With the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, the mechanisms of our political system are working: a beneficiary of nepotism (legacy at Yale, Bush operative) was nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by legislators representing less than half of the population.
This limited imagination addresses neither the fundamental and historical injustice of our democratic institutions nor how to solve it. Instead, we should learn from those responsible for the low voter turnout so often prattled about: directly or not, they know that elections, or anything short of direct democracy, are shams.
Before worrying about discriminatory voter ID laws, we must realize how voting prevents us from identifying inequalities in political power. Tried and tested ways of engaging with each other, politically and socially, must be reanimated and recovered from the icy grip of voting. Between sterilizing mass movements and corroding our political energy, voting is a necrotizing infection that renders our comatose body politic septic.
At present, voting is the basic legally recognized form of political power. It claims to best represent popular opinion but is necessarily indirect (representatives, first-past-the-post or “winner takes all” voting, electoral college, party filtration of candidates, etc.). That voting is state sanctioned should mean it is unsurprising that it obscures other legitimate methods to exercise power in a democracy.
It revises history, exploiting exercises of legitimate power as means for the end of electoral participation. Strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience are instrumentalized for an ideal of equal suffrage, when they were in fact aimed at actual political equality, be it for the suffragettes, blacks under Jim Crow, or the working class throughout the American labor movement.
For example, the Civil War is conceived of as ending the subhuman treatment of blacks by elevating them to the equal identity of a voting citizen. But the right to vote was not enough. Blacks were still dominated by asymmetrical political power, maintained not only by hindering their ability to vote, but also by the repression of black political organization, be it clandestine like the surveillance and assassination of black community organizers or the subversion of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., or be it open like public lynchings and police riots against black demonstrators.
It is no coincidence that today’s most prominent mass movements, the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives, prove to be little more than voting drives for the Democratic Party. This fact alone proves the degree to which voting is a fetish for political power and an instrument to sustain political parties. Conservatives may decry their protests as “mobs.” Rather, if they were more like mobs, instead of pep rallies for the polls, they could achieve their ends, à la the Boston Tea Party.
When we enter a voting booth, its privacy curtains off social ties to family, friends, coworkers, and even consumer goods. When we submit our lonely ballot, universal suffrage erases what constitutes our identity, turning us into faceless members of the civic body without political access to the different social organs in which we participate.
Materially, voting threatens authorities by replacing their careers with that of a different stooge. But this accountability is hindered by incumbent advantage and their ability to manipulate institutions to ensure re-election (e.g., gerrymandering). Instead, legitimate power strikes authorities where it hurts: their pocketbooks, their self esteem, any social aspect of their lives.
Penn students, the targets of campus voting drives, have no reason to expect a shortage of political capital. Beyond their high expected lifetime income, alumni will enter government, influential think tanks, advocacy groups, and institutions of top-down knowledge production (in academia or mass media) – or at the very least, the adjacent social circles.
In a campus that sees such asymmetry in local and broader politics, the emphasis on voting is little more than a story we tell ourselves to feel better. This celebration of political equality disguises the concentration of power in our hands. With every farcical exhortation for voting and civil discourse, the less anybody is able to imagine effective, legitimate political power or value the full depth of their social ecosystem.
The premise of the charade of voting drives is that political crises emerge from an inactive voting body. Otherwise the institutions are irreproachable. Certainly, had the electoral college selected Hillary Clinton, we would see little outcry toward the flaws of indirect democracy. We might be happier if Democratic state senators were redrawing districts for their benefit. But this Machiavellian hope—conceding institutional flaws but installing our own candidates—is fruitless. Liberal darling Barack Obama now vacations with the global elite and filled his foundation’s board with corporate executives. The immediacy of the climate crisis necessitates something more effective and democratic than electorate-wide Machiavelli-play.
I don’t endorse abstaining, which welcomes oppositional victory, or voting, which exhausts our optimism and exclaims our powerlessness. I don’t want to diminish contemporary conflicts over voting rights, but they are of little priority if this voting only serves to maintain perverse institutions and divide what few social bonds remain. Rather, by remembering other sources of power with proven track records, we can make it so that adverse results in the Supreme Court or elections make little difference. Instead of allowing a hegemonic transfer of energy, we should rebuild the social cords frayed by an alienating democracy. We should vote when democracy is direct, such as in referenda. We should not place our political confidence in susceptible electors, but in each other.
CARL-EMMANUEL FULGHIERI is a College senior from Carrboro, N.C. studying economics and philosophy. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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