Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupy: Why Voting Isn't Enough

Overhead view of the Occupy Toronto encampment, St. James Park (from Torontoist)

Al Gore's book, "The Assault on Reason" is one of the best treatises on American democracy I've ever read. Written almost five years ago, the book goes into great detail about the many ways in which that democracy has been undermined in recent decades, and gives this warning:

"The derivation of just power from the consent of the governed depends upon the integrity of the reasoning process through which that consent is given. If the reasoning process is corrupted by money and deception, then the consent of the governed is based on false premises, and any power thus derived is inherently counterfeit and unjust. If the consent of the governed is extorted through the manipulation of mass fears, or embezzled with claims of divine guidance, democracy is impoverished. If the suspension of reason causes a significant portion of the citizenry to lose confidence in the integrity of the process, democracy can be bankrupted."

This is precisely the situation we find ourselves in today - more so in the States, but also starting here in Canada.

We are brought up to believe that democracy is a pure and noble process, and that government can be a perfect reflection of the will of the people so long as the people exercise their franchise by voting. Unfortunately, the process itself has become so thoroughly corrupted and manipulated that many have come to believe this is no longer the case.

Nothing has demonstrated the impotence of democracy in the face of a corrupt system than the first term of President Barack Obama, which has proven once and for all that, in America at least, money trumps votes. Over the past four years it has become depressingly clear that a representative's first allegiance is not to the voters who elected him, but to the donors who paid for the election campaign that convinced those voters to elect him.

Things are only moderately better here in Canada. Unlike the States, we have stringent limits on campaign spending and corporate donations, but it is still a sad fact that the one who spends the most money is the one most likely to win an election. And now that the Conservatives have eliminated the per-vote subsidy, that money is now coming almost exclusively from those who can afford to or are actively motivated to donate to a political party, with the still sizable taxpayer subsidy now reflecting their preferences rather than those of the average voter.

But how is it that money can so profoundly influence our democracy? Aren't we all intelligent, free-thinking individuals whose votes are based purely on the merits of the candidate and their position on the issues?

Ok, you can stop laughing now.

As we all know, public opinion is disturbingly easy to sway. Gore talks at length about the differences between television and earlier forms of mass media and their effects on political discourse. Back in the days when American was first forming its democracy, the primary mode of mass communication was print. Newspapers - although hardly unbiased - were nevertheless lively forums for public debate, where anyone with a pen could write a letter and contribute to the discussion. For those with more to say, it was relatively cheap and easy for an ordinary person like Thomas Paine, for instance, to commit their ideas to paper, have them printed and distribute them to a wide audience.

The age of television ended all that. As more and more people began using television as their primary source of news and information, that sort of lively discussion became all but impossible. Not only is TV a one-way medium, but it is also very expensive - so expensive that only the very wealthy or those with wealthy (usually corporate) sponsors can afford access. Those sponsors found themselves with a power they never had before, and slowly began to manipulate the messages being transmitted to serve their own interests.

It used to be that governments controlled the media so they could control the people. Now, corporations control the media and the government, and nobody gives a rat's ass about the people.

Consider this: a candidate running for the U.S. Congress must spend over $1 million if they are to have any hope of winning, largely because of the costs associated with television advertising. This means that, instead of spending their time reviewing legislation and participating in debates, they must spend nearly all their time fundraising, year round. So if a major corporate donor says "Jump!", one can hardly blame them for asking, "How high?" They may want him to do something his constituents wouldn't like, but since those donors essentially control access to the media, chances are the voters will never find out about it. Or if they do, they will be convinced that it doesn't matter.

These days, of course, corporate interests aren't satisfied with merely paying for campaign ads on television. They now use their ownership of the television and radio networks themselves to directly manipulate public opinion through news and news-like programming.

Once again, things are better in Canada, but only by degree. The current spending limit for a candidate running in a Canadian federal election is around $100,000, depending on the size of the riding and other factors. That still sounds like a lot of money, and it is - although thankfully it's not enough for individual candidates to purchase television campaigns. The parties themselves can spend considerably more, but even they are subject to limits. Still, the trend towards year-round campaigning and the growth of third party advertising have shown just what a powerful effect money can have even on a Canadian election.

The result is that fundraising is given priority over all other party activities, even policy making, and that smaller parties representing minority voices will remain forever marginalized. Even those MPs who truly wish to represent their constituents are prevented from doing so because they are forced to vote along with their party in most matters, in order to maintain their good standing and benefit from the party's national advertising campaign.

This is why those who say, "Why don't you just get out and vote?" are being hopelessly naive.

Happily, all this is slowly beginning to change. As the internet gradually replaces television and other traditional media as our primary source of news and information, money will begin to lose its grip on politics. After all, the internet is by and large free and unrestricted, with infinite capacity for public access and participation.

This has actually been happening for some time now, but has only recently reached the tipping point where television may have begun to have less influence on public opinion than other means. And really - why would you wait for the 6 o'clock news to come on or for some network camera person to make their way down to where an event happened earlier, when you can watch it happening right now, live, unfiltered, through a dozen different camera lenses, and then draw your own conclusions about what it all means.

No wonder the corporate interests are so desperate to find some way to control it.

I would submit that the Occupy movement is perhaps the first large scale manifestation of this shift, and the first major victory in what will be a long battle to wrest control of our democracies back from the monied interests. For the first time in a generation, WE are setting the agenda. WE have changed the channel.

Ordinary people everywhere are suddenly talking about issues like the income gap and money in politics, not because the government or the television is telling them to, but because their friends are talking about it on Facebook, or at the pub, or they saw some video on YouTube. They might agree or disagree with the points being made or the tactics being used, but the important thing is they're engaged in a dialogue instead of just regurgitating talking points.

It's going to take a while for all this to filter through and make systemic changes. Just because television is having less of an influence on public opinion doesn't mean that influence is gone, or that politicians and parties are going to stop spending billions of dollars on TV advertising. And we must remain vigilant that those same interests that control traditional media don't succeed in controlling the internet as well.

There is also the persistant problem of the protests themselves overshadowing the message they are trying to get across. For instance, everyone now knows about Lt. John Pike and his can of orange pepper spray. Not many people know that the kids he attacked were there to protest a massive increase in their tuition fees.

Keep your eyes on the prize, people. Stay engaged. Stay focused. Turn off the TV. And what the hell - get out and vote anyway. You never know.

1 comment:

  1. So at UC-Davis as in the UK as reported by Laurie Penny - if memory serves correctly - in The New Statesman re: tuition hikes in that country?