Americans have a love affair with the word “democracy.” They have been led to believe that elections are unambiguously good, and that the lack of Western style elections are unambiguously bad, particularly when referring to Third World countries. This judgment is applied even though large numbers of citizens feel that the US government represents big business not them, 50% of the electorate not bothering to vote at all. Since the myth that elections equals democracy is so useful to the elites, the question of what actually constitutes democracy versus elections as a means of capitalist social control is rarely, if ever, discussed. I am going to attempt to discuss elections as social control and why this is possible. The implications are not encouraging.
Putting aside historical anomalies, the use of elections to select government officials only became widespread at the beginning of the industrial revolution as the commercial power of the industrialists challenged the hereditary power of the nobility. The beginning of capitalism marked the beginning of the end of monarchism and the power of royalty. Money power, justified by economic theory, replaced hereditary power, justified by religious ideology. The industrial revolution was more than a “revolution” in technology, it was also a revolution in social relationships. Elections and elected government were a means of chipping away at the old order utilized by the ascendant but still relatively weak capitalists. The entire process would take several hundred years during which the market would be continually expanded to encompass most aspects of social activity, and financial control would become all pervasive.
Elections have changed considerably over time as the population has become generally literate and the franchise has been expanded to include those elements once considered dangerous to the existing hierarchical order. Initially, the landed aristocracy and business elites feared the consequences of majority rule and the possibility of popularly mandated income and land redistribution, and other challenges to elite rule, consequently voting rights were restricted. During the twentieth century, however, the rise of mass communications and public relations/advertising permitted those with the necessary resources (money) to strongly influence public opinion and shape the social mythology so as to achieve elite objectives through voluntary compliance. In order to win elections, candidates required elite support and funding to successfully promote their candidacy. Furthermore, the expansion of the market meant that much of the political economy came under the direct control of the capitalist corporations and financial system.
This is a critically important point. Nowadays, elections in a capitalist democracy are a means of manufacturing consent by selling the illusion of democratic governance, legitimizing corporate/financial control in the process. After all, the government does reflect the choice of the majority of voters, the popular will. But notice how capitalist democracy relies upon the power of money to sell itself through massive spending on marketing which is critical to public opinion and electoral victory. Furthermore, how the spread of capitalist democracy virtually assures corporate control of the political economy, elections primarily a marketing extravaganza. Incredibly, most Americans seem to believe that the spread of capitalist democracy to the Third World, that is transnational corporate control of Third World countries, would be a good thing! This, in spite of the fact that polls indicate that most Americans feel that the US government doesn’t represent them, that instead it pursues the interests of big business.
How to explain this? First of all, the political theory of a rational voter is pure mythology. The majority of people aren’t rational concerning their core beliefs. By “rational” I mean arriving at conclusions consistent with empirical reality. They are, however, quite logical. By “logical” I mean arriving at conclusions consistent with group ideology/mythology. Humans remain naturally tribal, membership in groups (tribes) seen as necessary for survival (as it once was). Within the group, most are faithful followers, accepting group mythology and hierarchy as essential to group effectiveness which, to a degree, it is. But this is not an informed commitment, rather, it is a psychological commitment to the group whereby their loyalty to the group and to the group mythology secures their membership. And their loyal membership requires that the group and its mythology be defended against threats to the group and its ideology, empirical reality notwithstanding. This is why rational argument is usually ineffective with those who strongly identify with irrational group ideology/mythology.
Initially, this meant that most voters would vote consistent with their local group ideology and current group objectives. This still occurs frequently in Third World countries where powerful sub-groups remain within the nation state and sectarian loyalties hold sway. In the First World, however, the population has been considerably atomized, most taking their cues from the main stream media instead of labor unions, churches, etc. The entertainment media has significantly shaped the social mythology against which the news is evaluated for believability and relevance. The key to the success of the news and entertainment media in manufacturing consent is the extent to which the majority of the faithful follower citizenry rely upon them to provide valuable clues as to what constitute acceptable behavior and beliefs. Most are relatively unconcerned with the empirical truthfulness of the news, rather, they are concerned with exhibiting the behavior and beliefs which will enable them to successfully fit in as loyal group members. This is the primary reason why the citizenry does not abandon the two major corporate parties en mass and vote Third Party or independent. Most are psychologically incapable of a revolt at the polls.
Some might disagree, pointing out that during the Great Depression there was a revolt at the polls resulting in radical labor supported Democrats winning big victories and forcing significant concessions from the elites. True enough, however, these victories were the consequence of radical, usually communist oriented, organizing campaigns unlikely to be replicated. In other words, the voting reflected loyalty to the radical group, not some sudden mass upsurge in individual rationality. In other words, it shouldn’t take a huge organizing campaign to get voters to vote out of office those officials who are demonstrably screwing them, and to vote for those who make empirical sense. Yet, that is the way it has always been. What is the mantra of the Left? Organize! Organize! Organize! Got to have an organizer telling the folks what to do. Some vanguard of the elite. And what does that tell you about the “rational political man” and the viability of democracy in any meaningful sense of the term?
So, elections are not an opportunity for a rational citizenry to make informed choices to shape the political economy democratically. Rather, it is the money-power of the elites defining the overarching mythology and framing the discourse to sell corporate candidates to a faithful follower electorate. As such, the elected government is beholden to and dependent upon the elites, and basically function to manage society in accordance with elite goals and objectives. That the government is not truly a government of the people representing the public welfare should be obvious. What may be less obvious is that elections do, to a degree, reflect the popular will. That is, the elites have been able to sell their candidates and elite friendly policies to an irrational citizenry. That the elites should be so successful in their efforts to control the political system reflects poorly on the capacity of the citizenry to engage rationally in political decision making.
If elections are marketing campaigns bereft of democratic content, can they serve any useful purpose? If they are reasonably honest and reflect the vote, elections are an excellent source of feed-back regarding citizen awareness and desire for change. In theory, if people want change they can vote for new people. As such, an elected government has a legitimate claim to popular support, even if that support was created by money driven marketing. There are, after all, alternatives to the two corporate party candidates. Saying that Third Party candidates, independent candidates, and write-in candidates are unlikely to win does not negate their value as a protest vote. A high protest vote would tend to delegitimize the government and signal a grassroots desire for change which, at a certain point, could achieve sufficient momentum to bring about significant improvement. Currently, however, the miniscule electoral support for alternatives to the corporate candidates indicates a citizenry generally supportive of our current political economy and unlikely to support meaningful change. It should be noted that protesting the current system is not the same as supporting specific alternatives to business as usual. This demonstrated lack of support for progressive change bodes poorly for efforts to organize resistance to the neoliberal attack against the 99%.
When all is said and done, what is the alternative? Revolution? Get serious. All of the factors which permit the capitalist elites to more or less control the electoral process also permit them to more or less control the political economy. If you can’t get people to vote for you, how are you going to get them to man your barricades? And while you may get people to join a protest against current conditions, how will they come to agree on a preferred alternative? Why would people too lazy, dispirited, or uninformed to vote, a relatively easy task, suddenly commit to real sacrifice and risk? Perhaps if elections were obviously rigged and invalid, then other means to implement change would be justified. However, as long as elections are not obviously rigged, any other means of implementing change would be undemocratic. The point being that elections and the electoral process can be a means of organizing opposition to business as usual. This, of course, would be in conjunction with other organizing outside the electoral process, both mutually reinforcing. Unfortunately, the prospects for meaningful progressive change seem sufficiently bleak as to argue against any significant commitment of resources to challenge the system at the ballot box. However, a low-keyed approach to increasing political awareness may bear fruit in the long run. This would emphasize organizing around specific social issues combined with putting forth Third Party candidates as alternatives to corporate candidates.
Capitalists gained control of the political system through money-power, which remains too strong to be confronted directly. What must be done is to create a broad awareness of our capitalist political economy based upon empirical reality, not ideological delusions, and to gain as much independence from monetary control as possible. Ultimately, the private financial system needs to brought under control of the political system and concentrated wealth broken-up, something not currently possible. To succeed, the citizenry must abandon their role as faithful followers and become rational voters. In the long run, efforts for progressive change must utilize the ballot box, I can see no other way.