20 May 2014

Voting—the opiate of the people?

A letter to the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City, Utah, daily paper, suggested rather unkindly that the rite of voting in the U.S. is nothing more than “the opiate of the masses.” I was rather surprised to find a quote from Marx in a newspaper owned by the Mormon Church.

The author of the letter was commenting on a recent in-depth study by two political scientists from Princeton and Northwestern universities, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, who concluded in their report that, "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. ... Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all."

The study is a damning indictment of the American political system, declaring that the U.S. is in effect a plutocracy, not a democracy. Nonetheless, I'm not sure I would go so far as to refer to voting as the opiate of the masses. Although the two major American political parties have been described as about as different as Burger King and McDonalds, I believe electing Democrats or Republicans can make a significant difference. Obama's health care plan may have been tailored to corporate interests, but at least he brought in a plan, something I doubt the increasingly reactionary Republicans would have done.

The question for us is how much of an opiate voting is in our country. I would suggest much less. Our Supreme Court has been sensible enough to recognize that banning corporations from funding elections is a reasonable democratic measure. As a result, they are prohibited from contributing to federal campaigns. The Court has also recognized that third parties can be restricted in their political funding. Furthermore, I believe our political parties offer us considerably more philosophical range than the Democrats and Republicans offer Americans.

Nonetheless, economic elites and business groups still have excessive influence in our democratic processes. They are major funders in municipal elections and most provincial elections. Their domination of the economy allows them substantial leverage over governments. And of course they own most of the mass media. Voting in Canada may not be an opiate, but it isn't entirely the clear voice of democracy either.

1 comment:

  1. What does a vote matter without a free and informed electorate? Today's corporate media cartel dishes up messaging in lieu of information. Messaging, spin, is great for inculcating fear in voters. Tom Flanagan has said Harper knows the full value of using fear as a tool to manipulate his base, the people who delivered his majority.

    It was said that 60% of FOX News viewers believed that US forces had found WMDs in Iraq fully two years after the White House admitted no such weapons existed.

    If you can manipulate the voting public with falsehood and motivate them with fear you can make them vote for pretty much anything of your choosing. You can even make them believe that, by virtue of having cast a ballot, they are preserving democracy.

    Theodore Roosevelt recognized this peril in his Square Deal speech at Osawatomie, Kansas in August, 1910:

    In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows...

    At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new.