The dictionary definition of democracy refers to the rule of the majority, a government of the people. It is commonly believed that elections are indicative of democratic governance. They are not. In fact, it is debatable whether or not democratic decision making is either possible or desirable, government having evolved into a rather complex, specialized function, involving issues too complex for the law makers much less the citizenry. And then there is the reality that in a capitalist society money rules, the government generally acting as the administrative arm of big business and finance. With this in mind, perhaps we should redefine democracy as citizen empowerment, the most important aspect of which is the control over our own lives, along with some influence over social policy.
The most important aspect of control over our own lives is the establishment of individual rights under the law. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights is an example of essential political safeguards which protect the individual from arbitrary political abuse. Unfortunately, our constitutional rights have increasingly been ignored by the government, including the courts. Legal rights without enforcement power are meaningless. A “parchment barrier.” Absent from the start was an economic bill of rights to safeguard the individual from economic abuse, without which political rights are almost meaningless. In the absence of economic rights, the near absence of political rights, and the failure of “representative democracy” to provide a government responsive to the popular will and common good, what benefit do elections and voting provide?
Many Americans have what appears to be a schizophrenic attitude towards elections and democracy. They pooh-pooh the U.S. electoral system as not reflecting the will of the people, while simultaneously expressing strong support for elections in foreign lands. Placing great importance on elections somewhere else, while recognizing their limitations here, some not bothering to vote. Too little thought has been given to the role U.S. elections play in the administration of society, both as a means of social control and as a vehicle for influencing social change.
Let us begin by asking what is the alternative to elections and voting? What other mechanism is there for the citizenry to participate in the selection of government officials, and to express approval or disapproval of the actions and policies of current officials, and the proposed actions and policies of challengers? While there are ways to influence governmental decision making outside the electoral process, particularly for those with significant economic power, nonetheless, in the absence of obviously fraudulent elections, an elected government has a legitimate claim to more-or-less represent the citizenry. Elections tend to bestow legitimacy and to provide an important avenue for citizen input, at least in theory.
For elections to have value, they must be honest, that is, that they accurately reflect the vote. Elections in which there is significant vote fraud should be rejected and boycotted if possible. The use of voting machines which have no paper trail for audit/recount purposes is unacceptable. It should never be acceptable to take the official tally ‘on faith’ with no recourse to confirmation. Equally unacceptable is the suppression of voting rights either by the fraudulent manipulation of voter registration lists or inadequate voting accessibility. Restrictions on the franchise itself should be minimized and justified.
Honest elections provide valuable feedback in regards to the mood of the citizenry. And while power, particularly monetary power, can and do heavily influence the electoral outcome, these same factors affect all other aspects of social interaction, communication and change. So that while elections may not be ‘fair’ in the full sense of the term, honest ones do reflect prevailing social reality, and do provide an indirect measure of elite ability to manufacture consent for elite policies and overall social control. Additionally, elections do represent a minimally disruptive avenue for change if and when the citizenry chooses to challenge elite rule at least somewhat. If you can’t get people to vote for you, they are even less inclined to join in your revolution. Also, honest elections bestow legitimacy, a factor which advocates of “lesser of two evils” voting forget.
A common critique of elections in a representative democracy is that money and power so restrict the available choices that elections cannot possibly provide candidates which either reflect the will of the people or the best interests of the citizenry. This is partly true insofar as significant campaign funding gives significant advantage to the well-funded Democratic and Republican candidates versus poorly funded third party and independent candidates. Yet, the fact remains there is frequently a choice of alternative candidates, particularly for President, which the voters could select should they choose to do so. The fact that voters can be so effectively manipulated by expensive propaganda and media bias is indicative of a society that willingly allows itself to be controlled. In other words, the electoral results reflect social reality. The majority of the citizenry are faithful followers who willingly acquiesce to elite rule, and are unwilling to challenge the system in any meaningful sense.
One aspect of social reality is the phenomenon of people voting/campaigning for a candidate whose policies they mostly oppose, then protesting the policies of the person they voted for. Not that pressure shouldn’t be brought to bear here and there on elected officials the electorate mostly supports, but it is irrational to support a candidate whose policies you mostly oppose in the hope of obtaining significant change through street pressure, a tactic more suited to the absence of democratic elections. Why vote for someone whose policies you mostly oppose? The usual excuse is that the alternative is/would be even worse. The alternative usually defined as the other major party candidate, third party candidates dismissed out of hand as unelectable, hence, a wasted vote. While there may be a certain logic to a one time vote for the “lesser evil,” in the long run this philosophy represents de facto approval of elite rule and deteriorating conditions.
The denigration of the electoral process by some social critics is a misguided belittlement of one of the few avenues for popular organization and peaceful change. A big part of the problem is excessively focusing on the particular corporate candidates vying for public office, and voting for the lesser of two evils. The end result is to democratically legitimize corporate rule, having voted for the representative of the corporate oligarchy, and ignoring third party candidates of meaningful social change. The effect is to marginalize attempts at social change through electoral rejection. As long as the citizenry continues to go along with business as usual, offering no meaningful resistance whatever, why should the corporate oligarchs temper their plans much less yield social power? This is a losing strategy and a sign of weakness.
Many who justify lesser evil voting also actively support the “lesser evil” corporate candidate through campaign contributions and volunteering. In other words, they contribute time and money in support of corporate control and business as usual. On the left, the Democratic Party is the graveyard of progressive change, particularly at the national level. At the local level, however, there may be some justification for supporting major party progressives, to the degree they exist. If they do, they most likely will be Democrats, the Republican Party increasingly the home of right-wing fundamentalists. Supporting those few progressive Democrats at the local level does not mean supporting the Democratic Party which is essentially corporate controlled and the enemy of progressive change. All candidates must be held accountable for their votes and other actions. Democrats calling themselves “progressive” who loyally support the national party’s regressive policies are not progressive, nor worthy of support. Talk is cheap, and lying commonplace. Accountability is essential.
It is one thing to vote for progressive Democrats at the local level, quite another to work for the Democratic Party at any level. However, there may be some benefit to joining some alternative progressive social and political organizations. This may provide an organizational setting within which to share ideas and engage in meaningful activities. Therefore, joining progressive third party organizations may have merit, particularly if they are linked with a progressive social movement. These types of organizations will likely be more successful at the local level and in the social sphere. Most would be well advised to practice radical decentralization, trying to accommodate and smooth over fundamental differences is ultimately self-defeating. Trying to ‘unite the left’ is nonsense. The ‘left’ is nothing but a label attached to people, many of which have little in common. It is better to work with people who share your vision, networking with others where appropriate.
To summarize, elections are not synonymous with democracy, and in fact, may have little effect on governmental decision making which, in turn, is but one factor in shaping the political economy. However, honest elections do provide valuable feedback on the opinions and inclinations of the citizenry, and have the potential to significantly influence the political system and the political economy as a whole. This potential has rarely manifested itself and currently appears dormant, largely because of the elite ability to manufacture consent which, in turn, is greatly facilitated by the tendency of most to acquiesce to hierarchical organizational control and elite rule. As things now stand, elite rule seems firmly entrenched, and the conditions of life for the majority will likely get worse.