Sunday, November 11, 2012

Now What? Democracy Beyond the Voting Booth

“So you’ve voted. What next?”

Portlanders have likely seen chalk-written questions such as this on signs, sidewalks and walls around town. At heart, the question asks how Americans will spend the next four years—regardless of how they feel about the election's outcome. What, in other words, is the next stage of civic engagement?
Unfortunately, I fear for most Americans, the answer to the question, “What next?” is…nothing. At least as far as civic engagement is concerned. Americans have pulled the lever for their preferred Wall Street sponsored Corporate Spokesman. Their civic work, at least for the next four years, is done.
Political theorist Sheldon Wolin sums up our limited political system in his book, Democracy Incorporated as such:
“In a truly participatory democracy elections would constitute but one element in a process of popular discussion, consultation, and involvement. Today elections have replaced participation” (pg. 148).
Those who attempt to influence their elected leaders via activism, citizen lobbying and correspondence or other forms of electoral pressure—say, Occupy Wall Street activists, for instance--are derided as “extremists,” or members of the “far left.” The corporate press, when it bothers to cover these activists’ efforts at all, dismisses their message as “incoherent.” Case in point, “liberal” Press Herald columnist, Bill Nemitz called the Lincoln Park contingent of Occupy Maine a “sometimes compelling, sometimes worrisome and occasionally entertaining political drama” (“Council burns midnight oil, but no bridges,” 12/09/2011).
In other words, the democratic process literally starts and ends in the voting booth. Anyone who attempts to continue the process beyond Election Day is simply an unreasonable extremist. Sensible Americans (more commonly known as liberals) prefer to sit back and wait for President Obama to deliver on his progressive promises. And if he fails to do so, well it is because the Republicans thwarted his efforts. Deep down, Obama is a true progressive and a noble, well-meaning president, they claim, and that is all that really matters.
This conception of democracy is far too myopic. We, as citizens, have yet to fully understand Frederick Douglass’ famous words that, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The general consensus among the liberal intelligentsia (progressives like Michael Moore, Daniel Ellsberg, and the editors of The Nation all of whom endorsed Obama for re-election) is we must now push the president and the Democrats to enact real progressive policies a la FDR’s insistence supporters “make me do it.”
The problem with this otherwise sound strategy is they are offering it to the wrong people. If the last four years have proved anything it is that liberals will not challenge Obama—even when he engages in the same war crimes as George W. Bush. And, contrary to popular perception, Occupy Wall Street is primarily made up of Greens, Independents, Anarchists, or devoted activists who abstain from electoral politics entirely. I know several of the members of Occupy Maine, and very few of them are Democrats, let alone Obama supporters.

I certainly agree we need to exert far greater influence on both Obama and the Congress. But let’s get real here. Liberals refused to push back against this president throughout his first term. It is naïve to believe they will behave differently during his second.
Indeed, the gushing adulation liberals have for Obama borders on the absurdly nauseating at times. As one such Obama acolyte posted Monday night on Facebook, “The president just told what may have been the sweetest anecdote I’ve ever heard. Love this man, can’t wait to re-elect him tomorrow!” (Comma splice noted.) Excuse me for a moment while I throw up all over myself.
Look, one can certainly like and admire President Obama. But as citizens we should not be afraid to challenge our elected officials—regardless if we voted for them. Doing so, incidentally, will not “empower the Republicans,” because Republicans are not holding Obama to any sort of standard. They will hate him no matter what he does or does not do.
The problem with partisan politics is it prevents Americans from taking an objective, at times adversarial look at a politician’s actions when he is “your guy.” This sort of knee-jerk partisanship turns voters into pre-teen Twilight fans. Are you on “Team Edward,” or “Team Jacob”? Team Obama or Team Romney? Team Democrat or Team Republican? Never mind that the two teams are both playing for the same corporate masters.
As it is, we do not even have one hundred percent voter turnout in this country. So, for all those who view voting as the single act of democratic participation—a little less than half the eligible population, roughly—there is  a remaining segment that cannot even be bothered to do that much.
The point is there needs to be more than just voting. We need to become, in the words of Ralph Nader, “full-time citizens.” Only then will we be able to create a truly representative democracy—one that is responsive to all citizens and not just the privileged few. I do not always agree with Portland’s League of Young Democrats—err, “Voters,” but I do agree with their “Obama Manifesto” on the back of this year’s voter guide.
“Disclaimer,” it reads, “Ballot is not effective when voter remains disengaged after election.”
Katy Perry, one of many celebrity Obama supporters, dressed as a ballot.

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