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People occasionally ask me why I don’t write about candidates, elections and all that kind of stuff. Is it because I think it’s just a bunch of bourgeois bullshit? Or is it maybe because I think voting is a waste of time? After all, don’t anarchists say that if voting changed anything it would be illegal? The answer to these challenges is both yes and no. Voting has not changed the most fundamental reality that needs to be changed-the reality that is capitalism, for it is this economic system that is ultimately responsible for the inequality and desperation that currently exists in so much of the world. On the other hand, voting has occasionally made certain locales better places to live. One example of this that is near and dear to me is the city of Burlington, Vermont, which underwent a very positive change the first few years after Bernie Sanders and other progressives were elected to run the place. However, the subsequent history of that town proves the point of this essay: the power of the corporate dollar will supersede any elected democratic process by manipulating the vote or, in the case of Burlington, simply buying up the town.
I don’t invest my time in electoral politics (especially on the national level) because there has not been a candidate who has even come close to representing my views since George McGovern ran on the Democratic ticket in 1972. Am I glad that Barack Obama won in 2008? Absolutely. Did I expect him to be much different than his predecessors? Absolutely not. He did not disappoint me because I did not expect him to do much different than he has done.
Democratic elections can only occur when there is a democracy. There is not a democracy in the United States. If there ever was in the past hundred years, it would have been for a couple short years right before Washington’s entry into World War Two and during that oh so brief time that saw George McGovern get that aforementioned nomination. Besides those few years, the rest of that historical period is the story of ever expanding authoritarian corporate control of the entire political and social systems we call the United States.
The history of the voting franchise in the United States has always maintained two perspectives. One, favored by those essentially afraid of popular democracy, is continually attempting to limit the franchise. This element is usually composed of monied interests wanting to maintain control of the political system in order to facilitate their profits. Currently, this perspective is best represented by the Republican Party and its battle to put voter ID laws in place; laws that are designed to disenfranchise the poor, the young, and the transient. The other perspective believes that voting should be made available to everyone who is eligible without any hassle. Generally speaking, this perspective is championed by those in the Democratic Party and others considered liberal or progressive.
While I believe in a universal franchise, I also am convinced that even if such a thing did exist, it does not matter enough to change the way power is distributed in the United States. The presidential election of 2008 proves that. Despite a higher turnout among previously non-voting blocs in the US population (African-Americans, young adults, and others), the trend towards centralization of power in the executive branch combined with the ever-expanding domination of the political system by the wealthiest members of US society has continued unabated. Sure, an African American was elected to the White House—no small feat—but he has essentially carried on the same program as his 43 white predecessors. As the presence of female and non-white candidates in all types of political races makes clear, the political system has opened its doors to the previously disenfranchised. At the same time, the attempts to limit who can vote have increased. However, the ability to create genuine change from within the system has diminished. This is because of who really runs the nation, not necessarily because of who is elected.
In recent decades, a scenario has been repeated in multiple nations around the world. This scenario goes something like this. A popular movement arises in a country against an authoritarian ruler. Often, this authoritarian ruler was supported by Washington. Consequently, Washington does its best to keep that ruler in place during the challenge. Sometimes Washington succeeds and sometimes it doesn’t. In the latter case, agencies associated with the US intelligence establishment usually have a contingency that involves a show election. This show election puts another friend of the US in the Presidential Palace and business continues as usual. The face changes but the policies remain essentially the same. Just like in the US of A.
One reason for the growing meaningless of elections is the expanding power of the corporate and financial industries that control the world economy. These entities are bigger than most national economies and are capable of subverting any opposition to their need to expand markets and control labor. The democratic process, even in the diminished form slowly fading from the scene in the United States, is counter to how these entities can best fulfill their goals. Democracy is anathema to their operation. A perfect example of this can be seen in China, where the ongoing transformation to monopoly capitalism has created a form of authoritarian capitalism closely related to fascism. Indeed, international corporations and financiers have discovered their perfect model of governance in China: an authoritarian government in the service of multinational capital. Since there are no real elections, these financial powers do not even have to manipulate candidates or voters like they do in the shadow democracies of the rest of the world. Like every other nation in the world, the only way the Chinese people will change this is by ending the power of the international capitalists. Not an easy task, by any means.
For people interested in progressive social change, voting in a capitalist nation like the United States is at best a tactic. Even then, it is a limited if not just plain lousy one. The choice presented to the voter is almost always between candidates selected by interests directly opposed to the economic and political interests of most workers, employed or not. This situation becomes truer the further removed the position being chosen is from the voter’s daily life. For example, the money poured into a presidential race is not only considerably greater than that poured into a race for a seat in a state legislature, it is also more influential. In addition, both major candidates for a national office are certainly going to represent the rich and powerful above all else. In the local legislative race, the possibility exists that a progressive (and even a left) candidate could win, although their actual effectiveness would be limited. So, will I vote in the upcoming US elections? Yes. Do I expect it to make a difference, even if I vote for one of the third party candidates? No.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.