Monday, September 22, 2014

Why vote?

The election season is becoming more intense. Maybe this is a good time to ask yourself: when you go to vote, what are you doing? Why vote?
Everyone knows the official story that we learn in school: In a democracy the people have the power. When they vote, citizens select the person whom they will allow to wield that power on their behalf for a limited period of time.
But it does not take much thought to see that description for the sheer propaganda it is. When you are called into the taxman's office to go over your income tax returns, when you get a parking ticket, or when your complaints about potholes are ignored by the people in City Hall, you experience your reality that you have no power at all against the various representatives of the government.
When the police kill citizens as in Ferguson, MO (and many other places) and courts absolve the Zimmerman's of this world, where is the citizen power? When responsible adults are paid less than $ 9.00 an hour, where is their power?
The reality is that most Americans feel quite unable to affect the role that the government plays in their lives. That sense of powerlessness is so intense that most citizens do not bother to vote. “What's the use?” they say.
They are right: voting is an exercise in futility. Once your candidate has come into office, you will hear from them periodically when they ask you for money. If you feel strongly about something and sit down to write them a letter, the odds are that you will receive a form letter that has only the faintest, if any, connection with the concern your letter expressed.
Why vote?
By sheer accident this morning's paper provides one answer.
The City Council of Fergsuon, MO established a citizen's review board for the police and made various other moves to placate the voters in the town. Two thirds of the citizens of Ferguson are African-Americans. The police force of 53 officers has three black members. The City Council is all white. To judge by pictures of demonstrations after the killing of Michael Brown, many whites as well as blacks objected to Ferguson police conduct.
The City Council is elected. Their re-election depends on staying on the good side of the voters. By itself that does not explain this effort of the City Council to placate voters. There have been nightly, often violent demonstrations in Ferguson. The case focussed national attention on this previously unknown suburb of St. Louis. Being elected, the city councillors could not ignore a national outbreak of hostility to them, their town and its police force.
Elected officials often turn a blind eye to the wishes of their constituents. But if there are major demonstrations for an extended period, if their actions become the topic for a national conversation, elected officials cannot ignore the criticisms.
If Ferguson, MO were governed by a military dictatorship, demonstration would not need to be attended to. The suppression of popular opposition would only be much more violent than it was in fact. But when officials are elected, they are more responsive to public pressure.
So voting matters. It is important that some of our government officials are elected and voters if they get sufficiently upset can kick them out of office. At the same time, the experience of the last few weeks shows that voting alone accomplishes very little. It takes many brave people out in the streets again and again for an extended period to remind elected officials that they are not gods or judges with life-time tenure, but that they are supposed to represent the people.
So go and vote but be prepared to demonstrate actively and patiently.