“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”
This quote from early 20th century anarchist Emma Goldman has proliferated among modern left wing libertarians. The ideology of “voting doesn’t matter, the parties are the same,” has been perceived as a facet of detached, slacking millennials, growing a resentment among mainstream US Democrats towards the radical left. This resentment can be exemplified by the debate over Nader vs Gore vs Bush.
One explanation favoured by older people is that the young are simply lazy. A better explanation may be that young people today do not feel they have much of a stake in society. Having children and owning property gives you a direct interest in how schools and hospitals are run, and whether parks and libraries are maintained.
Yet perhaps the most depressing explanation is simply that in many places, young people do not feel that there is anyone worth voting for. A long-running European survey found that in 2008, 22% of French 15- to 24-year-olds said they believed society’s problems could be fixed only by revolutionary action. In 1990 the equivalent figure was just 7%. When charismatic politicians do appear, they can win over the young: Barack Obama would not have been elected in 2008 and 2012 had it not been for remarkably high youth turnout in his favour. But for the most part, such politicians are few and far between. That might be because in most elections, a simpler strategy is to win over older people, who will vote however bad the candidates are. Young people—who tend to be more cosmopolitan, liberal and hopeful than their elders—tend to be switched off by the negativity and cynicism of election campaigns targeting the unhappy old. Sadly, cynicism then breeds cynicism.
Fresh off the second GOP presidential debate, we can see a clear difference between the GOP, with fascist attitudes toward disenfranchised groups, and Clinton’s newly rebranded centrism. As one of those young anarchists and a potential 2016 voter, I must admit the difference between the two neoliberal parties is undeniable, but the legitimacy of our voting system is not. The better funded congressional candidate wins 91% of the time, and on average winning candidates outspent their opponents by 20:1. 60 individual donations have made up a third of 2016 campaign cash across all candidates, and half of money comes from donations above $100k—amounts only the ultra elite are giving.
This has real life effects on representation. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, a study from Stanford Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern Professor Benjamin Page, declared the US an oligarchy, finding general public support has absolutely no sway on the likelihood of a bill passing.
Gilens and Page conclude:
The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
To put this in perspective, if every single American in the poorer 90% supported the funding of Planned Parenthood, but not a single member of the 1% did, Planned Parenthood would not get medicare funding. Some members of the establishment are even proud of this—conservative commentator Ann Coulter frequently expresses how she longs for an America without political rights for women.
Further showing a lack of coherent democracy, a candidate’s media air time is perfectly correlated to their polling position. While it may not seem like intentional foul play, for many, these reports are where people first hear about candidates, creating a self-perpetuated, chicken or egg-like situation. From Fox News and CNN’s 24 hour cycle to Bill Maher’s weekly plead that the media stop talking about Trump (while devoting time to him), the only motive here is profit. Controversial candidates and their often prejudiced comments drove the record high ratings that CNN got during the second debate, and the following media coverage drove a shift in polls that skyrocketed Fiorina and sacked “Jeb!”.
Immediately after the debate, HP’s illegal sales to Iranian customers under Fiorina’s control and her fabricated statements on Planned Parenthood topped the news, headlines you’d expect would tarnish her politically, but instead they drove exposure and support. She became viewed as strong, with a presidential prowess. Ben Carson joined Trump at the top after declaring no Muslim could uphold the constitution as president, creating buzz for days. While his horribly offensive comments are what propelled him, Trump’s coverage is finally waning from a lack of novelty, and so are his polling numbers. Ultimately, the ruthless maximization of profit and attention is the decider of representative elections. This sensationalist-demanding game leads perhaps the poorest people for the job to the top.
Our political system is designed to divert attention from the root causes of inequality. Politicians endlessly debate simple human rights and decency-based issues, such as bodily integrity, LGBT employment discrimination, the existence of racism and science, factual sex ed and birth control access, and affordable health care. Without this mind-melting drivel that basic UN declarations should suppress, people could bring up issues that pose a serious threat to the establishment. The GOP attracts its followers with false nostalgia for a socially “pure”, union-free, nuclear family-focused era with a functioning trickle-down of wealth, and the Ronald Reagan that never was. The Democrats will react and often call out GOP bullshit, yet remain solidly capitalist, and standstill in these issues, despite their progressive facade.
In all this mess, one self-described “socialist” candidate has excelled in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary election states. Bernie Sanders is uniquely “old labour”¹. Though no Corbyn, he definitely goes beyond mainstream political discussion, with a focus on stagnant wages despite increased productivity, racist police brutality, prohibitively expensive upper education, action on climate change, the recession’s culprits remaining un-prosecuted, wealth inequality, and excess executive pay. Controversially, he takes a less intersectional, slightly nationalistic approach in not supporting open borders. While core socialists critique the unequal and unjustified hierarchies of capitalism, Sanders brings some of the same issues socialists care about to a general audience with a goal of stronger welfare programs within a capitalist republic akin to Scandinavian nations: better, but certainly not any real form of socialism, and still just as exploitative of world inequality as the US. His policies are solidly populist in a nation that’s still recovering from McCarthyism, yet get cast as radical in the media due to their slightly disruptive approach to a skewed spectrum. We’re taught that his “radically” new spirit is the left’s counter to extremist candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson—men that tell us they’ll deport tens of millions of people on their first day in office (without causing mass famine from the abolishment of our agriculture workforce). Ultimately, Sanders has diverted leftists away from true radical, direct action, and brought them back to the Democratic party, vaguely calling for a “political revolution,” by means of voting for him.
In a recent talk at MIT, famed anarchist philosopher Noam Chomsky responded to a question on the antics of Trump in relation to American exceptionalism.
Chomsky eloquently demonstrates the lack of ideological range within the GOP:
A couple of weeks ago, the two front-runners—they’re not the front-runners any longer—were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. And they differed on Iran. Walker said we have to bomb Iran; when he gets elected, they’re going to bomb Iran immediately, the day he’s elected. Bush was a little—you know, he’s more serious: He said he’s going to wait ’til the first Cabinet meeting, and then they’ll bomb Iran. I mean, this is just off the spectrum of not only international opinion, but even relative sanity.
It’s a radical insurgency; it’s not a political party. You can tell that even by the votes. I mean, any issue of any complexity is going to have some diversity of opinion. But when you get a unanimous vote to kill the Iranian deal or the Affordable Care Act or whatever the next thing may be, you know you’re not dealing with a political party.
Chomsky continues, positing that the Republican Party has such unappealing policies that benefit only the most privileged, it must use radical religious fundamentalism and xenophobic nationalism to rally insecure people together against foreign cultures. It classes large groups of civilians as clashing religious fundamentalists on a mission to harm the white way of life.
I think what’s actually happened is that during the whole so-called neoliberal period, last generation, both political parties have drifted to the right. Today’s Democrats are what used to be called moderate Republicans. The Republicans have just drifted off the spectrum. They’re so committed to extreme wealth and power that they cannot get votes, can’t get votes by presenting those positions. So what has happened is that they’ve mobilized sectors of the population that have been around for a long time. It is a pretty exceptional country in many ways. One is it’s extremely religious. It’s one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world. And by now, I suspect the majority of the base of the Republican Party is evangelical Christians, extremists, not—they’re a mixture, but these are the extremist ones—nativists who are afraid that, you know, “they are taking our white Anglo-Saxon country away from us,” people who have to have guns when they go into Starbucks because, who knows, they might get killed by an Islamic terrorist and so on. I mean, all of that is part of the country, and it goes back to colonial days. There are real roots to it. But these have not been an organized political force in the past. They are now. That’s the base of the Republican Party. And you see it in the primaries. So, yeah, Trump is maybe comic relief, but it’s just a—it’s not that different from the mainstream, which I think is more important.”
The United States is an oligarchical system that classifies a true populist, literally someone concerned for the ordinary people, as a radical, while right-wing, wealth-driven insurgency candidates are considered “electable,” and half of the largest political party would support a military coup d’etat. Our capitalist media has propagandized us just as much as any state media.
Knowing the true lack of power I have as a voter, I respect Emma Goldman’s position. That said, I will ultimately vote pragmatically. I don’t buy the argument that revolution will occur when more people just stop voting. Local referendums and initiatives (the only sliver of direct democracy we’re given) matter, and are often close calls. The impending need for new Supreme Court justices predetermines the next president’s legacy as powerful, so I’m hoping media coverage and money will go to a Democrat, if only to maintain bodily integrity rights and restored relations with Cuba. I will refuse to legitimize the occasion by letting it seem momentous. The passion people had in the 2008 Obama election made it feel real, and Sanders supporters are mirroring that facade-building passion. The oligarchical mechanics of this political race need to be made clear, and the fight should remain solely against fascism, without approving of lesser evils.
¹ New Labour, the UK movement from Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, shifted the party away from supporting workers rights and social programs and towards business, aligning themselves closer to US Democrats