While election seasons are widely seen as times when the polity practices politics, this is an illusion; electoralism that accepts the premises of representative democracy is conceptually distinct and incompatible with practicing true politics. Politics involves public debate on the issues of a self-manging political community that leads to social policy. Voting is no political act in that it has nothing to do with this. Rather, it is a highly personal act, which indicates the isolated location of the citizen in representative democracy. The class of bureaucrats who legislate social policy systematically exclude the majority of the population from substantive political participation through varied means: 1) making politics a professional endeavor 2) carefully choosing what kinds of people can occupy such professions through the the two-party-system and the mass media and 3) directly disenfranchising targeted groups who are expected to vote the wrong way. Insofar as citizens choose to vote in the national election, they are making a private and politically ineffectual choice between the bewildering threat of Bush and no positive alternative. Such vote-centric politics have mystified and colonized the progressive political imagination, oftentimes making its advocates actively complicit in their own political isolation by allying themselves with forces that uphold the status-quo.
On the surface of political life today, a festering polarization between the neo-conservative nexus of national security and regressive anti-secularism on one side and an angry and incoherent backlash against it is crucially feeding into the illusion that voting is politics. Majority opinion on the U.S. political left has become transfixed on their correct assessment that the Bush administration presents an unprecedented threat to constitutional limits on state and corporate power. This has allowed the hyper-immediate task of defeating Bush in the electoral arena supplant political vision and a clear-headed radical analysis of power. With revived urgency, the left’s primary political strategy is turning back to an emphasis on the conventional mechanics of political participation in representative democracy: voting, mobilizing others to vote, and even making new parties to vote for at the national level. Frequently, liberal pundits argue that voting exemplifies the moral duty of responsible citizenship, and that it is the key, or at least a good first step, to renewing democracy.
This approach mystifies what is at stake in this election. Issues like the war in Iraq, and the globalization of capitalism are not at stake, because these things will continue no matter who occupies the presidency. This reality becomes no clearer when the biggest U.S. anti-war organization, United for Peace and Justice, initiates a get-out-the vote campaign, with the slogan, “Vote – Your Future is at Stake.” On the other hand, so-called “democracy” (i.e. representative democracy) is at stake, but not in the sense of the oft-lamented widespread reality of not voting. What’s at stake is that right-wing scare-tactics at the grass-roots and legal maneuvers at the state level are undermining the taken-for-granted notion that all people are allowed to vote and that every vote is even counted. (For an excellent rundown of current disenfranchisement efforts see “Bullies at the Voting Booth by Anne-Marie Cusac,”). By shifting the focus from the structural operations of the state and capitalism to the individual choice of voters, the left diverts attention from the causes of the War In Iraq and the rotting away of the voting system. This admits defeat; all that could be worse would be active campaigning for the Democratic opposition.
Inasmuch as a pragmatic dimension must be part of any visionary politics, the most immediate problem for so-called democracy in this election is not low voter turnout, which emerges from the accurate and widely held perception that voting is politically inconsequential. Rather, it is that the Bush administration is replacing republican forms of government with even more dangerously authoritarian and even quasi-fascistic forms of statecraft. Thus the pragmatic thing to do is not to get votes for the Democratic opposition, but to stop the rotting away of old taken-for-granted channels of republican political participation. That means constraining the political space that unaccountable and non-transparent vote-machine corporations occupy. It means confronting right-wing thugs who intimidate people of color at polling stations. With the combined efforts of these companies, the prison/court system, which legally disenfranchises people of color disproportionately, state election boards that arbitrarily remove people of color from the voter roles, and local organizations that intimidate vulnerable populations from voting, the neo-cons threaten to steal the election again. By fooling people with the idea that their vote gives them power, the left’s vote-centric approach actually fails at the laudable aim of removing the special threat Bush poses.
Those that count the votes, those who control the means of communication to tell us what the votes mean, and those who justify their political power on grounds of the voting system’s supposed legitimacy have power. While what we do concerning the voting booth is for each of us to decide personally, our collective political task is to contest them for this power, and to re-organize it along egalitarian lines. Radical political practice must broaden its critique beyond Bush and affirm a vision of the social good: a direct democracy founded on principles of solidarity economics, ecology, and non-hierarchy.