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.