We don’t have democracy in the U.S. People often respond to this observation with the somewhat patronizing explanation that no, of course we do not. What we have in the U.S., they explain, is a “republic,” or a “democratic republic.” That isn’t what I mean, however, when I say we don’t have democracy in the U.S. Qualifying the U.S. as a democratic republic does not avoid the issue of the necessity of the representation of the popular will in political decision making because, a “republic,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a state, or form of government “in which power rests with the people or their representatives.” That is, our “representatives” are supposed to “represent” our combined political will. And yet, they rarely do that.
Poll after poll had shown that the majority of Americans want universal healthcare. Bill Clinton promised to provide such healthcare, but failed to deliver it. Obama promised this as well, but Obamacare, while an improvement on the system that preceded it, still falls short of what Americans really want.
Universal healthcare isn’t the only thing Americans want that they do not currently have. There are lots of other things they want, things such as a better system of public education, free higher education, a better infrastructure, a living minimum wage, a crackdown on the abuses of the financial industry, etc., etc. People aren’t going to get any of these things, though, because they have no influence over the political process.
The problem is twofold. First, it is the sheer stupidity of a large portion of the American electorate that allows itself to be brainwashed by political propaganda the relentless message of which is that the things they want (and which are available in other countries) are not possible. Second, it is the willingness of an equally large, if not even larger portion, of the electorate to be bullied into voting for the “lesser evil” of two candidates, neither of whom represents what they want.
The simple truth is that democracy cannot work if people allow their votes to be determined by ignorance and or fear. The foundation of democracy is the Enlightenment ideal of rational self determination. Human beings, argued Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, are inherently rational. This means not only that they are capable of making intelligent decisions concerning how they want to live their lives, but also that they cannot achieve full humanity if they are not allowed the freedom to make these decisions. That human beings are rational requires that we respect them as such and endeavor to organize society in a way that will allow them to fulfill their distinctively human potential for self governance. Political democracy is an outgrowth of this insight. A person’s vote is the means by which he expresses his political will, his consent to certain ideals of social governance.
There has been a lot written lately about consent because of what appears to be an epidemic of sexual assault on college and university campuses. Can a young woman “consent” to sexual intercourse if the person “requesting” it has drugged her, or has threatened violence against her? Is she “consenting” if she “puts out” because she is too weak and addled to resist, or if she is simply afraid of having her head bashed in? Most people easily see that when “consent” is coerced in such ways, it is not really consent.
Few people seem to understand these otherwise straightforward aspects of consent when consent is placed in a political context. Voters are bombarded with propaganda to the effect that what they want is not possible. Many are so swayed by this propaganda that they can no longer think clearly about the issues to which it relates. The purpose of propaganda is precisely to circumvent rational thought. It works like a drug, depriving those it influences of autonomous judgment. Of course, people conclude, if these things were possible, then we would all do our best to see that they became actual, but, alas, they are not possible, so to work for them is a waste of time.
Is that sort of resignation the expression of an autonomous will? The answer is obviously no. Such people are acting from ignorance, not knowledge. If they knew that what they wanted was possible, they would take steps to achieve it. But they have been misinformed. They have been told it would be counterproductive to pursue such things and since no one wants to waste his energies, they refashion their political hopes to what they are told is more reasonable. A person whose judgment is clouded by a fog of propaganda cannot give informed consent to a political platform any more than a person who has been drugged can give such consent to sex.
But wait, there’s more. Not everyone is taken in by political propaganda. Some people know that not only are the political changes they want possible, they are genuine realities in other parts of the world. A special indignity is reserved for people who dare to keep their political wits about them despite the fact that they are bombarded with propaganda designed to undermine them. These people get to be fully conscious participants in their own degradation. Okay, respond the powers that be, you go ahead and vote your conscience, vote for someone who promises to bring about the kinds of changes you want. You know what will happen? You will get someone far, FAR worse than the “moderate” candidate you deem not good enough for you. The rest of the electorate, the sonorous voice continues, is not so forward thinking as you are. You will be “wasting your vote” on a candidate who doesn’t have a chance, and in that way, you will ensure that your worst political nightmares will come true.
It’s as if your date, upon realizing that the drug he’d given you hadn’t worked, threatens to beat the hell out of you if you refuse to have sex with him and then have sex with you against your will anyway. You can “consent” to something horrific, or you can refuse to consent and endure something even worse.
If you give in to such threats, have you consented to having sex with the person who made them? The answer is pretty clearly no. You’ve been violated every bit as much as if you had simply been taken against your will. In fact, one could argue that there is more dignity in resistance than in giving in because if you give in, not only have you been violated by someone else, you have, in a sense, betrayed yourself as well.
People who vote for the lesser of two evils aren’t expressing their political will in any kind of meaningful sense. They are acting out of fear. They’re not approving of the platform of the candidate they “choose.” They are merely expressing disapproval of the platform of the bogey man with which they have been threatened. They have surrendered their autonomy to fear. The weak minded have their autonomy stolen from them by the insidious drug of propaganda. Those who are more temperate and level headed have it wrested from them at knife point, so to speak.
Why do I insist on voting my conscience in the face of imminent political disaster, I’ve been asked again and again. My answer is always the same: Because it is the only way democracy can actually work. If people allow their political vision to be clouded by propaganda, or surrender their autonomy to their fear of an unthinkable future, then it doesn’t matter how many people turn out to vote because the votes themselves are not an expression of the popular will, but merely of ignorance and fear. And the result of those votes is a foregone conclusion they have had no positive part in determining.
(This piece originally appeared in the 7 March 2016 issue of Counterpunch under the title “Nonconsensual Democracy and the Degradation of the American Electorate.)