By Nick Cooper
Art by Austin Smith
The nation has spoken: Six years of Obama was enough. Apparently the people want Republicans, but who knows what they want specifically. To repeal Obamacare? To cut government spending on education? To lock up returning ebola health-care providers? To stop any regulations on banks and fossil fuels? To prevent the outside possibility of minimal requirements being imposed on gun buyers? The Republican electoral strategy was to attack Obama. In response, the Democrats only conceded the point, distancing themselves from the President. Considering the results, they couldn’t have done much worse proudly proclaiming his name from the mountaintop.
The debates of the election were about distractions — both sides criticized the other about the economy, bipartisanship, ebola, ISIS / terrorism, immigration, and Obamacare. It would have been nice to hear actual debate on fundamental disagreements on issues, but instead we became the viewing audience at a elaborately produced play paid for and choreographed by PACs and rich people. In it, Republicans proudly portray the role of xenophobic, fundamentalist policemen of sexual morality who also oppose federal spending on anything other than war machines. Democrats’ role is to lose outright, or strike pathetic compromises as they push for reproductive rights, expanded health care, gay rights, net-neutrality, immigration reform, stopping new Israeli settlements, and reducing greenhouse gases. Every few years, the audience gets to vote, choosing between a party that proudly proclaims empty nationalist rhetoric, and a party that stands weakly and ambivalently for some things that matter.
Voting, the only aspect of our system that could be called somewhat “democratic,” is not used to make clear demands or promote agendas. Instead voting is a means by which we express our distaste for politicians and each other. The fact that majority of those who bother to vote switch every few years between Republican and Democrat doesn’t represent any mass shift of allegiances, but rather a shallow, lazy attempt to try something different. Republican and Democrat voters take turns celebrating every few years that their side has won, while in reality, everyone loses except the richest and most powerful.
Even the possibility of a Clinton / Bush election in 2016 should tip off voters that elections are a charade. Was there some groundswell of public opinion demanding that Hillary lead us into glory? Did she convey a bold vision about what her presidency could bring? Do people identify with her as one of their own? Of course not. Her electability seems to based on little more than that she has been waiting patiently. She stands for nothing. Candidates like Hillary are puppets, pawns, or candidates on America’s Got a President, but we didn’t get to watch the real auditions.
Important stuff, like ending the war on drugs, getting money out of elections, fighting climate change, single payer health care, cutting military spending, ending the death penalty, a living wage, affordable housing, sustainable energy and agriculture, ending corporate personhood, prosecuting Wall Street crooks, a fracking ban, taxing the rich, restorative justice, equalizing school funding, withdrawing from “free-trade” agreements, etc. are elephants in the room, mentioned at election time only by the Green Party or occasionally in ballot initiatives. And speaking of elephants, wild elephants are set to be extinct in the next decade. How about a politician opposing that?
Elections are expensive, and the public knows that they are paid for by “interest groups” which end up having influence over their sponsored candidates. We know that wealthy sponsors want specific sorts of favors, but we forget that collectively, they also buy something more fundamental. The system pays for politicians to distract us, to provide the illusion of choice, and to channel our hopes and dreams into a dog and pony show.
Even if elections are nothing more than an empty shadow of true democracy, they still represent democracy, and it is our pro-democratic tendency that makes us defend them. So, it makes sense that folks get defensive when they read a cynical article about voting. However, if elections are worth defending, people should defend them not from criticism, but from the actual threats to free, open, and fair elections, like voter discrimination laws, gerrymandering, and corporate sponsorship of candidates. These threats can be fought, but the venue for that is not found within the framework of elections, especially $3.7 billion ones. There are important battles that could be won with real effort, but an hour spent voting every couple years isn’t going to cut it.
If millions of people were ready to march on Washington and refuse to leave until we have full publicly-funded elections, we’d have them in a few months. Victories could be won in the US without bullets or ballots, by sheer numbers of humans in the streets who refuse to leave. It is hard for us to imagine mass mobilizations. Occupy was relatively small, and the 2003 protests against the Iraq war lasted only one day. It is hard to even imagine what mass movements demanding real changes would look like. Without this imagination, we will be the unhappy audience for perpetual puppet shows.