In January 2008 I interviewed Michael Albert, author and co- founder/staff member of Z, for a video series on the presidential elections and how a left candidate might present an alternative analysis and program around issues such as foreign policy, the economy, health care, the environment, and education, among others. This interview is an edited transcription of part one of the video series.
SARGENT: Who votes and why so few?
ALBERT: Roughly half the country votes, about 50 percent of the population. Of course, this means that the winner of an election, getting a little over half of that, has a quarter of the population voting for them. Calling this a big victory is a bit outrageous.
Why do so few people vote? Well, I think for good reasons actually. I think that people vote or don’t vote because they feel that on the Tuesday of an election day, to get up and go to the polls is not worth it. When you think about it, that’s a pretty startling statement. It doesn’t take that much to get up and go to the polls. On the other hand, what do you gain by doing it? Well, very little if you believe: (a) that you’re voting for someone who’s not interested in your well being; and (b) that the people you are voting for are not telling the truth.
You might think that what you’re electing is equivalent to a prison warden who will administer your life from above, without considering your interests, but only the interests of constituencies who are completely distant from you—rich, wealthy people. You might decide you are willing to vote anyway because one prison warden is better than the other. Or you might decide that it’s too grotesque to cast your ballot for someone who is an agent of your own pain and suffering. So many don’t vote.
I don’t think that’s so crazy. What really makes it extreme is that most people do not vote based on substance. Most people vote based on who they like, who sounds good, who makes them feel better, as compared to making them feel worse. Why do they do that? Again, I think it’s for a good reason. The person who is elected president is in your face and you can make a judgment on whether or not you like their personality or speaking style and so on. If you make a judgment based on substance, you are making it based on lies—and everybody knows that. So it’s not obvious that it’s smarter to pore over the substance of their positions on the issues than it is to look at their personalities and their way of expressing themselves. The latter at least will continue to be true over the four years. The substance will change on a dime depending on the nature of their real constituency—the rich and powerful.
So elections in the U.S. are not democratic and fair, where the best candidate wins in the end. Is that what you’re saying?
Not only is it not the truth, but very few people in the U.S. actually believe it’s the truth. Two points: right now in the United States two-thirds of the population is against the war. If the government functioned according to the will of the populace, it would immediately end the war. But the government doesn’t function according to the will of the populace, it functions according to the interest of the elites—that is, about 20 percent of the population, with the top 2 percent of that 20 percent being far more relevant. So if 50, 60, 70, 80 percent of the population wants policy X (withdrawal from Iraq, universal health care, whatever it is), that fact alone is not enough to make policy X happen.
The second point is how do these candidates win an election? They don’t win based on substance and they know it. Candidates are essentially competing for donors and to be treated better by the media elite. While the public is a factor—they have to get some people to pull the levers—what they really have to do is get the donations that enable them to plaster themselves in front of everybody’s face and to appear jovial and inspiring and so on. The more money they have, the better they are able to cajole the media, by their expenditures and by their alliance with elites inside the media.
So if someone like Huckabee wants to rework the Constitution to reflect “God’s will,” the voters aren’t aware of his position, only his homespun style, or whatever, when they vote?
Well, no, some people run for president who on occasion express positions that they believe in. I suspect Huckabee believes that the vision he has of God and religion and all the rest of it should govern people’s lives. I think Kucinich is expressing what he believes. I don’t think he’s weighing what the public wants, what donors want, what the media wants, and trying to frame himself in such a way that will win the election regardless of what he believes. But those candidates don’t really stand much of a chance in our political system, which is based on investments—that is, rich people putting money behind candidates—and positive, even glowing, media attention.
What about the front runners, the elite/media approved choices?
As for the rest of the candidates, the differences are quite marginal and it’s difficult to know what they really are because the candidates don’t tell the truth about what they’re going to do. Even if they tried to tell the truth, the president isn’t a dictator. A president is part of a system and is buffeted by forces within that system, by constituencies that have a great deal of say over what the president is able to do or even desires to do.
Can you imagine a situation where there would be lots of voters; for instance, 89 percent of the population in the U.S. would vote, as happened in Venezuela recently?
Yes. But in order for that to happen the voters would have to feel that something very significant was at stake. I should clarify that sometimes things are at stake. So when one of the candidates wants to repeal Roe v. Wade, they’re probably telling the truth. If another candidate says they want to keep it in place or expand feminist agendas, they’re probably telling the truth. So about some issues like abortion, gun control, and gay marriage you may get the truth from candidates and choosing among them on those grounds makes some sense.
But on broad economic and foreign policy issues, they just lie. There’s no necessary correlation between what they’ve said and what they are actually going to do or be allowed to do.
Now imagine an election in which you had two candidates running that were distinctly different and in which they were compelled to tell the truth. Not only that, they would say what they would then do. So you are choosing between competing agendas that would actually be implemented in the next four years.
Suppose Huckabee and others are right and there’s a God and this God says, “This next election is going to be different.” Huckabee is going to run against Kucinich. Or Bush is going to run against Chomsky, if you prefer. Or fill in the blank. In any case, there are going to be two candidates—one serving the interests of the greater bulk of the population, the other serving the interests of the rich and powerful. The U.S. population is going to have plenty of time to become aware of what the truth is for these two candidates. The election will be fair and the winner will get to implement their policies. If that kind of election happened, in which people could know what was at stake, then I think everybody would vote. But it’s hard to conceive of such an election as it bears no relationship to an election in the United States.
Suppose the government said tomorrow, “We’re going to have a referendum on the war in Iraq and three months from now we’ll have a vote.” If the American people say, “Get out,” we’ll get out. If the American people say, “Stay in,” we’ll stay in. In the interim people from all parts of the spectrum—GIs who’ve been there and are dissenting, as well as those who support the war, people on the left, people on the right—are going to be able to express themselves and present their case. We’ll learn what it costs, what it costs in human life, etc. And then we’ll have a referendum. In that instance, everybody would vote. But we don’t have things like that because the government is not interested in serving the interests of the American people.
Do you think that if we had election reforms more would vote?
No. Suppose you’re about to get 40 lashes and you’re voting for which person is going to whip you. You could imagine lots of tiny variables, confusions about the issues. But the big thing would be that most of the people voting recognize that whoever wins, people are getting 40 lashes. So I don’t think it has to do with the electoral college and all the rest. Those things matter in an election between the haves, about how to deal with the have nots while propelling the interests of the haves. Of course, the haves do have differences and do debate those differences and do choose among candidates or parties.
Describe how candidates go about winning. What are their strategies?
The main thing is to win the race for investments, getting wealthy people to donate to your campaign. Then to win the race for positive media attention—to keep alive a derivative support among the population largely based on that media activity, by saying things that people will like or at least not dislike, determined by polls.
What you don’t do is obvious. Suppose the random person on the street was running for president—doesn’t have 6,000 advisors, doesn’t have the cream of the mental crop trying to figure out a strategy, but is just going to think for herself. She is going to assess what to do to win the election. Well, she looks at the last elections and discovers 50 percent are not voting. So what should she do to win the election? It seems pretty obvious: appeal to that 50 percent. If the 50 percent who’ve been voting continue to split very nearly down the middle, as they have in election after election, then all she has to do is appeal to the 50 percent and get a reasonable number to vote and she becomes president of the United States.
What’s interesting is that neither candidate does that. Why? Because to appeal to that 50 percent would require that you convince them that you’re telling the truth and that you’re going to do something that will affect the lives of poorer, less powerful constituencies. You have to convince them that you are for real. Not only that, in doing so, you have to inspire and invigorate them, you have to give them incentive to vote. Well, there’s a danger there. You might also give them the incentive to pay attention to what’s going on in society. You might give them a feeling they can actually have a say and have an effect. Then you’ve unleashed real participation or a desire for it in part of the population.
Well, both parties are totally opposed to doing that. So it’s a fight in which the two boxers come into the ring and they both agree not to use one hand. If either one of them used the second hand, that boxer would win. But they both agree not to do what’s necessary to get that sector of the population excited and involved and working for their candidate, trying to win.
When some weird situation evidences the possibility that a candidate would have that effect, that candidate tends to be destroyed by the media. Why? Because the media is not interested in the population becoming inspired and participating in the life of society, thereby pushing it in a direction that would benefit the largest part of the population.
The answer about strategy is roughly this: appeal to the rich and powerful, get them to give their money. Don’t upset the media. If you can, appeal to the media so you are portrayed in a fashion that’s consistent with what you are trying to accomplish in terms of manipulating people into voting for you. By all means do not appeal to most of the population; do not appeal to the 50 percent who are not voting.
It’s sad. It’s grotesque. It has nothing to do with democracy. It has nothing to do with participation. It has entirely to do with Hollywood. It’s all about appearance, etc., and the population puts up with it because the population feels there’s no real alternative.
What might be different about the 2008 election for president?
Right off the bat, there are two—actually three or four—things that are different about this election. On the Democratic side the two candidates who are left at this point, one of them is a woman and one of them is black. Some on the left act as though that doesn’t mean anything because they look at their politics and the constituencies they appeal to and rightfully perceive that Clinton and Obama are typical mainstream Democrats—even somewhat rightist. And they say, okay, these candidates don’t represent views and values and aspirations that would serve the population.
The critique is correct, of course. By the same token, there is something incredible about the possibility of a woman or a black president now and it says something. It says that it’s still the case, even after all these years of Republican domination, that the public is slowly becoming a better place. That’s something that many leftists don’t even want to acknowledge and yet it’s due in large part to the women’s movement, to the civil rights movement, to the left. So I think that’s consequential.
There is something at stake in this current presidential election, I think. The Republican Party in the U.S., particularly the right wing and fundamentalist elements of the Republican Party, is interested in turning back the clock about 100 years—they’ve been in the process of doing it and the hands are still spinning. So they want to keep on with that pattern.
The Democratic Party has gotten to the point where it realizes this is a catastrophe, not so much because it’s a catastrophe for most of humanity, which is true, but because it’s a calamity for the entire society, including themselves. They want to change the direction quite a bit, I think, and it has gotten to the point that something substantially different may emerge from this election on the Democratic side. Not because they are all of a sudden enlightened about the person who’s living out of a garbage can or who’s sleeping under a bridge or who’s been shot to death in Iraq. They didn’t just discover this. It’s just that things have gotten so bad that the country is threatening to unravel.
The country is becoming the laughingstock of the planet in some respects. There are significant sectors of the ruling elites who are willing to accept some changes in order to prevent the calamity that the Republicans are leading us toward.
I don’t think this means the Democratic front runners are great candidates or tribunes of the population or agents of fundamental changes that would benefit those who need the benefit the most—the constituencies that are at the bottom of society, and the constituencies around the world that are under the boot of U.S. foreign policy. It does mean that new constituencies are playing a role in the body politic and that there’s been a change in consciousness around race and gender—not yet class—in the United States. I think that matters quite a lot.
I haven’t noticed most elections over the last years because there’s just so little going on of any consequence. But this election is of consequence, it’s of major consequence.