It lies in front of me on the table.
I have always voted by mail so I can think while I vote. No lines. No pressure. No vote-flipping electronic voting machines.
Now it sits there, my ballot opened to the choice for President. There is my morning cup of coffee and a half eaten apple. There is the League of Women Voters Voter Guide and a pile of political junk mail. There is my laptop, its battery slowly dying, while out of the corner of my eye I watch the hourly chart of Wall Street, also slowly dying. The radio plays in the background: the local public radio station is conducting one of its semi-annual fund drives. I hold my pen in my hand and I am thinking.
Contemporary American political campaigns are personality contests and I am an issue-oriented person. I quickly reject the Constitutional Party. It wants to pull out US soldiers from Iraq, which is good; but the party has a thick Christian thread running through its platform which makes it anathema to me.
I consider the Libertarians. I resonate with the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethos and the emphasis on personal responsibility. But I do not like the Libertarians’ exaggerated notions of nationalism, individualism and immigration, or its abject lack of empathy.
I consider Cynthia McKinney, a smart, articulate woman with the heart of a fighter; but her sponsor, the Green Party USA, is so muddled by concepts of consensus and social harmony that it cannot grow out of its political adolescence. It is a party of nice people content to finish last.1
I look over the palette of socialist and communist party tickets, each with its subtly differentiated name and its subtly differentiated tenets. In light of the succession of economic crises — all predicted by Marx over a hundred years ago — I am tuned in to their messages, but I am tuned out by the stridency. They speak a vaguely antiquarian vocabulary from the early 20th Century that evokes Stalin and Mao and Lenin and Che. They all had very relevant things to say, for their times and for ours, but they are all dead now, and their message needs to be modernized for 21st Century times.
And then there is Ralph. I like Ralph Nader all the more when Zombiecrats, trying to dissuade me from voting for him (again), blather their rehearsed line that Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election. That tactic backfires. It is like McCain labeling the centrist Obama a “socialist.” When Democrats slam Mr. Nader for his “egomania,” it rings so false that it only increases my distaste for that “certain other party” that has shared the power and thus shares the blame for the Republicans’ misdeeds. All the Democratic and Republican mayors, governors, representatives and senators added together do not match the intelligence, understanding and integrity in Ralph Nader’s little finger.
Ralph Nader speaks truth to power.
However, speaking truth to power only makes you hoarse.
Power hears nothing and respects nothing except a greater power. We all say that we want our “leaders” to be intelligent, understanding and honest (although none of these qualities necessarily mean that one can “lead”.) Getting elected is different from leading, and unless we will have “philosopher kings,” the usual measures of intelligence and honesty are not meaningful. Getting “elected” to public office is not so much about intelligence as cunning; not so much about understanding as intuition; not so much about integrity as the appearance of integrity.
I sip my coffee and glance through the rest of the ballot: candidates running virtually unopposed in politically “safe” districts; initiatives to levy real estate taxes for public transportation, public schools and public parks; lists of notable somebodies endorsing this, that or the other. The public radio station continues pleading for donations so it can continue broadcasting. On my laptop, the mainstream news feeds continue to babble about the risk of a “possible” recession that everyone knows started a year ago and that the government will never acknowledge has happened until it’s over.
I recognize that everything has been stood on its head. Public transportation, education, health care, public parks, and public radio should be paid for out of the general revenues. Wars should be funded by local real estate tax levies. “Shall a tax of $9.99 per $1,000.00 of assessed value be levied on your private residence for the year 2009 in order to pay for 6 months occupation of Afghanistan so that we can kill half the population while bringing them the civilizing benefits of Christianity and Capitalism – Yes or No?” War, not public radio, should be funded by semiannual beg-a-thons: “We only need three hundred thousand more callers in the next half hour to meet our goal of $50 Billion for the invasion of Iran! Operators are standing by to accept your pledge of your teenage son’s or daughter’s life! And right now, we have a challenge from Boeing and from Halliburton — for every $250 million pledged by listeners they will match your contribution by building a munitions factory or bio-military laboratory right in your neighborhood; AND they will inscribe your name on a “smart bomb” or a missile fired by a U.S. drone at a school or wedding party in Pakistan, so it really can be done ‘in your name!‘”
I take another bite of the half eaten apple, now oxidized dark brown. My lap top battery flashes that it has only ten minutes to live as the Dow Jones Average, its chart blatantly manipulated, stages another one of its mid-day ersatz “rallies” on the Treasury Department’s promise to inflate another bubble by buying up every rotten Wall Street investment since the Beginning of Time, dropping interest rates to negative 2%, giving every every Fortune 500 executive a $1,000,000 dollar tax-payer financed year end “bonus”, and cutting taxes to absolute zero for those in the top 1% of annual income.
Do issues matter in the United States?
I flip back to the presidential candidates. My coffee is getting cold.
Politics is mostly amoral. It is about power relationships, and how to manipulate these relationships to achieve certain goals. The champions in the amoral manipulation of power relationships are the Democratic and Republican parties… both of which run as far from “issues” as they can.
In democratic countries that have parliamentary systems of government, voting for issues can make a difference. In parliamentary systems, when no single party wins a clear majority, minorities can play the king-makers.
In a parliamentary system, voting can be meaningful because even the smallest splinter party representing the narrowest constituency (if it meets the minimum threshold) can be represented in the legislative body. In a parliamentary system, the smallest party can make or break a government. A Ralph Nader, a Green McKinney, a Socialist, a Libertarian — even a Ross Perot decades ago — can force at least some of their agenda into the political mainstream as the price of supporting a coalition government. Once part of the government, a minority party can threaten to or actually withdraw from the coalition, which, in turn, can cause the government to fall or force new elections.
The downside is that in a parliamentary system a segregationist like George Wallace, who ran in 1968 on the American Independent Party ticket, could become a power broker, just as the National Socialists became the power brokers in 1932 at the tail end of Germany’s Weimar Republic even though the Nazis never won an election majority. Some parliamentary forms of coalition government have proved to be unstable, weak, rudderless, and subject to interim replacement on demand. By contrast, the “American” form of winner-take-all government is stable, strong, goal-oriented… as well as militaristic, authoritarian and impossible to replace on an interim basis notwithstanding the constitutional power of impeachment.2
Well, we do not have parliamentary government in the United States and we never will in my lifetime. I am stuck, therefore, with the usual fashion show that passes for political campaigns. In the absence of any clear debate on substantive issues, I am left to divine what the candidates might do in office. I have to decipher their nuanced speeches, their code words, their ambiguous double talk. The campaign managers and the talking heads on television tell me what I did not hear and what the candidates did not say. I, like all the rest of us, strain to transfer my hopes to the blank slate of the issue-less candidate, believing, as we always do, that the candidates might actually do some of the things that they promised to do. And, just as fervently, we hope that they will not do most of what they promise they would do.
Mr. McCain — the ostensible maverick who would follow in Bush’s burning footsteps — does his damnedest to appease Big Business and the right wing of the Republican party. Mr. Obama — the ostensible agent of small change — does his damnedest to appease Big Business and the right wing of the Republican party.
The “moderate” McCain picks a radical conservative as his running mate. The outside-the-beltway Obama picks a beltway insider as his running mate. Both candidates promise that they will change the way Washington and Wall Street do business while both candidates surround themselves with advisors who epitomize how Washington and Wall Street do business. Both candidates wrap themselves in the flag, flog us with the bible, and swear they will tame the very same lobbyists and moneyed interests who are funding their campaigns. It is anyone’s guess whether, if either candidate, is the more genuinely disingenuous.
I feel myself spiraling down into depression until, God bless her tiny frost-bitten soul, Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann brings me back to reality, channeling the ghost of Joe McCarthy by suggesting that “unamerican” politicians in Washington DC should be investigated.3 I mean, what the hell is wrong with Minnesota? Michele Bachmann in Congress? The state that gave us the late Paul Wellstone replaced him with the Bush-licking Norm Coleman? And the home of Lake Wobegon hosts the Republican National Convention while violating the constitutional rights of every journalist and anti-war demonstrator with a conscience?
I refill my coffee cup. I try to focus on the ballot.
Is Voting Relevant to Political Power and Does Morality Have Anything to do with It?
Electoral politics typically are not about morals. Matters of “morality” sometimes come into play but only when voters’ material interests are not at stake. First comes food, then comes morality, wrote Bertolt Brecht.4 Affluent societies can afford morality; societies in economic decay cannot. That isn’t really a knock on voters. They are not paranoid — their fears are justified. It is simple reality, a feature of evolutionary instincts; a reaction to the genuine threats that voters sense now imperil their welfare and the welfare of their families.
Ultimately, they gain political power who provide the greatest material benefit to the greatest number of people who matter.
So who are the people who matter?
To some extent, those who vote matter. Voting is the only political currency regular citizens have, but it is pretty small change. If a vote is a penny, then it is only valuable if amalgamated with other votes – like millions of pennies, or at least a roll of pennies, or rolls of pennies clenched in our fists.
They matter more, however, who register the voters and count their votes. As we learned in 2000 and 2004, the power to restrict access to the polls and to persuade you who you supposedly voted for is greater than the actual power of the ballot.
They matter more who influence other people how to vote because a psychotically self-confident talk show host, “an expert” who is never “right” but always on the air, a deceptive pollster, a raving preacher, a manipulative news media mogul can all tap into those deep veins of primal fear, paranoia and insecurity that twist hearts and minds everywhere on earth.
They matter still more who own the property and money enough to buy the votes, the vote counters, the news media, those who influence others how to vote… and who have the power to dictate what the political leadership will do no matter who wins the elections.
In 1964, Malcolm X said it was a matter of the ballot or the bullet.5 Today, it is the ballot and the wallet. This is progress? I drink more coffee. Caffeine clears my mind and the election comes back into focus.
Bush Won. We Lost.
Everywhere I read how stupid George Bush was. Craven, perhaps. Immoral, unethical, unprincipled, malicious… well of course. But not stupid. Bush wanted war, and he got war, an endless war on terrorism that, compliments of the still inexplicable circumstances of 9/11, we all heartily endorsed. We attacked and occupied two countries and made de facto colonies of many more. Eight years later, we’re still occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and bombing several others at will. Bush mocked us as an impotent focus group. He was right – we were impotent and we could be mocked with impunity. They took the oil, they took our public money. They deliberately strapped the commonwealth with colossal debt then urged a “balanced budget” on the next administration so that there would be no economic room to fund essential public services. They stacked the courts with Federalist Society conservatives who will outlive the next five presidents. Bush, his cronies and his advisors abjectly lied. They conspired practically in plain view. They falsely imprisoned, tortured, robbed, and murdered people on a level that might have embarrassed Stalin. They and their John Yoos, their Alberto Gonzaleses, their David Addingtons, their Judith Millers, their Lou Dobbses, their Bill O’Reillys, their Rupert Murdochs, their Grover Norquists, all their trained media attack dogs and their politically motivated prosecutors, all of them trivialized the Constitution and trashed all notions of human rights. They did it with malice aforethought and they did it with absolute impunity. They got richer, we got poorer. They live better for it, we live worse. They get the bailouts and we get the bill. If they are stupid, then what are we?
I sometimes think that anyone who wants to be President of the United States cannot be qualified for the job. It’s sobering to realize that four, and probably five presidents have been assassinated.6 That means that 8.6% of sitting presidents have been killed in office. If you add in candidates who likely would have been elected had they not been murdered during the run up to the elections — like Robert Kennedy and Huey Long — then the presidency is as hazardous as coal mining, deep sea fishing and door-belling in Texas for gun control.
I think I saw the “shadow government” at work when the most recent financial crisis broke late this summer. There they all were in Washington DC, the blue bloods and white shirts, the masters of the universe and their enablers, working secretly behind closed doors over the weekend, building their own life boats at our expense. They sailed away from the Titanic‘s shipwreck. They left us to drown in their debt.
Earlier in the year, I think I saw the powers behind the curtains orchestrating immunity for the telecommunications companies that illegally spied on us for years. I think I saw some folks finagle an off-shore oil drilling bill. I saw them bust Scooter Libby out of jail. I saw them condemn nuclear power for Iran and, without batting an eye, simultaneously promote nuclear power for India. I saw them let New Orleans expire for the sake of politics and lucre. I saw it all in flagrante delicto.
A New Power Base
So, if I saw all this and if I believe all this, what do I really expect from a viable candidate for public office? The world being what I think it is, what politician would last three minutes should s/he espouse the opinions I hold? You want change, but damned if it’s possible to run on a platform for real change. Howard Dean, hardly a radical, was hounded out of politics for as little as a “howl.”7 Hillary Clinton and her national health task force in 1993 was torpedoed just trying to address the problem of health care.8 What kind of media attention would a candidate get who really was going to end the wars, really wanted to establish a national single-payer health care program, really intended to redirect money from the military-industrial-security complex to programs beneficial to society? Would that candidate be ridiculed or ignored or politically tarred and feathered? If you took those positions in a real campaign, who would put up the half a billion dollars necessary to run the race? You? Me? If we believe that they who hold power will never give it up for something as “trivial” as a democratic vote, why would we believe that a candidate could successfully run against that power playing strictly “by the rules;” for who makes the rules and who enforces them?
My pen starts to circle over the Obama line on the ballot.
Obama is very intelligent and polished, though his stated positions are less than earth-shaking. He has had the savvy to outsmart some of the slickest political machines around. His election would give heartburn to all the people I would dearly love to suffer heartburn. He is not the second (or the first) coming of the messiah, however. He is an “okay” orator, but then the competition isn’t very stiff these days. He certainly is no blue blood. He is a mutt, and most of us are mutts. The more Palin describes Obama as “dangerous,” the more I am drawn to him. McCain, unwittingly evoking the memory of the 2000 and 2004 stolen elections, “guarantees” that he will win in November… which lets me better understand the French Revolution.
Obama has no obvious power base, which naturally makes him lean toward the only power base there is; so he leans right. But he is still a cipher. Who knows what he really stands for other than the slogan “change.” Maybe that unknown leaves some room for hope that he might not be as mainstream as he appears to be. Maybe I’ll just be disappointed.
I’ve decided to vote for the slogan. Change. BIG TIME change! It’s not about you in particular, Mr. Obama, though I wish you well. Certainly, it’s not about the tainted Democratic Party, and it is definitely not about the Democratic party leadership. Ultimately, it is about the slogan. I’m going to help make you a new power base, Mr. Obama, a mandate comprised of us. It’s time to lean my way, Mr. President. I’m going to be paying close attention this time and from here on out.
- The Green Party in Europe is an actual player, as it is in Canada. In recent history, the German Greens were part of the government led by the SPD, the Social Democrats. [↩]
- Unlike the democracies of Venezuela and Boliva (where the president literally can be recalled by referendum, or Pakistan, where Pervez Musharraf resigned on the mere rumor of impeachment, impeachment is “off the table” in the United States for anything other than sexual peccadilloes. [↩]
- Sam Stein, “Michele Bachmann Channels McCarthy: Obama “Very Anti-American,” Congressional Witch Hunt Needed,” Huffington Post. [↩]
- “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Brecht/Weill, The Three Penney Opera (“The Ballad of the Question What Does Man Need to Live”) [↩]
- Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” [↩]
- Historian Michael Parenti argues the convincing case that President Zachary Taylor was poisoned in 1850 because of his moderate views on the expansion of slavery. History as Mystery, “The Strange Death of Zachary Taylor.” [↩]
- Howard Dean,” Who2? [↩]
- “1993 Clinton health care plan,” Wikipedia. [↩]