ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— During the parliamentary election last year in Afghanistan, there were plenty of reports of the heroic lengths to which some Afghans went to vote. For example, the dye that stained a voter’s index finger was designed to prevent them from voting a second time, but it also became a means by which the Taliban, which opposed the elections, could easily identify voters for harassment or death. But people went to polling stations anyway, often in groups for mutual support and defense.
Similar levels of courage were exhibited earlier in Iraq and elsewhere in the developing world whenever people decided to take part, perhaps for the first time, in what they hoped would be genuinely free and fair elections. Sometimes, they were deeply disappointed like Afghans were after the 2010 vote proved to be rife with fraud and corruption. Yet it was hard not to be impressed by their determination to be part of the political processes. U.S. history is filled with similar stories of people who were harassed, brutalized, beaten and sometimes killed while expanding the franchise from white, property-owning, Christian men to an increasingly broader swath of all adults.
So it is with sad irony that the voting in the United States has become so meaningless, especially in federal elections. Corporate campaign contributions and news media coverage have the influence to effectively prevent the election of any federal candidate who would serious challenge their interests. This trend in burgeoning corporate influence, especially over the last 30 years, had unfolded regardless of which party controls the presidency or the Congress. The two dominant parties and their corporate backers have rewritten federal and state laws so that it is hard to even imagine how an independent and viable third party could emerge.
The desire to have influence on the decisions and policies that shape our lives is the pumping heart of democracy. Voting is a means to achieve democratic participation; it is not the sine qua non of democracy, which the beneficiaries, profiteers and apologists of electoral politics would have voters believe. The politicians, the interests they represent (overwhelmingly corporate), and the state itself are the obvious beneficiaries. The profiteers include the mainstream news media, which depends on campaign advertising income, as well as the PR firms, consultants, polling firms, and other spinmeisters for hire. The primary apologists are the pundits and the think tanks that churn them out and both are typically supported by the same corporate interests that fund the candidates and sometimes even own the news media reporting on the campaigns.
This trend, which perversely distorts democratic desire, can generate apathy, frustration, and rage but sometimes it feeds inspiring, alternative means of expression, like the mass protests of the Arab spring and the Occupy Wall Street actions under way in New York. “From South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over,” reports Nicholas Kulish.
Beneath that contempt is a sober and perhaps historic recognition that overdependence on a singular means of democratic participation, voting, has been hijacked and manipulated to more effectively serve the interests of the privileged few, and nowhere moreso than in the United States. But as recent events in Cairo and New York have shown, when the promise of democracy is denied, the desire will bravely create other means to express itself.