Art Scatter says vote often

When I was much younger, I marveled at Election Day, this First Tuesday in November when Americans en masse, from sea to shining sea, returned to the polls to exercise the primary ritual of a democracy. The idea of it as a collective enterprise, the voting I mean, just made me happy somehow, even when I despaired over the outcome and had profound doubts about those we elected, even on the rare occasions when I actually voted for them.

That was when I equated voting with democracy, before I realized that people could vote and have almost no effect on their government or its policies or that the manipulations of skilled and extremely well-funded propagandists (and I use this charged word deliberately, though I could simply have used “ad men”) could change an election. And over time, erode the democracy itself by diminishing our very capacity to make informed choices. Voting is not the same as democracy. I can’t show up every four years to vote for the lesser of two evils and think of myself as doing anything so important as participating in a democracy. A lot of the time, that’s what I’ve done. Democracy requires a lot more participation than that.

We know this has happened. Fully one-quarter of us aren’t registered to vote. Of those of who are, one-third won’t. So fifty percent of us acknowledge the futility of voting, understand that once our representatives get to Washington they make thousands of decisions that have nothing to do with our welfare, nothing to do with “representing” us, become entangled in networks of power that defy their abilities to change things, if they still have the heart. Those of us who do vote have become cynical about it. Let me re-phrase that: I have become cynical about it. Because I don’t want to speak for you. I vote and I walk away. I vote and I turn my nose. I am bad for democracy.

I’m not alone. Our political campaigns are bad for democracy. Instead of being the best expressions of real thinking about the country and its problems, our campaigns are the worst, contests between competing catch-phrases, hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to refining the 30-second attack ad, empty promises, empty posturing, devoid of content. And they never address the primary problem: That the democracy itself is gravely ill, maybe terminal. I would surrender my position on ANY issue or policy, if it would restore government of the people, by the people, for the people. The wisdom of crowds — the internet has taught us that as a group we are much smarter than we are as individuals. That intelligence should be applied to our problems, and democracy should be the process that makes it happen.

In America it’s difficult to stand up and say, “Our democracy is dying,” because large numbers of voters believe that we are The Greatest Nation on Earth, the shining city on the hill, despite evidence to the contrary. Well, you can say it, but you would lose, or so “experts” and “ad men” and “propagandists” think. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they understand us better than anyone. OK: I don’t believe that. But even worse would be to say it and not mean it and not meaning it, not do anything about it. To use it as an advertising device, a catch-phrase, an attack ad.

So, we have a quandary: A disease that we can’t name.
How can we prescribe a treatment plan for a disease we can’t name? In some ways, it’s a funny question to ask in Portland, Oregon, where by most traditional measures (voting, attendance at government meetings, memberships in civic organizations, etc.) we are more actively engaged in the democratic process than most American cities. The treatment plan involves participation. And that’s what has made this presidential campaign remarkable to me — the level of participation. Maybe it’s the internet, the perilous times or the candidates themselves, but there’s more discussion this year than I’ve heard in a long time, more volunteering.

My own rules of engagement at the newspaper I work for prohibit me from naming names here, and in the context of Art Scatter, I don’t have to, I suppose. Let’s just say that for the first time in a long time, I arise happily on election day because at least one of the candidates took the obligation of a presidential campaign to the democracy itself seriously. The country is better for the campaign, and that is so rare in my experience, that I count it as victory, whatever happens today. The democracy has already won.

Not that it was perfect. In the best campaign, the one in my mind, the descriptions of our problems get better and better, improved and sharpened by the criticism of the opponent. And so the solutions get better and better. We don’t expect our candidates to come to the table with all the answers in hand: We expect them to come ready to explore and argue and contest. The “debate” about the obvious manifestation of the country’s credit crisis in the middle of this campaign was woeful, the descriptions of the problem sketchy to point of being non-existent and then never tested by adroit questioning, by the other candidate or by the press. The campaigns didn’t make us smarter about the credit crisis (and through the crisis, the nature of our “advanced” economy itself); they allowed us to color it according to the ideology that informs us because they didn’t attempt to explain in such depth that we would have to abandon those ideologies — and embrace a more useful description.

That’s the thing about democracy. It’s not perfect. It’s a process, not a result. A verb not a noun. We aren’t a democracy; we behave democratically. It requires more of us than we have given. It requires more of us than our candidates have asked. The relationship between the citizens and their leaders should always be in tension, as we expect more and more of them — and ourselves. We need better; we need to be better.

Like you, I’ll be watching the results tonight, hoping for certain outcomes. But deep down, I know that those outcomes, those results, are just beginnings, if this whole thing is ever going to work.