If, like me, many of you have been watching NBA games, you will surely have noticed that the players now sport new warm-up shirts with the start of both the Western and Eastern Conference Finals.
These articles of clothing are emblazoned with the word “VOTE,” in all-caps, and below the word are printed the logos of both the league and the National Basketball Players Association, the labor union that represents the players.
As one of the changes made to the league’s practices after the recent league-wide boycott led by the Milwaukee Bucks, the shirts are meant to remind viewers that they should remember to cast a vote in this upcoming election.
Team owners have committed to making their arenas available as polling places and prominent players, such as LeBron James, have put their efforts behind voter-encouragement initiatives.
"More Than a Vote," which James has avidly promoted on social media, is one such initiative, which allows individuals to do things like check their voter registration status and volunteer as poll workers.
Getting everyone to vote, it seems, has been the main consequence of the historic players’ boycott. While this effort is clearly intended to demonstrate the NBA’s willingness to become more politically engaged, it is more noteworthy for its utter blandness. Telling people that they ought to vote is hardly a radical act, and the lack of any substantive demands tied to the process of voting is evident.
Of course, this is not surprising.
The NBA, despite its pretensions of social justice, is still a capitalist enterprise, and is thus unlikely to do anything too frightening, even in rhetoric, to the ruling class. My intent in this column is not to dissect the interests of the NBA, which would be a pointless and trivial exercise. Rather, I want to consider the way in which this emphasis on voting reinforces an individualist mode of politics that causes people to be atomized and disengaged from politics.
I should begin by saying that my argument is not an argument against voting. Under the conditions of our bourgeois democracy, voting is still a tool for political involvement.
One’s vote does matter, although this is more or less influenced by factors including, but not limited to, the blatantly undemocratic electoral college or congressional district gerrymandering. While electoral politics does have its limitations, due to the inherent structure of bourgeois democracy, it can be a vehicle to effect some level of change.
The problem arises when voting is held to be the “expression of your voice” or “a way to make yourself heard.” This is precisely the individualist mode of politics I am criticizing. Voting is a tactic in the struggle of politics, not a manifesto or a megaphone for conveying the nuances of one’s political beliefs.
Voting is not the small act of narcissism gestured at by such precious phrases. It is not the sacralized ritual of going to the polling place, pressing a button on a machine and getting a glossy sticker that says “I Voted,” which will be immediately be posted to social media.
Voting is one of the few levers of power the state has granted to the citizens of a bourgeois democracy. This fact is why the right to vote is so important.
Because an individual vote counts for relatively so little, it is necessary for us to join our powers with others to achieve a favorable electoral result. The individualist mode of politics obscures this crucial fact, preferring to center the discussion on a tedious act of performance when it is this performance that is meaningless.
The individualist mode of politics is the product of the ideology of liberalism. Formulated by political theorists such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, liberalism takes as its central actor the atomized individual.
In the just-so-origin stories liberalism tells, the world was once populated by atomized individuals, who one day decided to come into communion with each other to form society. The absurd and ahistorical nature of such stories should be apparent.
From the moment they are born, humans are always already implicated in social relations. But this notion of atomized individuals continues to exercise a powerful effect on contemporary notions of politics. One such effect has been the nurturing of the fantasy that voting is an act of self-expression.
It remains to be seen whether the NBA’s effort will succeed in inducing higher voter turnout, although I very much doubt it will. Vacated of any content, the call to vote is no better than a call to scream into the void. Certainly, it would be a shame if the boycott, so full of potential, left such a miserable legacy.
Samuel Kao is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history. His column, "Left on Red," runs on alternate Mondays.
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