Thursday, September 29, 2016

Conscientious Objection (Part 2: The Voting Game)

All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority.  

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

The act of voting is a powerful psychological activity. Under different governmental systems, the electorate's reasons for voting can take on different shades, as the very meaning of voting can be different. In a direct democracy, via referendum, while powerful personalities may have argued for various positions, the vote itself tends to relate directly to a concrete issue. However complex that issue--whether it is levying a tax for the public schools in Cuyahoga County, leaving the European Union, or placing a stop sign by the gas station of a small town, the issue has a certain clarity, a certain solidity. The benefit of this solidity is that the vote, in itself, actually accomplishes something by ordering a prescribed activity. The voter understands that they are casting a vote for a direct action (or inaction). Who takes or is denied that action isn't the primary consideration (though of course, it tends to become a secondary consideration).

Representative democracy is different because it always involves, primarily,  faith placed in another person. Whether I'm voting for Mayor, Senator, or President, I'm not voting primarily for a concrete action--however many promises that politician might have made during the campaign--but casting my vote of hope and trust in that person. There are obvious pitfalls of a pseudo-religious nature here,  and we see them every election cycle. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was perhaps the most masterful in recent American history for working in messianic imagery, but his was hardly alone. The presentation of candidates as national saviors is common. The opposition party almost always positions itself as saving the country from the worst four (or eight) years the country has ever seen (or close to it). Every election is always presented as the most crucial of our time. Non-religious materialists are particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing. Generally speaking, no one is more of a sucker for a false messiah than one who doesn't believe in powers beyond materialist reasoning, because they are left entirely at the mercy of things that lie beyond the boundaries of their skepticism. And because our country is getting less and less religious, and more bound, psychologically and otherwise, to materialism, it behooves us to seriously consider the problems this will inevitably produce.

In his 2012 reelection bid, President Obama took a different tack. Perhaps after four years of actual governance he realized that playing the messiah role wouldn't fool anyone, or perhaps we got lucky and he is actually too humble a man to masquerade that long with any sense of comfort. Regardless, his reelection ad strategy was shockingly blatant and crude, culminating in this ad by Lena Dunham called "Your First Time." The ad was a copy of one run by Vladimir Putin for Russian elections, and reads like a young woman giving advice to other young women about who they should choose when losing their virginity. The connotation is clear: voting is like having sex; voting for the first time tends to be very important in how it binds you to that person. In retrospect, the shocking part isn't that the ad was run: it's that the ad is so accurate as to how people respond to their vote.

The two party system forces people into a series of bad compromises. It was ever thus, and it was always intended to accomplish this. But things are arguably worse now than they ever were in the past. Both parties are now products of the same basic power base. They share the same powerful money donors,  the same powerful institutions are behind them, the same basic foreign and domestic policies apply to both. If anyone doubts this, consider that we need to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan before we can find a president who wasn't an alum of either Yale or Harvard. If Hillary Clinton succeeds this November, that rule will continue. Both make promises on wedge issues they have no intention of keeping. Republicans claim they will do everything they can to abolish abortion, but they never do. Democrats claim to care about the saving the world from environmental disaster, but the very first votes they will sell out and ignore will be the environmentalists. And voters on both sides will routinely make excuses for the manipulative, false treatment they have received from the very party they voted for! Why?

The answer lies in Lena Dunham's ad. We've all known people who will defend the terrible person they're involved with, make excuses for an abusive spouse, say "my boyfriend isn't that bad...he doesn't really mean it that way." The fact is that we become apologists for our own bad decisions. We can't bear to think that the person we were foolish enough to give ourselves to was that duplicitous, that nasty, that we were such suckers in the first place. Besides, we think we still see the good in them. It must be everyone else's fault. Dunham is correct: voting psychologically links us to these people. Placing trust and hope in a person doesn't go away once they betray those hopes and dreams. It takes time, and it takes personal, self-confrontational honesty. In a marital or sexual relationship, one is generally forced over time to face facts. The stakes are too high, the situation is daily, and the problems too immediate to ignore forever. But in the case of politics, the problem remains distant, the people can be ignored, the blame can be caste without any need for reasonable discourse. This is probably why the American system makes politics so rude a topic of conversation. In other cultures, chatting about politics is not considered impolite, and it doesn't necessarily get so heated. In America, because it is dominated by the cult of personality and identity, it becomes too personal for casual disagreement.

I've called this section the voting game. Thoreau spoke of that game from the side of the voter: that we were basically treating the future of the nation as a game, and if our side lost, we were contented to say "Oh well. Maybe four years from now, I'll win the rematch." Thoreau pointed out that this showed many things, among them that electorate really only cared about making a show of their beliefs rather than practicing them.

But the voting game has another side. As I mentioned earlier, different governmental systems have different tinges to the meaning of their voting. But all governments want high turnout. The former Soviet Union had much higher voter turnout than we do. Not only was it good propaganda for the "People's Republic", but it helped psychologically wed the electorate to their system of government.

Our current system of government is like a bowling alley with two huge gutters and no lane. We, the electorate, cannot ever reach the pins, but we're all given a bowling ball and told we must bowl if we are to consider ourselves good, participating citizens. But the truth is the game is rigged: no third party can win, and as always,  one of the nearly identical parties will take over yet again come next year's inauguration. Our decisions will largely be made by non-elected officials, sometimes boiling down basic anthropological and societal questions to the vote of one, non-elected supreme court justice, appointed for life in another era, and the only remaining "swing vote." Anthony Kennedy, for many years on many issues, has been the only person in America with a real vote. Think about that. The reason: the Constitution says so. And because both parties have every reason to preserve the power structure as it is, and because the participation of the electorate is higher than ever and people are therefore buying into the system, the system has no possibility of changing.

Part of the answer is to realize that the Constitution simply must be altered to allow for a more free-flowing system, where power isn't locked in two parties which make anti-democratic rules such as the existence of "super delegates" (which exist only to make certain the power base remains the same, whatever the will of the people). And if people become too wedded to a party or a candidate through the process of voting, the first concrete step a citizen can take is to remove themselves from the voting process. If a majority of the electorate sees both candidates as unacceptable (which polls indicate in this election), they should by conscience refuse to vote. By doing so, the very first message sent would be that the president had no political mandate. Otherwise, the winner will claim one, and assert themselves boldly in ways the electorate will accept, having played the game.

This election and this system isn't a democracy. It's a casino. And as any gambler can tell you, the house never really loses. The only way to kill a casino is to not supply it with gamblers. The only way to stop this militaristic,  new-colonialist, mammon worshipping government is to first deny it legitimacy. After that, there will be other tactics. I'll get to them later.


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