|Number 7||October 20, 1998|
I know I said that this week would bring you the second part of my Social Security article for Z magazine, but it's not done yet, so get off my back. Besides, you need a break from Social Security, and this week's NN brings you something completely different.
First off, as part of a national "Day Against Police Brutality, Repression
and the Criminalization of a Generation," there is an important march
here in Minneapolis this Thursday, October 22, at 5:30. For details,
go to a very interesting website called "Protest
This week, I offer some thoughts about elections. Wait! Don't delete yet! I know U.S. elections seem irrelevant to some, and make others ill. But this week's essay addresses those very people about those very things. I actually wrote it about 3 years ago and couldn't get it published. (After this happens a few times, it's enough to make you start your own electronic subscription service, ain't it?)
Relevant to this essay, there is a local group called FairVote Minnesota that is working to get proportional representation to happen here in the Twin Cities. And they have a big conference coming up here in Minneapolis from Friday November 13 through Sunday November 15. They say that "anyone interested in better politics, especially activists in campaign finance, term limits, voting rights, civic renewal, and small party access issues" should come. For more info on the conference or on the organization, check out their website at: http://www2.bitstream.net/~gabeo/
Finally, if the whole idea of Proportional Representation is something that interests you, there is a national organization called the Center for Voting and Democracy. Their website has lots of important stuff. Check them out at: http://www.igc.org/cvd/index.html.
‘Til next week,
Since it's election time again, perhaps it's a good time to offer a few suggestions on how to make elections in the United States a bit more...well, meaningful. Or important. Or relevant. Or at least a little less depressing.
One can't fail to notice that almost two-thirds of eligible voters did not vote in the last national election. This year will probably be about the same. Rarely in the United States do much more than one-half of eligible voters take the time to register their opinion at the polls. This is pretty smart. Since the system we have brings out the worst in people, a negative response to it on the part of the majority reinforces my belief that the average American is far more intelligent than most politicians give them credit for.
The average American adult understands quite well that the most powerful political forces affecting his or her life exist outside of the electoral system. The most basic political decisions S such as what work we do, where we do it, how much of our earnings we need to devote to food, shelter, health, and so on S are commonly understood to be under the control of "the market". Considering that fewer than one in ten people in the United States are self-employed, and that only 1 in 4 Americans directly own stocks or bonds of any sort, "the market" is accurately understood to be separate from, and out of the control of, the average person. We certainly can't vote for the people who make the most basic decisions.
The people for whom we can vote (that is, politicians) are thus left with, at best, a limited role. There are a number of things they can do: They can give gifts ("incentives") to corporations to encourage them to put jobs "here" rather than "there." They can impose some limits on the behavior of corporate entities. They can force corporations to pay a certain minimum wage. These are all important things, but the deck is stacked: If the corporations don't like what they get, they can leave - the town, the state, the country. And they often do; in the 1990s this is no empty threat.
Why, then, is it surprising to anyone that a large number of voters feel powerless? Or that we are angry about this situation? And that we express our anger at the ballot box or, as most do, by not even going to the ballot box? Powerlessness breeds anger. And popular cynicism flows from the corporate cynicism that permeates our political environment. As Lily Tomlin put it, "No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up."
So, what's the point in working to try and improve our electoral system? Can it make any difference? I think it can, for two reasons. The first is that it is true that the government does retain some capacity to address the injustices that are a part of our economic system. Things like minimum wage laws, environmental regulations, the availability of emergency medical care, food stamps, and Social Security come directly from the government, and they make a difference in the lives of real people. A popular lefty slogan says "Don't vote, it only encourages them." If this seems like a truism to you, you would probably benefit from examining your class background.
The second reason is this: In a winner-take-all system, politicians who want to win need to produce ideas that are immediately attractive to the majority. These, then, are the ideas that are reported on and talked about, and the boundaries of acceptable thought thus remain exceedingly narrow. In a more open political system, parties with ideas that currently have the support of only a minority of people would be able to present those ideas for the majority to consider. They wouldn't necessarily win, but the fact that these ideas would make it onto the table could only serve to broaden the public discourse and challenge the current "conventional wisdom". In short, if we want to give good ideas a chance to grow into politically viable ideas, we need to open up the system.
Any political movement in the U.S. needs an electoral component. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was not primarily an electoral movement, but it always had a legislative agenda as a part of the larger strategy.
Here, then, are seven simple proposals for reform of our system of elections. Please bear in mind that "simple" does not in this case mean "easy." While it is true that most of these steps could be taken by any Congress and could take effect more or less immediately upon passage, it's important to think about the context we're in when thinking about making any effort to enact significant changes in business as usual. And I do mean "business".
I do not offer these reforms as goals in themselves. They are mainly ideas which might usefully be included on the agendas of grassroots groups already working in the community.
I don't think that any of these changes are actually going to happen in our country in the near future. Any one of these changes would require a groundswell of support based on an organized grassroots campaign of huge proportions. And this sort of organization assumes a political environment which includes a well-developed democratic infrastructure that would create, and be created by, an active and politicized citizenry. Such an infrastructure would include things like strong unions, for example, and broadly-based citizens' groups. The sorts of things that have been declining in the United States for the past few decades.
But until the day when we are able to elect the people who actually make the major political decisions, I offer these proposals for reform of our current system in the hope that they might inspire someone who is currently doing nothing to do something. And to do it by working together with other people. For it seems to me that, unless and until a large number of people are willing to organize themselves to think about, to plan, to propose, and to build alternatives to the current system, alienation will continue to grow. And if that's the case, then we can expect that trivial matters will continue to be elevated to levels of prominence, and business as usual will continue to be conducted.
And I do mean "business".