01 September 2008

Are we sure this is democracy?

Count me among those unimpressed by the speeches of Hillary or Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention. After his stadium speech, the local TV news interviewed the faithful at the Obama headquarters in Albuquerque. One man, perhaps in his 50s, with gushing enthusiasm, said that he “would follow Obama anywhere.”

O please, call me a curmudgeon, better yet call me a partisan of participatory democracy, but I don’t want to follow anyone anywhere. I do not need or desire inspirational leaders; we need clear principals that can galvanize and sustain a social movement. The best-case scenario for radical change is strong, united social movement of working people out of which arises competent and democratic leadership, the next best is a broad-based social movement by itself, and the worst is a charismatic leader with a social base that disintegrates after Election Day. This is political theater, this is spectacle as a substitute for democracy, but it is not democracy.

I make a sizable effort to be well informed about matters of local, national and international importance, but I did not watch any of the Democratic Convention, nor will I see any of the GOP lovefest. As far as I am concerned, both of the parties are collectively responsible for this horrible war on terror, the consolidation of federal power in an imperial presidency, the shredding of the social contact, global environmental destruction, and the dreadful and declining economy. I don’t believe what the leaders of either party say or what they claim they will do when elected, and my conviction is supported by their tracks records of deception and failure.

The campaign has been so vapid that there has been no serious engagement by either of the candidates in what may be the most pressing global challenge of all: climate change. Contrast that with the amount of air time devoted to discussions of what Obama’s vacation destination (Hawaii) revealed about his American-ness. What passes for campaign news is laughable. For example, campaign coverage tonight on one of the network affiliates in Albuquerque consisted of introducing and screening a new paid commercial by the McCain campaign. A 30-second commercial discussed in 10-second sound bites was passed off as analysis.

When George Bush and John Kerry each spent in excess of $200 million running for the presidency in 2004, many observer described the costs as obscene. Obama alone has already raised upwards of $390 million in a campaign that has fattened the larders of the public relations and news media industries for the better part of two years. With spin doctors and the broadcasting industries sweeping in that kind of cash every election cycle, there is no incentive to discuss campaign finance reform.

The sad truth is that, consciously or otherwise, the quadrennial presidential elections are exercises that increasingly guarantee there will be no social change. It is a process that squeezes the life out genuine liberatory impulses. It is process that diverts the public attention from the arenas of power, starting with our workplaces, and would have us believe that participatory democracy can be distilled to a 30-minute exercise in voting every two or four years. How did we ever get to a point where this defines democracy for so many of us?