Back in Time for Election Season

Let me begin by apologizing briefly for my absence.  I am a professed Luddite, and that coupled with gross neglect caused this website to disappear temporarily. It appears that I have finally addressed the technical difficulties, and with any luck the site will remain fully functioning for more than a month at a time.  Now, on to the diatribe!

It is election time again in America.  This fact causes me to wonder what an election is exactly. Certainly we all understand the concept somewhat; we can all describe the details and particulars of an election — “I Voted!” buttons, advertising campaigns,  white toothed politicians glaring at us on billboards, black curtained booths, etc. — but the nuances of the process deserve a more thorough inspection.  At its core, an election is a mechanism for the peaceful transition of power between competing interests.  I think it healthy, particularly on the day of or the day after an election, to examine both the finer mechanics of this political mechanism and the nature of the power(s) conveyed by that mechanism’s operation.

We use the term “vote” in a number of ways.  People often use it as a symbol of power, such as when a particular class of people obtain suffrage.  Other times we use it verbally, as in “I’m not going to vote for Prop. 8.” Still other times we use the term in an economic sense, as if it were a commodity: “You’ve got my vote;” or “He was voted in to office last November.”  Each of these uses is fine, but more globally insufficient.  Ultimately, the vote is an individual, outward expression of choice.  Unfortunately, given that the vote is 1) a human expression 2) for making human decisions, we can definitively recognize that the vote is also inherently a flawed mechanic for politics. This isn’t to suggest that a more desirable alternative exists. There likely isn’t one.  But recognizing that voting is flawed because it is human helps us to better focus the inquiry.  What is the central problem behind the modern, western, democratic model of voting? Choice.

Humanity wants to exercise choices, purportedly. I doubt few would contest the proposition that choice is the central most important facet of true freedom.  We each desire to control our own destiny, our own fate; and why should the political decisions that impact our lives operate any different? To this end, America has fought, bled, and picketed for over a century to obtain universal suffrage; nevertheless, the effects of such valiant efforts have achieved relatively little.  50 years after the “war on poverty” commenced, the poor are still poor.  Politicians wage war on drugs, and yet the drugs still flow into the country.  The middle east is still the middle east. The low income school districts still graduate children who cannot read, and farmers still lose the farm. Markets still crash and foreign powers still plot mischief. At various points in all of our lives we have cast our ballots in the hope that policies will change, reforms will be made, and the corrupt will be run out of town on a rail.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; regardless, the global situation does not generally change.  The reality is that the world isn’t going to change. Not in a macro sense.  Certainly some geopolitical situations will shift dramatically, but the overall effect is de minimis because such changes are typically counterbalanced by a contrary shift somewhere else in the world.  This near constant belief that an election can solve the world’s problems is popularly experienced, but it is not realistic.  This is not intended as an appeal to fate, but rather an attempt to illustrate how a colossal waste of resources (votes) has a far more dramatic consequence than simply electing ineffective officials.

The modern political campaign focuses its energies on creating “projects.”  The objective is to frame a narrative – typically accomplished by resorting to semiotic formulas – i.e. discrepancies of class, economic status, racial status, or what I like to call “tribal status” or jingoism – in order to make the voter believe that a choice is necessary on a particular occasion – say, for instance, November 4th.  For example, a candidate may run his campaign on the premise that illegal immigration is resulting in job loss across his district, bailiwick, etc. (of course, a subject like immigration is vastly more complicated than any political candidate wishes to admit, and is just as likely to contribute to economic growth as weakness). The competing candidate may seek the votes of naturalized citizens or recent descendants of immigrants, and thus adopts the contrary position.  As time drags on, the debate becomes black and white. If you’re for candidate A, you’re anti-immigration. If you’re for candidate B, you’re pro immigration. Both sides recite statistics, first hand accounts from constituents, a pithy quote from a founding father or pop culture figure.  In the end, neither side 1) has the authority individually to do anything about the “project” in question and 2) has a vested interest in keeping the “project” alive rather than risk losing the narrative entirely.  Nevertheless, the population is called to the ballot box armed with the knowledge that they must make a decision. They need to “fix” this problem to fit the version of the narrative with which they best identify.  This has occasionally been characterized as a function of psychology (and this is likely not inaccurate), but its exploitation in the form of degrading the power of the vote is better characterized as a phenomenon of bad faith – an existential dilemma caused by “projections of power,” or rather illusions of power.  It is a semiotic concern. From the elaborate ceremony of monarchic succession in antiquity to the talking head on the television set, power has always preoccupied itself with methods of controlling the narrative – of creating the illusion of choice.  To put it more simply:

Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.

The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded.

In the modern American political system, this age old problem is compounded by the system’s reliance on political parties.  Tragically, the concept of party rule is not that different from another concern of ancient democracy – the oligarchy. It should come as no surprise that in a system yoked to the concept of narrative choice, certain recurring characters are necessary to help condense the story into a more digestible form.  Most will recognize that such a phenomenon manifests itself constantly at all levels of government. The prevalence of Presidents and presidents’ sons, presidents’ wives, career senators,  etc. all suggest that large swaths of the voting public will vote for the familiar face, or the familiar narrative to the exclusion of most other options.  Many, particularly in smaller parties, blame the media for this tendency, but it is folly to assume that the media, in the business of selling the “news” as a commodity, is not listening to the demands of its audience.  Thus, in addition to confronting a narrative project “requiring” their choice, the citizenry is also confronted with a prearranged list of characters to help facilitate their choice.  This is not even to address the courtesy each political faction offers by providing a color and an animal to help alleviate the difficulty of the choice.   As a functional reality, however, neither of these factions offers a meaningful choice.  Republicans purportedly oppose “entitlement programs,” but no Republican seriously attempts to eradicate programs intended to benefit the elderly – one of their largest constituent bases. Democrats claim to support a “civil liberties” platform, and yet the jail in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba remains open for business. Each party instead concerns itself with retaining power.

The inverse of the oligarchy principle, mob rule, also has a function to play in American democracy, although not as one might suspect.  The mob was repeatedly criticized in antiquity for working as a poor man’s vulture picking the bones of the wealthy. This is certainly one aspect of the mob.  In antiquity, however, the democratic model was limited in scope to certain demographics and classes of people, and the number of participants in the system was limited by a lottery.  In America, the mob has the potential to swell its ranks into the millions. It has the potential to cross class boundaries and to even cross contradicting narratives. To this extent, I would submit that rather than mob rule, America suffers from mob economics. The “vote,” the choice, of each person within the mob is commercialized into a singular value comprised of the particular narrative that chooser will most likely find appealing.  This may dispel the more disturbing image one may harbor of an angry crowd tearing a political enemy limb from limb, but it also means that the mob’s energies become more focused in the hands of those they elect.  Discussions of mob rule often resort to referencing the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France as a choice example (I suppose that in referencing it here, I am no different). It is critical to acknowledge however, the the Terror was equal parts factional murder at the highest levels of revolutionary government and an angry general public.  The revolution had not remedied the plight of the working class french. Those politically involved in the Jacobin and Girondin factions competed in trying to capture the fractured narrative and turn it against one another (and foreign influence). In many ways, this modern incarnation of economized political choice had its genesis in the Terror. As Robespierre and Saint-Just learned on the chopping block, however, the manipulation of narrative can have devastating consequences if taking to the extreme.

None of this is to suggest that voting is a waste of time, or that the citizen does not have unadulterated political choice.  It is, rather, a call to discernment in political action.  When a law maker enters office having successfully convinced the voter to choose his “projects,” he must take steps to alleviate the concerns he addressed on the stump.  If he is too successful, he becomes superfluous unless he finds another project. If he fails . . . well, ask Robespierre about failure. The functional effect of this political tightrope is more legislation that purportedly “fixes” a project while simultaneously creating other problems or only partially redressing the original grievance.  This is not effective law making.  However, it is virtually impossible to change the outlook of lawmakers.  It is possible to change the outlook of voters.  As you watch the election results come in tonight, wherever you may be, please consider the choices you exercised, and ask yourself if the choices you manifested on the ballot were necessary ones.

Although his task is much different than my own, I would highly recommend First Democracy by Paul Woodruff of the University of Texas for an account of democratic problems facing modernity and antiquity. His eloquence and wealth of knowledge alone will make it a far more interesting read than this article.


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