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

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Vote or Die (Part 3) 

Back in 2008, in the months before the general election, I challenged someone who said, despite the poor choices on offer, that we must vote or die. In other words, we had to vote for Obama, despite his obvious contempt for progressive values and aspirations, much less leftist ones. Initially, I did so rather abstractly by describing the US electoral process as one that renders us powerless even as it exploits our involvement to legitimize itself. Afterwards, I more concretely referenced the bailout, with its bipartisan support by both presidential candidates, as an illustrative example of our illusory political alternatives.

Today, I am returning to the subject from a more mundane angle to expose the lack of personal political participation that has been purposefully built into the system. On New Year's Day, Suzanne over at firedoglake complained about the failure of the White House to respond to a single point that she made in a letter that she sent on December 12th. She received a form letter that was addressed to Dear Friend, a letter that condescendingly lectured her about challenges that must be addressed. In her post, she sarcastically demanded that the White House say my name.

We have been subjected to such generic, non-responsive communication from our elected representatives for so long that we have normalized it, reducing it to a minor irritance. On the rare occasions that we do attempt to express our opinions, the receipt of such letters induce a why did I even bother response, a demoralization which appears to be the intention. But there are others that never receive such responses, and frequently obtain direct access to our representatives and their staffs. They are, of course, other elected officials, lobbyists and significant financial contributors. The personalized attention that they receive and the computerized form letters sent to everyone else constitutes the fault line between those who matter and the rest of us who do not. Policies are shaped to their benefit, while our phone calls, e-mails and letters are compressed into mere numbers, so many in support, so many in opposition. In many instances, the actual calculation is irrelevant, as demonstrated by the approval of NAFTA, the invasion of Iraq, the bailout and, most likely, the health care bill currently in conference, and the greater the gravity of the issue, the more irrelevant our quantified opinion.

Suzanne's post struck a nerve with me, because, last spring, after a typically unsatisfactory attempt to bring an issue to my state senator's attention, I pondered, how many times had I ever received a response to a phone call, e-mail or letter that just merely accurately characterized my inquiry? I didn't require that the response actually substantively address my inquiry with any degree of sincerity, intelligence or knowledge. Just that it accurately summarize the nature of my inquiry. Over the last 15 years, which was as far back as I could remember, the answer was, of course, ZERO. I couldn't remember one time that I received a response that indicated that the official's staffer had the slightest idea of what I was talking about. I'd be curious to know whether my experience is aberrational or not. I have written this post based upon the assumption that it isn't.

The implications of such a political process are profound. If our elected officials are either incapable of understanding what we are trying to tell them, or worse, deliberately refusing to do so, why should we participate in such a process? If they can't, or won't, understand us when we seek to communicate with them in plain English, why should we believe that they will comprehend the meaning of our electoral votes? One of the conceits of the progressive blogosphere has been that its ability to shape public opinion and raise campaign funds would shatter this hierarchical form of political participation, but it has been pitilessly revealed as an indulgent romanticism by the Obama administration. Liberal democracy appears to be a form of government that enables capital to communicate with precision, while rendering the perspective of the populace itself more and more diffuse.

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