Political rhetoric in the U.S. is often characterized by sickly sweet appeals to democracy. Voting is held up as the foundation of democracy, or as the most useful or necessary method of political participation or expression. Judging by that rhetoric, and by the image of the U.S. that is exported around the world, one would think that the U.S. would be able to execute the actual practice of voting well.
But the disenfranchisement that routinely happens — to those convicted of crimes, those without IDs, those that need to work, those that can't find childcare, those that can't travel, etc. — together with the voter suppression that happened recently in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Wisconsin, suggest that voting in the U.S. is undemocratic and limited as a means for political participation. The reality is many people are directly and indirectly prevented from casting a vote, and much of the time that disenfranchisement is purposeful.
And even though the winners are supposed to be chosen based on the number of votes cast (though often through undemocratic proxies for votes, like the Electoral College), votes might not even matter. Republicans are openly discussing how to select someone other than their front runner, and Democrats are skewing their primary toward their front runner through the use of superdelegates and through shady dealings limiting the number of debates, limiting access to voter information, and sanitizing coverage of challengers through media proxies. In the general election, an organization controlled symbiotically by Democrats and Republicans puts undemocratic restrictions on debates.
Right now, the opinion of the electorate is paramount only when it aligns with elites' interests, which the Democratic and Republican parties both serve. When what people want challenges those interests, powerful people have no qualms about discarding the democratic pretenses that so many people mistakenly glorify.
For example, businesses often prefer undemocratic, but “stable” places to invest. Many profit via the myriad U.S.-sponsored coups in Latin America and elsewhere, or from U.S.’s autocratic allies. In Honduras, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton empowered the perpetrators of the 2009 coup and used associate Lanny Davis to clean up their image. This was all to the benefit of the Honduran business elites who supported the coup in large part to reverse minimum wage hikes under the democratically elected administration. Saudi Arabia, an autocratic country that sponsors terrorism and conducts public executions (often for what would be considered minor offenses in the U.S.), has strong ties to U.S. business. The U.S.-Saudi Arabian Business Council, for example, includes representatives from Chevron, Morgan Stanley, Boeing, Citigroup, Exxon Mobil, Honeywell, Bechtel, GE, and others.
In the U.S., not only have elites plotted a coup in the past, but a case can be made that a coup occurred with the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision in 2000: Gore won the election by any reasonable analysis, but a 5 to 4 decision divided down political lines and engineered by Republican operatives overturned the result. Today, business people plainly say they prefer undemocratic politics, and fascism is growing among Silicon Valley technocrats who use technology as cover for disgust of institutions influenced by the public.
Forging a New Paradigm
Getting rid of the two-party duopoly and moving to a fairer electoral and political system would be a start at ridding the U.S. of the corrosive influence of elites. This could mean any number of things like scrapping the Electoral College, moving to a proportional voting or ranked voting system, and de-emphasizing the role of specific people in politics, like the President (which could be done in part by switching to a parliamentary, rather than presidential, system). But what should the act of voting look like?
Voting should be nothing special when done well. It is a mundane task that makes sense only collectively, and it should be a task that everyone is compelled to complete via an exceedingly easy, equitable, and boring process.
This means (among other things):
For those who do want to vote in-person, election days would:
This would make the act of voting a solid cultural and political institution; if there were ever lines to cast a vote, it would be a scandal. And since voting would be easy and seamless, those who do not wish to vote could still be required to participate but could nix their ballots without much trouble.
With voting secure and easy, and with a political system that could do more to neutralize the effects of elites, money, and power, the political participation that does matter — dissent, criticism, organizing, protest, and discourse around class, identity, and culture — could take center stage in the U.S.’s electoral process.
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Kevin Cashman lives in Washington, D.C., and researches issues related to domestic policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter:@kevinmcashman or read his blog here.