Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Primacy of Voting?

Time and again, we have all seen the newspaper editorial or heard the broadcast bombast about how important the act of voting is. An election is nigh and of course ...

Now is the time for all good citizens to come to the aid of their country ... right?

Too many times, I have leapt to my computer to launch yet another letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper correcting yet another of these oversimplifications about the "most important duty a citizen has -- voting."

A brief visit to my local library and a chance perusal of the 25cent sales shelf reminded me of this critical fact: voting is worthless if one has no real choice.

From the sales shelf -- the 1963 political science book, The Consent of the Governed:

In a fully developed mass democracy, candidates and parties would go to the public on the basis of bargains struck among interest groups. Campaign appeals would not be based on rival principles or policies; elections would tend, therefore, to be personality contests with candidates packaged and merchandised by professional experts in public relations. The campaign and the electoral process would be exercises in mass manipulation of the electorate, planned by consent engineers.

What makes the impact of mass society on elections alarming is the new light in which electoral processes have been put by the rise of modern totalitarian regimes. It used to be commonly assumed that the act of voting was a primary, perhaps even the most important, test of whether a government is democratic. The rise of modern totalitarianism shattered this easy assumption. Beginning in the 1930's, in fascist, nazi, and communist regimes, voters began to troop to the polls in large numbers (often over 90 per cent). Nor is it enough to argue that they do so under compulsion. Apparently, they vote often with enthusiasm and feeling. The question we have now to face is, what is the significance of the voting act? What criteria must be met before the act of voting can be held to have genuinely democratic significance?

One solution commonly offered for this question is the simple distinction between a totalitarian vote cast for or against a single candidate or slate and the democratic provision of options or choices between two or more candidates or paties. But does this distinction carry us far enough? What is the significance of the vote in a totalitarian society? What does it mean to the millions of voters who cast their ballots for the single slate of candidates? The best answer seems to be that voting in a totalitarian society is primarily a social and psychological, rather than a political, act. It seems primarily to be a way of securing the psychological comfort of conformity, of expressing one's solidarity with the nation, one's integration into the basic values of the society, one's emotional oneness and belongingness in the total community.

A political act, as that term is used here, is distinguished by the fact that it is part of a procedure for settling differences and for allocating power, prestige, and influence. In this sense, only the ruling elite in a totalitarian society performs political acts; the remainder of society performs the social acts which sanctify, legitimatize, and bind the political decisions of the elite. It would seem to be crucial to the idea of democracy, at least in its historical meaning, that the civic roles of citizens should have political, as distinct from social, meaning and that the act of voting should be a political act. The existence of two or more candidates or parties in no way insures that the citizen is a participant in political decisions, as we have defined that word. Voting, even in nominally two party politics, may be an act that has primarily social rather than political significance.

Whether the vote is a political act will clearly depend on the extent to which the options, provided for the citizen at the polls, offer the possibility of genuine choice between alternative principles, programs, and policies. Unless they do -- if, for example, political competition for the vote is personality-oriented rather than issue-oriented -- then the voter's choice will at best reflect his preferences for such personal qualities as sincerity, friendliness, amiability, leadership, grooming, and charm. It will not reflect his judgment about what policies are in the public interest or how the competing claims to increased wealth, status, prestige, and power in society are to be weighed and accommodated. A nominally and formally competitive political system, under the conditions of mass society, may serve to conceal the fact that citizens are participating socially in the legitimatizing of decisions rather than politically in the making of them.


How many recent presidential elections have riden on the concepts of "Leadership in a Dangerous World" or "Put Integrity Back in the White House" or what was it "Morning in America" ??? Is there any doubt that we have been for quite a while in the era of manipulative politics? Is there any wonder why so many citizens have receded from the political forum because they refuse to be a social legitimatization of political decisions already made by party organizations.

Think about the statements I've heard from partisans:
  • Democrat: "What's with this business of Republican poor people? I just don't understand why so many blue collar workers continually vote against their own economic interests by voting Republican !" (Because the RNC waves the social culture war carrot in front of their noses or point to the moral weakness embodied by the amorous Bill Clinton, etc.)
  • Republican: "Democrats are so big on 'choice.' You know, like, Pro-Choice. But every chance they get, they want to regulate and restrict." (Because the DNC waves the abortion/coat hangar specter.)
These paradoxes are created by parties that coagulate unlike interest groups (factions) under only two banners and, because of election laws that limit choice, provide only those choices on Election Day. Thus reducing the vote to a social action, rather than a true political action that controls the direction of government -- i.e., democracy.

More on choice next ...

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