Writing in an era before political correctness, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described unwarranted faith in electoral politics as “parliamentary cretinism.” Stricken by this disease, politicians and their constituents imagine that “the whole world, its history and its future are directed and determined by a majority of votes.”
Under the influence of this chronic disorder, American citizens seem to lose all memory and reason, falling for the same confidence games every four years. This time it will be different, we tell ourselves. This time, elections will bring about meaningful political and economic change.
So, when Barack Obama announced hope and change, many on the anti-war left flocked to his banner. And yet, under his tenure, we saw the continuation of Bush’s policies, including the bombing of civilians in Pakistan, Guantanamo Bay’s tenth anniversary and the expansion of indefinite detention.
That is not to say that Mitt Romney would be much better. Just as Kim Kardashian is famous for being famous, Romney is electable for being perceived as electable. Nobody likes Romney, sure, but because he’s a shameless opportunist with no scruples, he’s clearly the perfect candidate. Of course, then, Romney is more than willing to mum the war-mongering of his opponent, writing in a Wall Street Journal editorial that we must “prepare for war” with Iran.
Among the major candidates, only Ron Paul claims that he would stop the state-sponsored slaughter of people overseas. But even if we believed peace was in Paul’s power, his domestic policies would be almost as disastrous. If elected, Paul would roll back civil and reproductive rights, cut social spending and eliminate environmental protections and labor laws.
A recent Pew opinion poll found that 31 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism, and yet our only presidential options are a conservative moderate and a Republican. These candidates represent a very narrow range of the political spectrum because all of the real decisions have been made long before the ballots are cast.
Even if there was a genuinely left-wing candidate in the race, their ability to effect change would be restricted once in office. As President Obama’s marginalized universal healthcare plan shows, the entrenched interests of the capitalist class will always win over the leftist ambitions of an upstart politician.
Yet we are already being told by Democrats that we must fight for Obama, that he is the only thing standing between us and utter ruin.
This is the second stage of the parliamentary disease: If politicians are all-powerful, holding the salvation or damnation of the country in their hands, then the people must be helpless at their mercy.
Indeed, this is what most of the election coverage would lead us to believe. Pundits and newscasters render the American voter as impulsive, petty and stupid, driven to distraction by the latest gaffe or chain e-mail. If the American people sat down to have a beer with its favorite candidate, the media seems to suggest, it would quickly lose the thread of conversation.
The Occupy movement has shown us otherwise. Countless general assemblies revealed an American public capable of serious debates outside of the logic of our bipolar party system. Instead of squabbling over horse race minutia, occupiers asked fundamental questions about inequality and privilege.
Just as importantly, the occupations demonstrated that political action is possible outside of the voting booth. Through civil disobedience and the re-appropriation of public space, the Occupy movement changed the terms of public conversation without the guidance of elected officials.
And, if this movement expands, it will be capable of even more. As Occupy Oakland’s Boots Riley points out, “politicians are controlled by whoever controls industry. If we want to control the politicians, the people must make a movement in which we control industry through strikes, shut downs and militant unions.”
Certainly, we should vote. Federal elections are an innocuous enough pastime. But we cannot let them distract us from the real work of achieving democracy and social justice.
JORDAN S. CARROLL is a PhD student in English. He can be reached at email@example.com.