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Do Elections Matter?

I can’t help but follow the ins and outs of the American presidential campaign, which are fascinating to me even though it seems to be more a contest of teams of advisers, marketing strategies, and scripted events than a spontaneous outpouring of democracy “of, by, and for the people,” to use Lincoln’s words. A debate is taking place, but it’s a packaged debate, mediated by the gatekeepers of public opinion: TV pundits, public intellectuals, party officials, professional image managers, and those who script campaign ads paid for by major donors, whose “money is speech” according to the Supreme Court. The result is that the rough edges are smoothed away and we are left with two packages, Brand A and Brand B, both claiming to represent the mainstream of American public opinion. This is expressed as well as anyone by Lambert Strether in a post today on the economic blog Naked Capitalism:

    “The national election campaign so far reminds me of nothing so much as a sports bar: There, up on the teebee screen, are the players on the field. Some wear jerseys labeled R; some wear jerseys labeled D. Announcers hold forth in a rapid stream of technical and statistical information, and proffer color commentary. The managers and the owners are unseen. And down in the bar, we, the ‘voters,’ cheer, or groan, or chant, or sit in white-knuckled silence, or shout advice. But are we, down at the bar, crazy enough to think that our chants and shouted advice actually affect what happens up on the screen?”

After we choose between Brand A and Brand B one of them gets to govern, constrained by all the institutional limits that have built up over time: international commitments, the demands of financial markets, the interests of powerful lobbies such as military contractors or retirees, bureaucratic inertia, and the Constitutional balance of power itself. Invariably, these constraints force any new president to tone down his most ambitious ideas, so that even “transformational” elections like 1980 or 2008 lead to only incremental change.

Perhaps that’s for the best, because we can’t have a revolution every four years, purging programs that people have come to rely on and completely remaking the rules of the game. Only extremists would want a party in power that pushes through its agenda without regard to the balance of interests in American society, and careless of whom it might hurt. All change is bound to hurt someone, and this in itself is a limit on the type of candidates we get, who are sponsored by two major parties that aspire to represent the broad majority of American public opinion. But it does raise the question of whether elections serve any purpose at all. Every election since at least 1992 has been cast by one side or the other as “the most critical election in our lifetime,” and this year is no exception. But after the elections are over, the seeming impossibility of changing anything leads people to wonder what all the fuss was about. Ronald Reagan, the anti-government crusader, raised taxes and expanded the size of government. Bill Clinton’s most enduring legacy may be “ending welfare as we know it,” which was a demand of the opposing party. George W. Bush ran up the deficit and engaged in nation building, two things he said he wouldn’t do. Barack Obama failed to prosecute bank fraud and continued the Bush policies embodied in the Patriot Act. Every four years, it feels like we’re embarking on an exciting romance, only to feel cheated and deceived the morning after. We mistake packaging for substance, and the good-looking stranger we took home turns out to be a cad. This year, the new kids on the block are Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. If elected, they will let us down too. Given this history, we might be forgiven for wishing we could skip the election entirely, and leave the system to run itself.

The same dynamic plays out in other nations. This spring, France saw a shift from the right-of-center Nicolas Sarkozy to the left-of-center François Hollande, but economic realities are putting severe constraints on the new president’s economic policy choices. Even in the foreign policy and domestic security realms, where he might be imagined to have more room to maneuver, his policies are shaping up to be more a continuation than a repudiation of what went before: a willingness to side with the Syrian opposition, much as Sarkozy did for Libya, and a continuation of the deportation of the Roma people begun by Sarkozy. Greece, Italy, and Spain have all seen changes in government since the outbreak of the European financial crisis, but in all cases, the new parties in power have been forced by the demands of financial markets to continue austerity policies begun under the previous administration, only more aggressively and effectively. Opposition movements such as Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. and its counterparts in nations as diverse as Spain, Greece, Argentina, and Israel have so far brought about no change in governing policy. In Morocco, popular protests last year led to constitutional changes and the election of a populist, Islamist party which had never before held power, but the new government finds itself constrained by institutional interests led by the king, and is unable to enact major reforms. Even in Egypt and Tunisia where dictators were overthrown and democratic elections held for the first time in history, change has been limited by military and economic elites, and the state bureaucracy whose interests are well entrenched. Indeed, one lesson of the global economic crisis that began in 2008 is the extent to which the interests of international finance dictate governing policies all over the world, limiting the options for popularly elected leaders.

Still, I tend to believe that elections serve some purpose, if only as a safety valve for popular discontent. In periods when society is in broad agreement that things are going well, elections are boring, party platforms are nearly indistinguishable, and it seems to make little difference who is elected. But as tensions rise in one segment or another of the population, elections heat up and begin to feel like they are really about something. The rise of the Tea Party movement in the U.S. in 2010 is a case in point. In the Congressional elections that year, rhetoric was flying that if change didn’t come to Washington, the only option left would be “Second Amendment remedies,” or taking up arms against the government. But even when the new crop of elected leaders turns out to be just like the last—cautious, pragmatic individuals interested in moving the needle as little as possible once they are in power—I tend to believe that public venting of emotions during the campaign isn’t a bad thing. Would it be better to have a real revolution, with Tea Party militias storming the Capitol, or Occupy activists looting the banks? Some people would say yes, because that’s the only way we’ll have real change, but they should be careful what they wish for. After all, not all radicals want the same thing. Some want a socialist system that takes from the rich to give to the poor, while others want to do away with government entirely so they can keep their money to themselves. In a revolutionary environment, which side will win? Elections smooth out these differences by forcing the extremes to choose among a limited set of options, all of which are palatable to the mainstream; and the mainstream seeks not revolution, but balance and common sense.

Those who feel that elections are a sham will argue that they distract us with illusions of choice, while returning the same elites to power over and over again. For these people, there is little difference between a dictator like Hosni Mubarak, who won elections with 95% of the vote, and institutional parties like the Democrats and Republicans who together chalk up the same score. My response is that elections do make a difference, not so much in November when one of two candidates is elected president, but in the messier, more intimate process of the previous year by which each party chooses its nominee. This is where the battle lines of November are drawn. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the anointed choice of most of the Democratic Party elite, but Barack Obama came out of nowhere to win broad grassroots support and claim the nomination. One of his selling points was his early opposition to the war in Iraq, which implied a different way of seeing America’s role in the world; another was his ability to energize new groups of voters, particularly young people and minorities. This year has seen a similar process on the Republican side, in which first Michelle Bachman, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum took turns as the favored choice of Christian evangelicals against Mitt Romney. At the same time, Ron Paul’s insurgency gave voice to the strong libertarian strain which has emerged on the American right. Although the party finally settled on Romney as the safest, most mainstream candidate, the issues aired during the campaign played a large role in his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate, since Ryan appeals to both evangelicals and libertarians. So in the case of both Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012, a party representing about half of the American electorate used the nomination process to better define its identity, and discover the issues that fired up its supporters. However ritualized and mediated this process may be, it played out in living rooms and workplaces across the country, allowing individuals to form their own opinions. I can’t help but think that this is both cathartic and good for democracy.

Shall I close with the line often attributed to Churchill, that “democracy is the worst of all possible systems, except for all the others we’ve tried”? As a long-time resident of Morocco, I have some idea of what it feels like to live in a system where if public officials abuse their positions or don’t deliver on their promises, there is little recourse and nowhere to assign the blame. Is it the king, who is the ultimate “guarantor” of the Moroccan project but who governs mainly from behind the scenes? Or is it the elected government, which likes to excuse its policy failures by claiming it has no real power? At least in the American system, we know we can hold our elected officials responsible for their own mistakes, as typified by Harry Truman’s slogan, “The buck stops here.” It may be that when we replace our president or our representative in Congress, the next guy will be a product of the same system and no better than the last; or that our leaders tend to be self-interested and narrow-minded; or that the choices we get on election day are disappointing compared to the true diversity of popular opinion. But over time, I do feel that our system gives us an approximation of the popular will. It has allowed us to invest in public infrastructure, educate generations of young people, guarantee the rights of women and minorities, improve working conditions, regulate air and water pollution, build the Internet, and begin the reform of our health care system. Above all, it gives us the sense that we have a stake in the decisions that affect our daily lives. This may be an illusion, but without this illusion, we would have nothing but the rule of the powerful over the powerless. Besides, it’s an illusion that we can make real if we take it at its word, and act on it. Not just in elections, of course, but in the full range of our role as citizens: through activism, public expression, volunteer work, involvement in local causes, and staying engaged and informed.

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