The Apocryphal Twain: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms has increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Mark Twain is a favorite source of political cynicism, and justifiably so. With alleged “irregularities” in recent Democratic primaries and renewed concern about potential foreign interference in the 2020 election cycle, the following apocryphal aphorism has again been making the rounds.

QuoteFancy offers nineteen variations of the above meme for users to post to their pages and accounts, all claiming Twain as the source.

The use of this quote surges during election season. Iterations of it were tweeted well over a hundred times in the week following the Iowa caucus, most often crediting Mark Twain. And while proper attribution predictably eludes the usual cast of partisan pundits, motivational speakers, and other social media influencers, it has also eluded sources one might expect to know better. The following tweet appeared on Election Day 2016:

Twain was not cynical about elections because he believed they couldn’t make a difference, but because he believed his countrymen failed to appreciate the difference they could make.

Troublingly, versions of Twain’s most famous defense of enfranchisement have appeared only 22 times in the history of Twitter. His apocryphal degradation of voting often gets retweeted that many times in a single day.

Several fact-checking services have already debunked the attribution to Twain, notably Snopes and the Australian Associated Press (with impeccable sourcing, by the way). So I will move quickly to the more difficult questions. Where did this aphorism actually come from? How did it get wrongly attributed to Twain? And why is the misattribution so pervasive?

The Twain attribution, as usual, appears to be a product of the social media era. While the aphorism itself circulated widely during the late 20th century, I found no instance of it being associated with Twain prior to this relatively innocuous tweet on Election Day 2008:

The misattribution resurfaced only two dozen times over the next eleven months, rarely retweeted, until an unlikely trio of accounts started recycling it daily in October of 2009: a self-described “radical right-wing super villain,” “a mild-mannered…crossword puzzler;” and a “tenor singer.”

Commitment to this type of repetitive barrage has proven a reliable way of amplifying misinformation on Twitter. It is one way accounts with relatively small followings can have outsized influence. The aphorism spread more widely in 2010, picked up by users with increasingly large followings, though no verified user took the bait until 2012:

It has since become a staple on Twitter, recycled ceaselessly, and sometimes by accounts with several million followers.

So, if Twitter was the vehicle for misattributing the quote to Mark Twain, where did it actually originate? One presumed source, not quite as popular as Twain, is Emma Goldman.

But it turns out the attribution to Goldman is just as specious. Like Twain, she died many decades before any version of this aphorism was attributed to her and it is not present in her many published writings and recorded speeches. That said, Goldman’s anarchist politics do seem to conform with later invocations of the quote.

Charles Umney, in his Class Matters (2018), calls it “an old anarchist slogan, frequently found as lamp-post graffiti in university cities.” Umney’s claim is corroborated by several sources. Journalists Harry Goldman, Matt Ridley, and Patrick Traub all reported seeing the slogan tagged on bridges, buildings, and other graffiti sites in Boston, Indianapolis, New York, and Washington D.C. from 1988 and 1992.

The slogan seems likely to have originated in 1960s activism. Two stories in the Reno Gazette-Journal, separated by a decade, report that it was a “typical motto” of the broadcaster and gonzo journalist, Travus T. Hipp. The revised edition of And I Quote (2003) attributes it to Bob Avakian. And in a 2008 interview with The Nation, Father Daniel Berrigan gives the sources as his brother, Father Phillip Berrigan.

Hipp (born Chandler Laughlin III) and Avakian belonged to the same generation of Berkeley radicals, active in socialist, anti-war, and Civil Rights protests throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Hipp continued to appear on California’s KPIG station, critiquing mainstream media and politics, until his death in 2012. In 1979 Avakian became Chairman of the US Revolutionary Communist Party, and so he remains.

Certainly, Avakian’s published work, like Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (1984), confirms his distaste for electoral politics. But I have not be able to find either Hipp or Avakian using the disputed aphorism in their accessible writings. While there are large repositories of their work – for instance, Hipp’s broadcast back to 2005 in Internet Archive – they also produced a lot of work that evades traditional historical records. Both were active pamphleteers and spontaneous speechmakers. It’s very possible that either or both were part of the popularization and circulation of the slogan in activist communities, further explaining its popularity as a tag decades later.

Father Berrigan was also a prominent antiwar protester in the ’60s and ’70s, associated with multiple plots to disrupt the Vietnam draft. He was, most famously, arrested alongside his brother as part of the so-called Cantonville Nine, who succeeded in stealing and publicly destroying Maryland Draft Board records in 1968. After their case was argued before the Supreme Court, the Berrigan Brothers served three years in federal prison.

By the mid-’80s, the sentiment was ingrained enough in the British Labour Party, than Ken Livingstone gave the book associated with his first campaign for Parliament the ironic title, If Voting Made A Difference, They’d Abolish It (1987).

These attributions, though conflicting and inconclusive, do make a compelling connection between the aphorism and socialist sloganeering operations of the mid 20th century. Within these activist communities, messaging was often collaborative, decentralized, and privileged anonymity. It would not be surprising if a motto coined in Berkeley in the 1960s remained unverifiable.

There has clearly been a resurgence in usage over the last decade, during the same period that the attribution to Twain has become commonplace. This is yet another example of how Twain somehow remains a desirable object of political ventriloquism. This aphorism and its misattribution is as likely to be appropriated by individuals and institutions espousing libertarianism or fascism as by those supporting anarchism or communism. Yet somehow these diverse radicalisms all want to associate their politics with Mark Twain. Why?