Opinion: Democracy Simultaneously Empowering, Disempowering
When most people think of “political participation” they typically imagine two things: (1) aiding a candidate’s campaign, and (2) voting. So for most people the scope of political participation is exhausted by activities that help a politician get elected. But an even greater part of the population is malnourished by an anorexic politics that starves itself of all participation except for one tiny morsel; namely, voting.
A politics that is reduced to voting is one political act away from total passivity. “Election Day” might just as well be called “Politics Day” since it’s the only time when homefolks have a chance to engage in political activity.
Elections are supposed to be events where political authority is temporarily returned to citizens who then use that authority to elect representatives, thus transferring power back to politicians. After an election occurs, average citizens lose their political power until the next election. This means that elections are simultaneously empowering and disempowering.
Elections make citizens feel like they aren’t completely excluded from the political process. An illusion is created which allows people to believe they control the social forces that regulate their lives.
But this is just an illusion, because people don’t control the elections themselves. In a democracy, if people decided to hold elections for some reason they would have to deliberate about the frequency of elections, the duration of the campaigns, the candidate-selection process, the number of candidates, the resources candidates are allowed to use, the structure of campaign debates, the topics for discussion during those debates and all the other rules that people would impose upon a process that ended in the election of a candidate who voters pay to represent them. But if people were capable of collaborating to make such decisions then elected representatives wouldn’t be much use since people would already be governing.
When the populace becomes depoliticized by showbiz politics, a citizenry is transformed into an electorate and the electorate is treated like an audience. The goal of elections is to mobilize voters to support a leader’s agenda – not to solicit input from regular people who force their agenda upon a public servant. People are invited to contribute money and labor, but not ideas. Citizens are allowed to watch, cheer or jeer during the campaign and then await their cue to vote in an election, which by that point is so rigged as to be symbolic rather than substantive.
In electoral politics the citizenry becomes politically reanimated according to a calendar. Elections normalize a metronomic politics. Instead of perpetual participants, we have periodic voters. After voting, people are encouraged to congratulate themselves for fulfilling their civic duty and then return to their lives of political torpor. After politicians are elected the public retreats back into political hibernation while corporate lobbyists begin to apply pressure to the new leaders.
Elections are not the climax of a democratic process, but the culmination of an antidemocratic farce. Picture the scene: On Election Day humans transport themselves to a designated location, stand in line, shuffle forward, present proof of their identity to another human, enter a booth, tap a computer screen and disperse for another two or four years. This is, at best, a pantomime democracy that cages public power in a voting booth. It’s not democracy-in-action; it’s democracy inaction.
A deep insight into U.S. political culture can be gleaned by meditating on the following fact: President’s Day is a federal holiday but the day when you vote for a president is not. A day is reserved for worshiping national leaders but no day is reserved for honoring people’s ability to pick their leaders. But with all the unemployed, plenty of voters will have the day off anyway.