust system, not voting only amplifies the system's pain-inflicting power.

So perhaps the most compelling appeal to today's nonvoters isn't that "it's our patriotic duty" (though it is) or that "others gave their lives for this right" (though they did). It's this: not voting is for suckers.

Some frustrated nonvoters claim there's no meaningful choice anyway between the two parties. This is colossally naive.

Imagine for a moment where the country would be today if all the people who formed the tea party had decided that politics was just too sordid or that their individual votes couldn't possibly make a difference. Politics may indeed be sordid, but it changes only to the extent we aggregate votes.

To be sure, today's political debate is too narrow, disallowing ideas such as a guaranteed minimum income or single-payer health care. But it also, at least for now, disallows a dismantling of Social Security or repeal of civil rights laws. The question is this: Which set of disallowed ideas would you hate to see become law? And what's more likely to usher in what you fear -- voting or not voting?

Brand and his fans speak vaguely of the need for a "revolution" to upend everyday democracy. It turns out everyday democracy already provides for revolution. In the 2012 election, youth voters, low-income voters, Latino voters and Asian voters all turned out at less than 50%. Mobilize 100% of them and our nation's political priorities become completely different and our government radically more responsive to all the people.

You say you want a revolution? Vote for one.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT