Sunday, August 26, 2012
On the Importance and Irrelevance of Voting
I come from a heritage in which voting was considered of fundamental importance. When my Irish ancestors emigrated, they were not allowed to vote in Ireland, and previously, they hadn't even been allowed to marry according to the rites of the Holy Catholic Church, to hold office, or in any other way participate in the political life of His/Her Majesty's Realm. My German ancestors faced similar impediments.
In America, however, as soon as they established citizenship and residency, they could vote in elections and stand for office. My grandfather, therefore, only one generation away from the emigrant boat, was a Democratic Party Chair in the Great State of Iowa, and my father stood for office. This is something their ancestors could not have imagined doing.
I have voted in every election since I was eligible to vote (at age 21, let it be known), and I have never advised or encouraged anyone not to vote. Though I have never stood for office myself, I have served on numerous boards and commissions, have chaired some of them, and I have a fairly intimate acquaintance with the operations of government from the inside at the local, state and federal levels. I have campaigned extensively for candidates -- though not recently -- and I have more than a little bit to do with local Democratic politics (though again, not recently.)
If I were a cynic, I would say it's all a bunch of bullshit, a fraud of the first order, and everyone should stay well away from it -- or burn the whole rotten edifice down. But as a rule, I don't say that. Instead, I try to point out what the real deal is.
American politics is corrupt to the core, and there is no way to salvage it from its mortal corruption. It's been this way since dirt was new. There is no way to clean it up because much of the corruption is built in to the system. It's inherent in the way the Parties operate and in turn in the way the Government operates. It's riddled with cronyism, backscratching and backstabbing, time serving, and barely functional constituent services. "Pay to Play" is nearly universal, and the exceptions are striking.
You do not get a vote on policy at the Federal level at all. You may or may not get a vote on policy through initiatives and referenda at the state and local level, but even if you do, the implementation of any policy you've voted on is not in your hands, and it may not be in the hands of anyone who is accountable to you or any portion of the electorate and you will therefore have little say in the matter.
A Presidential election is a personality election, not a policy election. By the time candidates reach the presidential level, their policy prescriptions have long since been determined outside your purview, by people and institutions you probably have no relationship with, on behalf of interests you're probably not a part of. In most respects, the candidates you are allowed to choose from for President have similar if not identical policies. They are candidates for Head of State, Chief of Government and Military Commander; the Government itself is a huge institution with its own internal interests and characteristics. Changing that institution in any substantial way is usually out of the question, therefore, most of the policies of candidates (not necessarily campaigns) are virtually identical because the candidates campaigning not so much to serve the People as to serve the Government.
Your vote is a resource to be mined under the circumstances, but it is not individually important at all. Vote or don't vote, it doesn't matter very much in the end, because you're basically voting on variations in personality and on slight differences in implementation policies that have already been determined. The policies are going to happen no matter what you vote -- or don't vote as the case may be.
The only way to affect policy is from the outside of the system. I learned that a long time ago, but it was a lesson I didn't really understand until fairly recently. In our political system, for the most part, policies (and candidates for that matter) are bought and sold like commodities, and with about as much care and concern. As a rule, those who have the money... rule. This is true nearly everywhere in electoral politics; there are at any given time very, very few "citizen politicians." They are almost all creatures of their benefactors and funders. But their benefactors and funders are outside the political/governmental system. Very few of them ever stand for office themselves (this is not as true as it once was) and often they are completely unknown to the People. They are in the shadows, behind the scenes, pulling strings to be sure, but rarely making any sort of public display of it. These are the people whose phone calls your representative always takes; these are the people whose will becomes law in a surprisingly short time with little or no public comment. These are the people whose interests come first. These are the people to whom your government is accountable.
Not. To. You.
"But we can throw the bums out!" Yes. By all means. Go ahead. You'll get another crop of bums inevitably. This is how the political system and the government works. Indeed, voters have a choice but it will almost always be a choice between variations of the same thing.
The growing problem is that over the years the Government -- and its servants, the electeds -- have become divorced from The People, to the point where now The People hardly factor at all in the policy decisions of the Movers and Shakers in and out of Government. In fact, many in office are proud to assert that the public interest and public will are not important factors in their decisions, and we have seen time and again, that the Democratic Party Big Wigs make a fetish of insulting and denouncing their own political base. Republican Big Wigs don't do this publicly, but their contempt for the base of their own Party is pretty obvious just the same.
Our Rulers don't believe that they need to accommodate the public any more, or even hear them in many cases. They don't believe they need to in part because they don't believe the public will do anything about the actions of the electeds (and those who sponsor them) that those in office need pay any attention to.
Sternly worded emails don't cut it.
Nor do blog posts.
Not even hotly passionate phone calls.
It isn't too strong to suggest they don't care what you think. They never really did. They only care about what you do and so far as they're concerned, you're not going to do anything they need concern themselves with. And if you get uppity, they'll have you taken care of.
Once you're clear about these fundamentals, the whole "lesser of two evils" trope and the notion that "this is the most important election in world history evah" lose their oomph. "Lesser of two evils" is essentially meaningless, especially if there is no recognition that it is the political/electoral/governmental system itself that produces this situation, not the candidates. All the candidates come out of and serve that system. "The most important election" notion is just as meaningless. If they are all the "most important" -- and they are -- then they're really not that important in the larger scheme of things.
What's important are the policies that are adopted -- which you and I have almost no say in as individuals or as voters.
Sustained activism outside the political system can and does affect those policies, however, as we have seen in numerous instances of civil rights and civil liberties campaigns. Our Rulers have been racheting down the limits of what sorts of activism and on what issues they will allow to affect their decisions, but there is still a possibility of influencing and affecting public policies through sustained activism.
Economic policies and war and peace policies, however, are rarely subject to public influence you may have noticed. In fact, it works the other way: economic policies and war and peace policies are determined at the top and then sold to the public like soap.
Nevertheless, by all means, vote, cast your ballot, exercise the franchise. Just don't expect it to make that much of a difference and you'll be fine.
And if too many people vote the wrong way for their own good, the wise old Robed Ones will take the vote on their own and fix it for you.