Stupid, stupid, people. A denial of democracy isn’t authoritarianism. It’s complacency. The democratic slogan for every election should be “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
I posted the above on social media the day after the outcome of the American election was publicized, and since then I feel increasingly like I need to clarify this post. The conversations that post sparked made it seem as if people think that I was arguing that low voter turnout was the only issue that decided the outcome of the Trump/Clinton race.
Fact is, many people reacted this way tells us something about how people are thinking. It seems like everyone wants this whole election outcome to be pinned down by one explanation. It was the media; it was Russian intervention; it was middle class discontentment; lies; corruption; a grand conspiracy.
Voter participation is an issue, and it was certainly a factor. But it is far from the only factor. Democratic engagement with politics and vote value have been a hobby horse of mine for years since being exposed to the alternative first hand. But, it is not the only reason Trump won. Just to make my position clear, like with everything else, this outcome was the result of a combination of factors. Media landscape and engagement, social media, political marketing, charisma, the left-right divide, the economic and geo-political circumstances, reactionary populism (from both sides), the rise of individualist identity politics, culture, class, authoritarian militarism (both sides of politics), neoliberalism and many other real and complicated elements converged to deliver this result.
All of these factors have to be considered in thinking about the outcome. I get bummed out when people chose not to vote, but voting doesn’t solve any problems alone – it’s just a useful mechanic for societal transformation. Also, to me, the most valuable function of voting participation is that it gauges the level of interaction between the public and the political sphere. And it always makes me sad to see when that gap when it grows wider.
Aside from all the endemic issues Trump and Brexit illuminated, the big thing these phenomenal events proved was the power of the vote. That, despite any efforts from the establishment and regardless of how entrenched the people in power may appear, at least in England and America (I think in Australia and many other democratic nations as well) people’s participation in voting, or lack there of, has a massive impact on the political process.
For everyone who might despair at the results of these processes, this is an important silver lining. My annoyance at abstention is based on my deep commitment to the democratic process. Imperfect as it might be, it’s much better than dictatorship. This may be cliché: but I love the freedom that it offers. The important thing to remember is that democracy requires work and participation.
And that is the bitter pill. Keeping politicians honest is actually the job of the public in the democratic system. Again, we return to the notion of political participation. In the wake of this election, allegations came out about mass corruption within the American political system. The involvement of big money and corporate influence were pointed to as massive rots in the system – the reason to shake things up and bring around change. People were keen to be involved in this process of exposure and a million sources suddenly came to light.
Though a great deal of the information that was published was either blatantly false or politically framed in bias, much of it was true. Trump was seen to be delivering the public ‘The Truth’ about the system. Except, NONE of this is new. Hillary is following a trajectory of American politics that has been ‘exposed’ many times in the past. People have been campaigning about corporate involvement, the unfair projection of military power and the delivery of promises the 60s and before. These people have even pushed into the mainstream. Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Joel Bakan, Naomi Klein, Adam Curtis, John Pilger and others made public appeals in the media and in press in open and accessible ways. The press ran endless stories and exposed corruption and corporate influence regularly. Academics in the field published books and articles and campaigned to draw public attention. In the 90s, top charted bands spoke about issues that resonate with contemporary realities – geo-politics, corruption, racism, sexism, freedom and democracy. And they did it with emotion and directness that makes the ‘edgy’ /pol kids of today seem tame in comparison.
While the music got play, when it came to the message, very few people listened. Perhaps what’s different in this election is that people have been pointed to it for the first time by dire economic circumstances – now that life is hard the folks are looking for someone to blame.
As a long time liberal humanist and democrat the current circumstances call for mixed feelings. To be honest, under ordinary circumstances, I’d be overjoyed at [anti establishment, Hillary] allegations gaining traction in the public realm. Right now, I’m more than a bit worried. This information is being offered for a reason. Those mentioned above worked to expose these issues because they held aspirations of fixing the system. They were speaking to the public with faith in the idea that political power could be taken back by the public. When this information is broadcast now, by the Trump campaign there is a different purpose – the attainment of political power. The aim was to shift the blame. The story is that politicians are bad. It resonates and appeals to previously held popular ideas. But this corrupt and ‘broken’ system has been widely supported by a previously disinterested public. When the public was given news about all of this before Trump, nobody listened. When 9/11 happened that same people calling foul about the war now were first to condemn investigations of this type as unpatriotic. When the global financial system collapsed in 2008, public pressure for prosecution quickly evaporated.
Most people wanted news that was either fluffy or talked about their immediate fears. There are hundreds of books and articles by academics and news reporters on all of these issues, articles that only 1% of the population has ever picked up. This complacency is in large part to blame. The process that lead the US political system to this state took many steps, and the public never held the establishment to account long enough to change the trajectories of power.
We do need change – but we also need to be careful about our information and act with public good and democracy in mind. I just hope people remember this and work for greater transparency and democratic accountability after this farcical election. Now, that the power of the vote and its capacity to bring about revolutions are clearly demonstrated, and the ills of the old system are still in the public mind, is a big chance for us to get involved. To imagine how we want to make things better and engage. To remember what we learned and not to turn away in disappointment or satisfaction, or worse yet, turn on each other.
The work of democracy is never done. People really do have the power, we just need to have the will. The best thing about the surprise election results of this year is that we KNOW it can be done.
How about some music?
Here’s a niche artist, MACKLEMORE. You might not have heard this song, cos it’s a little political. But then, have you actually looked into the politics of his music?
Classic folk lyrists, Ani DeFranco, delivers a poem that ranges from political to immediate.
Let’s take a trip back in time. You’ve heard this song a million times as a movies soundtrack… but have you actually paused to listen to the lyrics?
A little bit of soul from Middle America. Country is all about breakups, pickups and whiskey, right?
2Pac is famous…
What was 2Pac talking about? Everyone gets the same service… No, they don’t. Sometimes 911 is a joke. Sad thing is, not much has changed since the 90s.
I’d love to hear your picks. I need me a good political playlist.