'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Vote or Die (Part 1) 

Last week, in response to Part 3 of my series of posts about the open letter to Barack Obama on The Nation website, and, more specifically, my assertion that I would probably not be voting for Obama in the fall, Michael said, We should all vote. Vote or Die.

There is no more generally accepted truism in this country that the notion that exercising the right to vote is always a good thing. People and parties may seek to intimidate others from doing it, or make it difficult for them to do it, but the concept of voting itself is considered an act of personal participation and empowerment. Conversely, refusing to do so is a form of civic treason and submission.

But it is really that simple? Consider, for example, that we live in socioeconomically diverse country with over three hundred million people, yet we retain a two party political system that solidified itself in 1800, when the country had a population of just over five million, mostly white, black and rural. Does our political system now provide sufficient means of participation and electoral alternatives so that it can be said to offer an opportunity for most citizens to give expression to their values?

The question really answers itself, doesn't it? Of course, it doesn't. The dirty secret of this republic is that it relies upon millions of alienated, captive voters to participate in elections, and, hence, legitimize them, even though their issues, their concerns and their values are nowhere to be seen in the candidates offered by the Republicans and the Democrats.

So, if you are one of these people, why should you vote? We all know the answer to this question, too. Most of us in this situation vote as a reflexive self-defense mechanism. On the left, we know that the US is capitalist and militaristic, so we try to discern which candidates will pursue less avaracious and violent policies domestically and abroad. This is pretty much the line of reasoning of those who signed the open letter to Obama.

Unfortunately, even if you are smart enough to interpret the opaque and contradictory messages put out by the candidates on these subjects, and make the right choice, such a reformist approach invariably pushes one into a position of active collusion with the actions of the candidate once elected. If you were a fiscal conservative in the 1980s, you found yourself rationalizing the profligacy of the Reagan presidency. If you were a social welfare services supporter of Clinton in the 1990s, you found yourself having to explain welfare reform. Unless, you just said to hell with them, which some do in this sort of situation.

Even if you do that, though, a lot of your friends still hold you responsible. After all, didn't you say that the candidate was a good guy? Why is she doing such terrible things now? Confronted with such hostility, the response is something along these lines: on balance, she's doing a good job. And, yes, republican democracy is one of those on balance activities. No one gets most, not to mention all, of what they want, it's a process of compromise.

And that might be acceptable if the US was more like a parliamentary democracy, with several parties that reflected social perspectives to the right and the left, as well as ones more libertarian and more collective. In that sort of system, we would be voting for candidates that more accurately, though still imperfectly, reflected our views. Once the election were over, the newly elected office holders would compete and compromise to develop policy.

In other words, we would have to accept the ultimate outcomes, because people with our perspective, as a fairly accurate representation of our presence in society, participated in that process. This gets to the heart of the problem, doesn't it? We don't get to vote for people who share our perspective, therefore it is not represented in the process, yet, paradoxically, we are compelled to accept the outcomes. This is a particularly sinister model of electoral politics and governance, because it marginalizes opposition to the operations of government through the illusion of popular participation.

We can find numerous instances of this sort of process at work. Indeed, the excerpt of the column by Werther, posted here yesterday, highlights one of the inevitable consequences: rule by an ignorant oligarchy who perpetually make horrible decisions to the detriment of most people other than themselves. But let's take the time to substantiate this process with a real historical example. In 2004, 2006 and now, 2008, millions of us opposed to the war in Iraq, and militaristically adventuresome policies elsewhere, have no prospect of electing a Congress that will take action in this direction. Much the same can be said for civil liberties and the urgency of government economic intervention to help distressed people instead of the wealthy. Yet our votes legitimize the perpetuation of existing policy.

Campaigns for the presidency increase this problem exponentially, with only two plausible candidates running, the Democratic one and the Republican one, all of us are expected to accept them as the sole vessels for or social hopes and aspirations. It's ludicrous, but it does work to a shocking degree. Woe to anyone who dares suggest voting for an alternative candidate, a McKinney, say, or a Nader, because they more closely reflect your political views. That's about the most heinous thing you can do.

After all, we are supposed to vote, but not for anyone who actually challenges the economic elite that runs the country, and, in fact, much of the world in association with other capitalists. Or, even worse, we are not supposed to use elections to organize ourselves in opposition to them. In the end, most people seem to understand that democracy, as understood in the US, isn't really about empowerment, and play along begrudingly, in the hope that something good might come out of it. Along these lines, Gaius has done marvelous work exposing the inherently autocratic nature of what transpires after a President is elected. They don't call it the imperial presidency for nothing.

So, is it possible that it is actually more empowering to repudiate this process and consciously refuse to participate, to refuse to vote at all? To say that I reject a system that is designed to render me powerless while simultaneously exploiting my involvement to legitimize itself? Is it more empowering to focus your energy upon dealing with political and social issues on a personal and collective basis outside the electoral process? To make demands upon institutions directly, instead of delegating this effort to elected officials who don't speak for us and never will? To consider, horror of horrors, that it might be more effective over time to challenge the fundamental social relations of this country through direct action with others? After enjoying the theatrics of the acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain, you might give it some thought. Because here, unlike in the US political system, you decide.

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