...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Illusion of Democracy

I wish I remember which Soviet dissident once said that the difference between people in the old Soviet Union and people in America is that the Soviets knew they were being lied to. The pathetic display of bravado and self-importance displayed in this week's election reminded me of this truism. Not only did we have to put up with the usual empty rhetoric and meaningless slogans, we were subject (just as we were by the Obamaniacs two years ago) to countless propositions that this or that politician is going to change the way things get done in Washington. The saddest part about it all was listening to all the naïve dupes interviewed on places like NPR – so called everyday normal voters – who expressed some degree of enthusiasm that their vote, and the mandate of which they felt a part, would actually make a difference. People in America – at least the politically naïve, who account for the majority – actually believe that changing who is “in charge” in Washington is actually going to change the system! It seems completely lost on them that the system gives them these so-called choices every now and then precisely to distract them away from doing anything that actually might change the system. It is their votes, in a very simple sense, that keep up the very status quo they hope to change.

Okay, “the system” is not a sentient being and therefore is probably not capable of such calculating manipulation – at least not intentionally. But all complex systems have some degree of self-preserving drive in them, or else natural selection would render them obsolete. It is quite likely that the US's version of democracy – our two-party system – has earned at least enough respect to potentially carry such self-sustaining impulses. It is also quite possible that the system is indeed controlled and manipulated by others, most likely not the same people who go out and pander for our votes every two years. The point is, the two-party system has established itself as the over-arching power structure, under which there is no hope of trying to insert any alternatives to the present system. It does this through implicit power-sharing methods in which the ground theoretically conceded to the “other” party appears to be open territory for democracy to function, but in reality is only conceded enough for the other party to claim in incremental bases. At the end of the day, there is no “open space” left in which democracy can function.

Let's compare this with the old Soviet system, which, we'll recall, was a democracy – on paper. But the more or less democratic structure of the Soviet government was completely dominated by the dictates and policies of the Communist Party, and all leaders “elected” within this system owed their allegiance and their continued survival to the Party, not the voters. Hence the Communist Party controlled what was done or not done by the government. That is, until a sacrificial leader like Mikhail Gorbachev came along to at least shake things up a little. Oh, how America needs its own Gorbachev now.

But here in the US, of course, we don't have a single party dominating the system, we have two. With two parties, the story goes, voters have a choice and a say in how things get done or not done, right? Perhaps there is a little bit of truth in this, and perhaps in this sense voters in the US have slightly more say in government than did those in the Soviet Union. But only slightly. Each of the two political parties have the resources, which they obtain through copious political fund-raising, to theoretically control 100% of the functions of elected officials. In other words, it is possible that if by some fluke in the next election 100% of the vote went to either Democrats or Republicans, the winning party would have the resources to fill all these new positions with politicians who are beholden to them. Actually, not 100%, since there are sacrificial districts that exist by mutual agreement of both parties, and that is key to maintaining the dominance of this two-party duopoly, and maintaining it efficiently. In practice each party has no need to reach for this 100% level of resources, they only need to reach for a solid majority, say 60% of elected seats. If each party reaches for this level, they are in effect conceding the remaining 40% to the other party, which means that 80% of the open positions are basically decided by mutual agreement between the two major political parties, with barely a nod given to any choice the voters may have on the matter. Anyone who, like me, lives in a solidly “blue” or solidly “red” Congressional District knows what this looks like.

What about the other 20%? This is, of course, where the so-called “battlegrounds” of US politics plays out so dramatically every election. And it is the battleground onto which each political party, with enough resources to control 60% of political processes in the US, can devote pretty close to 100% of its resources meaning, if we can stretch this simple arithmetic metaphor to its limit, that enough resources to control nearly 120% of all political processes in the US are dumped into this tiny battleground area that constitutes a mere 20% of actual contests. Doesn't leave much room for independent, third-party, or other outside influences.

why these close contests have become so commonplace, and will continue to be even more common as this system gets more solidly situated as the dominating force of American politics. Do people really believe it is just a coincidence that massive statewide elections in which millions of votes are cast can regularly come down to margins of only a few hundred votes? Do people really believe that American voters just so happen to be so evenly divided in their political persuasions that there really is a 50/50 ideological split in these cases? Actually, I think the voters are smarter than that, on average, even if the aforementioned media commentators are either not that smart or too scared to report the truth – that these close elections represent the most vivid examples of the result of political parties manipulating the voters. The parties, trying to be effective with their hard-earned resources, put just enough energy – in both strategic and tactical terms – into these contests to win a majority, no more. As always, it comes down to how to “swing” that tiny margin of undecideds – 20, 10, 5, or even 1% of actual voters – into tipping the entire election their way. It is much easier to see how these big elections can be decided by such small margins this way. The trick that the parties need to do – which I think they are getting very good at – is to work to keep this margin of undecideds as small as possible, and that is in both parties self-interest, so they can kind of collaborate on it. In other words, both these political parties are working very hard to try to make you – the voter – not want to have a choice in the next election. They want you to feel like you have no choice but to support their reliable candidate.

Yes, a footnote is called for here, for in this latest election we are hearing much about the “tea party” and its influence on the Republican party. And yes, this bleeding heart liberal recognizes this trend with great sadness and fear, not so much for the effect it will have on the political system, but for the immediate effect it will have on pending legislation and programs. But as for its effect on the political system, I can say only that I'm envious. We left-wingers have been frustrated in recent years, particularly during the Bush 43 administration, by the Democratic Party's unwillingness to even consider giving its left-leaning base the time of day. The politicos in charge of the Democratic Party have convinced almost all of us, through fear-mongering, to surrender our values and reluctantly support middle-of-the-road candidates that seem more likely to appeal to conservatives than true liberals. I can only hope that the tea party's influence on the Republican Party will be a positive one – for it is not just pulling it “to the right” as is claimed, but also, perhaps, pulling it in a more pure, principled direction, which will be a benefit to all. Perhaps one day soon, this bleeding heart liberal will actually become more of a Republican than a Democrat, if the Republicans are brave enough to stand on principle more than politics. Perhaps our future Gorbachev will be wearing an elephant.

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