If you didn't then you are an uncaring idiot who didn't do your part in trying to get rid of the most brutal President yet. If you did, well then you're a good dupe legitimizing a 2-Party monopoly whose left hand holds a .38, the right a .45.
Like all election years, U.S. citizens this year were bombarded with appeals to do their bit for democracy and get out'n'vote. The old rallying cry that 'this time voting will really make a difference' had great appeal. Orchestrated election hoopla was bigger and more expensive than ever before. But if millions were mesmerized by images of leaders, far fewer people bothered to cast their ballot.
LESSER EVILS, GREATER MYTHS
For many, voting Reagan out was considered crucial to avoid escalation of U.S. intervention in Central America, to protect what remains of welfare and civil rights programs, and to prevent the appointment of more conservative judges to the Supreme Court.
At first glance, Mondate's position against covert aid to the contras in Nicaragua appeared to make him a "peace" alternative to the more obvious war posturing of the Reagan administration. But then Mondale said he would "quarantine" Nicaragua if the Sandinistas didn't fall in line behind U.S. foreign policy. An effective quarantine would mean placing U.S. troops and military resources around Nicaragua's borders, a strategy that would increase the likelihood of direct U.S. intervention in the region. Moreover, Mondale openly applauded aid to El Salvador and endorsed Reagan's invasion of Grenada. From Woodrow Wilson's explicit campaign promise of non- intervention in World War I to "peace candidate" Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War, the Democrats' track record is dismal (see sidebar The Democrats' Long and Sleazy History of War and Militarism) .
The prospect for poor and minorities under Mondale was equally dismal. The Carter-Mondale administration championed underprivileged interests by proposing $27.6 billion in domestic cuts, including reductions in job training, Social Security and other programs. Four years later at the Democratic Convention, the Mondale-Ferraro faction rejected all but one of the (already tame) minority planks put forth by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, leading one of his supporters to comment: "We were treated like song and dance men ... treated with arrogance by Mondale." Meanwhile, Mondale took great pains to embrace Bert Lance, a living symbol of corrupt, Southern monied interests.
The spectre of a Supreme Court stacked with anti-abortion, anti-civil rights, pro-prayer conservatives provided the most convincing reason to vote against Reagan. Such a realignment could threaten the few substantial civil liberties than can still be defended in U.S. courts. Mondale's choices for these positions of power would almost certainly be more moderate than Reagan's. But given the prevailing political climate, Mondale appointees would likely be more conservative than the two remaining liberals on the Court, Brennan, age 78 and Marshall, age 76. Election results aside, the overall injustice of the U.S. legal system would persist.
The attention given to presidential elections was ridiculously disproportionate to the real effect of ballot casting in our daily lives. Voting gives us some influence over who wins but no reassurance that the winner will serve our interests.
Politicians make all kinds of promises and projections during their campaigns that are left unfulfilled by the end of their terms. The most important issues are rarely voted on. This year, for example, voters cannot decide whether the government will authorize nationwide cobalt irradiation of fruit, vegetables and grain; whether U.S. Steel, G.M., Atari and other corporations can again shutdown major plants and ravage nearby communities by suddenly throwing thousands out of work; or whether computer chip-making is worthwhile as long as chlorine gas and other known cancer-causing toxics are necessary to produce them.
In 23 states the citizenry can raise
pertinent questions through popular initiatives. This process has placed
on the ballot issues that concretely affect people's lives (rent control,
repeal of sales tax on food, gun control). In recent years, the initiatives
have also included symbolic measures such as municipal declarations of
nuclear free zones or opposition to federal military aid to Central America.
Popular local initiatives are also threatened by tremendous financial support from outside special interests. This year, California's Proposition 37 for a state lottery saw in-state opponents (mostly race track interests and churches) raise $88,000 in total contributions. In one fell swoop, an out of state lottery ticket supplier, Scientific Games Inc. made a $1.5 million contribution in support of the proposition. Not surprisingly, as money becomes the crucial factor in posing and deciding initiatives, they become increasingly conservative, such as California's Proposition 41 that would immediately cut welfare benefits by 40%.
The emergence of a voting industry
has turned voters into political "capital" for those who run the business
of American democracy. For political machines, people are 'votes' to be
bought, sold, and traded as the candidate's strategy and warchest dictate.
Leaders of large organizations from the Moral Majority to the Nuclear
Freeze Movement to the AFL-CIO, broker their members' votes as stock in
exchange for campaign pledges and planks in party platforms. For pollsters
and electoral analysts of all kinds, 'voting blocs' are vital data for
determining the winning party 'ticket', how districts should be re-apportioned,
which incumbents may be most vulnerable. The 'black vote,' Yuppie vote,
farm vote, youth vote, Christian vote, labor vote, senior vote, peace
vote have become so many chips
WHICH SIDE ARE THEY ON?
Office-holders are not guided by the humble concerns of most of their constituents, but instead are led by the huge non-elective state bureaucracies like the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, and Federal Reserve Board. For example, once the Pentagon begins a program like the B1 bomber, a Congressional member has little control over the scientific, technical, and military experts intimately involved. Rather, elected representatives must rely upon them for pertinent information in deciding defense budget allocations.
Campaign "donations" also have a unique impact upon a politician's perspective. And 1984 was yet another record year in the price of candidacy. Congressional campaign spending alone has gone well over $200 million dollars, over $50 million of which was contributed by Political Action Committees dominated by corporations and military-related unions.
The notion that politicians are accountable
to their constituents is questionable considering the source of campaign
funding. For instance in California legislators received over 90% of their
funding from outside the districts they represent. Even in county and
municipal elections, such "tainted" financial support is the rule. In
San Francisco, city supervisors seeking
With so few options and so much corruption, it's a wonder voting enjoys the legitimacy it does. For tens of millions of Americans, what historian Charles Beard once called the "sound and fury" of election politics has dwindled to a whimper. Research indicates that voters and nonvoters alike increasingly share a common attitude skepticism over the government's ability to solve their problems. (see, e.g. "The Decline of Electoral Participation in America" in American Political Science Review No. 76).
The loss in enthusiasm for elected government parallels a steady and significant decline in voter turnnout. Since 1960 (when 63% of the adult population voted) the percentage of voter turnout has dropped to a low of 53% in 1982. Barely half of eligible voters voted in the 1980 presidential election; 78 million did not. If this trend continues, by 1990 more eligible voters will not vote than will.
Voter profiles suggest that the affluent are over-represented at election-time. Participation in the 1980 national elections confirmed a long term trend: 70% of those with annual incomes over $25,000 voted; only 25% of those with less than $10,000 did.
The more money one has, the greater is one's power over and stake in the narrow spectrum of policy changes candidates can be expected to make.
For example, the combined boards of directors and major stockholders of real estate, investment, law, insurance and banking corporations have the most to lose in the short run by even slight changes in tax and banking policies that politicians can and do change regularly. And if the choice between an MX or Cruise missile is a no-win proposition to most, to arms contractors and subcontractors with billions riding on one project or the other, and to the careers of Pentagon and intelligence agency factions, the controversy is one of substance.
But for the rest of us, the motivations
for voting are more symbolic. In a culture marked with isolation and alienation,
election day provides people with an opportunity to feel they are a part
of a nationwide collectivity participating in vital public decisions.
Like going to church every Sunday (and then acting with insensitivity
and self-interest the rest of the week) voting every year or two provides
a quick, easy way to do your duty. The cajoling and guilt-tripping of
voter registration campaigners reinforce the sense that when we vote '
we really are doing something for ourselves and society.
THE MEDIA IS THE MASSAGE
Voter apathy has presented a challenge
that the media has taken up with gusto. The absence of substantive differences
between candidates leaves ample room for the "media politics" of image-manipulation
to transform some boring old farts into celebrities. As former Nixon speechwriter
Ray Price succinctly put it in an interview with the Village Voice: "[the
voters'] response is to the image, not to the man ... It's not the man
we have to change, but rather the received impression."
For many voters, candidates' records
are far less important than their ability to project optimism for a bright
and shiny future. Referring to the "art of controlled [media] access"
with which Reagan screens his political moves from public scrutiny, New
York Times White House correspondent Steven Weisman recently observed:
"Reagan and his aides have understood and exploited
THE GATHERING STORM
It is plainly a mark of desperation that many of today's loudest supporters of the ballot were yesterday's civil rights marchers, student radicals, draft resisters, and workplace rebels. Desperate for signs of hope, veterans of nonvoting politics saw in Reagan an easy mark, and in voting, an easy method. With near breathless unanimity, former activists not only enthusiastically supported anti-Reagan voting, but often did so with appeals to the good ol' days, as if, to paraphrase voting were merely the continuation of mass struggle carried out by other means.
This sentiment was taken to the parks this summer by the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the production 1985. A street - guerilla- musical theatre previously focusing mainly on strikes, occupations and confrontational politics, the Mime Troupe surprised us with a rousing pitch - and real live booths for voter registration.
The dismantling of the Great Society and War on Poverty programs fought for and won by 60's activists was a strong motivation for anti-Reagan voting. Ironically these very programs were not the fruit of voting, but came out of an unconventional political rebellion that, at the time, seemed practical. As Robert Brenner recently observed:
These programs failed to challenge the sources of poverty and racism, were inadequately funded and administered in a way that further stigmatized recipients. Still, they have made a practical difference in the daily lives of many people. The gains also suggested the efficacy of a politics not based on voting or political parties.
Unfortunately, the 60's movement toward confrontational politics never cohered - its leaders assassinated, jailed, Reborn or appointed to teaching posts, its constituents in retreat to the respectable politics of lobbying and voting or to the increasingly marginal New Left. Confrontational politics steadily declined. The hard-won 60's programs and the token military restraint the anti-war movement could claim to have won have been dismantled by succeeding Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
Debate of social issues that enlivened previous elections -- such as critiques of the 2-party system and analyses of the limitations of voting as a means of social change -- were muffled in campaign bunting. In an unabashed call to walk precincts for the Party of Cruise and Pershing 2 missiles, Mother Jones editor Deidre English's "How to Beat Reagan" (MJ April, 1984) summarized the sober reflection of a conference of 60's and 70's movement activists:
English concluded "the message is clear ... if Reagan gets us into war in Central America or the Middle East, we're the ones who are going to have to run the antiwar movement (again). So instead of spending the next five years protesting -- let's get our hands on some power. "
To claim that power, an anti-Reagan hysteria was whipped up that rarely engaged critical reasoning. Formerly engaged radicals were sucked into a voter registration strategy. The hope that if un-registered voters, especially poor and minorities, would turn out, then "we" would "get our hands on some power" backfired. For the first time in decades Republicans vigorously conducted successsful voter registration drives. In October,newly registered voters favored Reagan over Mondale by 53% to 40% (ABC-Washington Post) ' Hispanics from Texas to California registered the Republican way, and 18-24 year-olds claimed Republican affinity in droves.
With the possible exception of referenda,
electoral politics tend to table aspirations for social change by making
social change itself the preserve of 11 experts," i.e., professional politicians.
With little recall available other than the next election, and with the
dominance of media-sculpted image over critical political discussion,
direct popular control over our lives will remain elusive.
It was only when housewives in Love Canal banded together and forcibly held an EPA official 'hostage' that action was taken to deal with the toxic pollution swamping the community. Part of their political confrontation was inward: women isolated in their homes broke down walls of alienation by talking to neighbors for the first time; mothers realized it wasn't their "inadequacy" that made their children sick; and everyone refused to stay passive and I I calm down" until EPA experts, scientists and government officials got around to helping them.
Similarly, the direct action of antinuclear activists (along with the declining profitability of the nuclear industry) played a role in slowing government licensing of new U.S. plants.
It is these kinds of disruptions that will help generate real alternatives to the stifling society we live in.
Confrontational politics, unlike electoral political culture, bring people into open and direct contact with one another, allowing people to discover a collective power that can stir dormant imaginations with the creative perspective of rebellion. Preoccupation with electoral politics inhibits this creative potential.
Until mass confrontational politics re-emerge, the hope that U.S. politics can transcend a spell-binding dependence on voting and political parties is, well, as good as a politician's promise. What Jonathan Swift called the "Guardian Spirit of a prevailing Party" - i.e., the "Goddess" of "Political Lying" - will "fl[y] with a huge Looking-glass in her Hands to dazzle the Crowd, and make them see, according as she turns it, their Ruin in their Interest, and their Interest in their Ruin."
- Melquiades, Med-
0, & Maxine