Skip to main content

What Russell Brand got wrong about voting

By Eric Liu, Special to CNN
updated 7:31 AM EST, Tue November 5, 2013
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
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
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.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
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.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT