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March 20, 2003

Okay, good point. The rabble-rousing and often rather sharp Digby writes:
We have spent years bemoaning the fact that people are politically disinterested, that voters are apathetic, that they don’t feel they have a voice. Now, when rather large numbers of Americans have left the comfort of their homes and their shopping malls to make a sincere statement alongside a bunch of strangers, liberals behave as if it is nothing. Outside of college campuses, the fact is that street protests don’t happen very often in America. Unlike in Europe, general strikes and large political protests are not a big part of our civic life. So, when it happens we should really take a good hard look at why. And we should pay special attention when the people who are protesting are average Joes and Janes who work for a living and have kids and own houses. Because that means that Americans are waking up and starting to pay attention.

Telling these awakened liberals that what they are doing makes no difference and that they should instead volunteer for a candidate and write a check is not exactly inspiring. But getting citizens involved through a feeling of solidarity with millions of people all around the globe just might have the salutory effect of making a percentage of those protesters decide that they will write a check and walk a precinct in order to elect a candidate they believe in—or to stop the war —or to punish Bush.

People need to feel part of something in order to get involved in politics. And as someone who has volunteered in many a campaign I can tell you that for the last decade it has had all the uplifting inspiration of the Bataan death march. It is work with no satisfaction in the soul or spirit and without that politics becomes nothing more than a duty.

The Republicans have a base of committed true believers and we desperately need some of that too. Telling these newly galvanized Democrats that the only way they can legitimately express themselves is through the ballot box—particularly in this day of manufactured, pre-fab campaigning—is a very self-defeating idea.

We need to get our blood up if we expect to beat back the flag-waving cavaliers of the Republican party.

Good points. Downside: One of the commenters agreeing with this post describes themselves as “one of those who feels that electoral politics is failed beyond repair.” Gee, and the alternative to “electoral politics” is what? Charisma? Magic? I would think long and hard before signing on with anyone who dismisses “electoral politics” so glibly. Odds are that although you may think you’re on their side, they’re not on your side. [11:54 PM]
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Comments on Okay, good point.:

Hal O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 12:57 AM:

We have spent years bemoaning the fact that people are politically disinterested, that voters are apathetic, that they don92t feel they have a voice.


No, I've maintained that whole position is mostly one of spin.

Elections, and the political process in general these days, are fought by professionals who want the smallest possible voting populations. Ones that are completely devoted to their candidates. Basically, the more of your opponent's voters you turn off and persuade to stay home, while your own voters clamp their noses and vote for your guy/gal... That's the way the game has been played, for at least the last decade. With the full complicity of most press outlets, who like to set themselves up as vitally necessary filters.

So, of course large scale popular political action is being downplayed. Just like blogs are being ignored as much as possible by the press. Neither one is sanctioned. They both give the impression that politics is something done, observed, and felt passionately about by that poor "misunderestimated" stooge, the Common American Citizen.

And if you think my general response is {pfui!}, and that I believe the Common American Citizen is the post powerful political force on the planet -- which is why the pros spend so damned much time discouraging us -- you'd be right.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 01:06 AM:

Aren't rallies and marches supposed to be one of the ways in which political networking gets done? Various little networks of people hooking up, new people being brought in, and like that?

I think this not because of personal experience, but because that was how it seemed to work in Ken MacLeod's books. Ken wouldn't shit me, would he?

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 01:24 AM:

It is impossible to handle complexity dishonestly; a political process
that tries mires into, well, look around you.

A chance for honesty is not lightly disdained, and wakes hope in hearts that have none; not for effect, not for direct consequence, but in the existence of the better world that may be as a thing to be *for*, rather than having to choose which distopia to be against.

This is the great gift of Rationalism and the Englightenment to politics; if you argue quantities, you argue for the real and thus inescapably for a true hope, about which it is readily possible to care.

For people to stand out in the street with a candle, to say "I hope for a better world" does not prevent them from volunteering, does not prevent them from voting, from going door to door, from remembering that first and eldest of all the "rights of freeborn Englishmen" is the right of refusal, back in days when the old spear of ashwood was a much-recoursed means of refusal.

Hope is a mighty thing; mightier than fear.

If hope does not itself enact change, the courage that comes from belief in the real possibility of a better world might free many things which can.

If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is a good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 01:46 AM:

I don't have any sympathy with my fellow San Franciscans who are busy blocking streets, chaining themselves to bridges, and blockading train stations. But I can't help thinking that creative organizers might be able to come up with some kind of cathartic "direct action" that actually served a useful purpose.

My current fantasy is that 10,000 people who are sufficiently distraught about war issues might simply fly to Washington D.C. and attempt to sit on the White House lawn every day. Do it in groups of 500 or 1000, bearing signs like "Bring Our Boys Home -- Save Money and Lives," "2004 and You're Out the Door," "Respect International Law -- Give Us Back Our Allies" "Read the Papers, George, the Whole World Thinks You're a Bully" ... and so on.

If a crowd like this allowed itself to be peacefully arrested in front of the White House, every day, it would probably get on Bush's nerves after awhile -- and it really wouldn't give him and Ashcroft much of an excuse for additional attacks on civil rights.

Granted, it wouldn't stop the war. But it would be a lot less of a nuisance, with a lot more catharsis value, than what "direct action" advocates are actually doing.

Faisal ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 01:53 AM:

Something I noticed while hanging around political wonks for the past 20 years (lived outside of DC, can't help it) is that the "Republican Revolution" came from the bottom up. The various republican factions (religious, neocon, libertarians who want to win votes., laisez-faire businessmen, etc) have been very disciplined in getting involved in school boards, state senate races, etc. It worked it way up and then into the House and then the Senate and finally the presidency. And at each stage, involvement at the lower levels helped gain power at successively higher levels. In the simple case, state senator candidates often come from school boards. In the complex case, President Bush is President in part becaause the Republican dominance of Florida's executive branch went very far down.

This is entirely subjective, and one person's P.O.V. If it's true, then it implies that for the Democratic party to get back in the game it will need to stop thinking solely about "who do we run for President" and start thinking about "how do we get a voice at every level and every stage of the process". If it's true then the dems would be foolish to turn away interest when it could be channeled into local politics at least.

Hal O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 02:16 AM:

Faisal, that's very much what I've been saying about 3rd Parties in general: Skip the Presidency for a while, focus on Congress.

There's 435 seats, for cryin' out loud. Do the polling, find what district comes closest to your party's platform, and focus on it. After you win that, go on to districts 2 and 3. Etc.

This is especially important because the first 3rd Party President will be elected by the House, almost by definition, given the way the process is set up.

But I would say, yes, contrary to popular belief, coattails almost always run from local to national, rather than the other way around.

Clark Myers ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 03:50 AM:

"We have spent years bemoaning the fact that people are politically disinterested"
Er no, personally I have spent years bemoaning the fact that all politics is local and people are entirely too much concerned with interest. Granted that peace is a condition inferred from the existence of gaps between wars and disinterest is not observed but inferred as the as the negation of each man for himself perhaps the usage as a superlative of uninterested is the highest and best use of the word - hard to point an instance of disinterested behavior. Still something to be encouraged in the political class I think. Entirely too many vested interests aren't there?

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 05:32 AM:

The damn despair. Again.

But there is something we can do politically; we can work for a politics where people's voice are heard, where the public is informed by honest and wise advisors, and where elected representatives listen and respond to the public. Blogging might even be part of the process.

Digby writes about the Republican "base of committed true believers." But their beliefs are based in fear. They are for almost nothing--there is no vision there. Having acheived governance of the most powerful nation on Earth, they can think of nothing better to do with that power than to oppress, abroad and at home. I think everyone who reads this blog could do better. Our rulers are scared. Now, don't get me wrong--scared people are dangerous. And a very good job has been done of teaching the whole USA--the whole world--their fear. But look at what even a whisper of hope does.

I believe that is why Middle America is marching. Partly because of the injustice being done in their name. But also because they've realized that, in the end, they do believe in something. And that, I think, is enough to build on.

Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 05:43 AM:

Middle UK is marching, too.

I don't normally go on political demonstrations. I have a high laziness threshold; I'm much more likely to write to my MP than to get off my fat arse and go marching in the cold for a few hours.

And I have never been on an anti-war demo before this war. (Make of that what you will, about my politics.)

But for some reason I found myself in a column of some thousands of people in Edinburgh, yesterday. And this is the odd bit: as the march headed down Prince's Street at about 6pm, random shoppers, passers-by, and office and shop workers on their way home joined it. Quite a lot of them, too. This wasn't a march purely composed of habitual protestors (although it started out that way, as the organisers set up in Parliament Square, and ended that way, as it ended around 8pm in the cold and the dark); it was a march that picked up a lot of ordinary people who didn't normally go in for such things, but ...

Oh, I nearly forgot the sting in the tale: there's an election here on May 1st, for the Scottish parliament. First Minister Jack McConnell was already making himself unpopular before he came out as an abject Tony Blair supporter over the war. It's now looking as if Jack -- and possibly even Labour dominance over Scottish politics -- is going to be the first political victim of the war outside Iraq.

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 06:39 AM:

Why do you think people are disaffected by the political process? The process doesn't seem to offer them much in return. People do not often see their opinions or political activity reflected in policy. At most, they feel that every few years they have chosen the least bad of usually no more than two condidates for some political post and that that person probably doesn't have the power to put their will into effect, even if they - or the voters - really wanted them to.

That makes it hard to feel very enthusiastic about the process.

There are alternatives to electoral politics. Sortition and variations on the Chinese mandarinate are the ones I've given some thought to, for that ever distant day when I actually write _my_ science fiction novel. Avram's reference to Ken MacLeod is really a reference to various kinds of municipal socialism. The Paris Commune was offering that kind of answer.

Municipal socialism isn't unrealistic. People would probably go to local meetings en masse if it offered them what church offers them: a place to socialise and gossip, a sense of community and a sense of being connected to something larger than themselves. In addition, it can offer something the best churches offer, but many don't: a chance to express yourself and to be heard.

The problem with it is the somewhat laxadasial kinds of policies that come out of it. It might have its points if one otherwise believed in the "nightwatchman state", where government has few active responsibilities. However, as MacLeod points out, there is a need for a civil service, a police and tax collectors. This model does not meaningfully restrict the power of those institutions because there is no elected leadership to counteract them with a different agenda.

Jim Henley ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 09:27 AM:

Patrick and Digby: as to "despair" over electoral politics, I come at it (as a political extremist) a different way. My thinking was substantially influenced by a conversation I had with Eve Tushnet, who was talking about why, unlike some of her friends, she had chosen to be a writer rather than a party professional.

"I think politicians mostly do what they think they have to do," she said, "and the rhetorical climate is an important determinant of that." By writing, Eve feels that she's affecting the rhetorical climate in a way that is at least as powerful as "writing a check or walking a precinct" would. It may in many cases be one's ONLY option. Before the Rolling World War came along, my number one concern for the country was our insane system of drug prohibition. There I am unlikely to have "a candidate I believe in" to vote for at any level of the polity. If my candidate gets in, he is still unlikely to be able to sway policy, UNLESS someone has already tackled the bigger job of changing the rhetorical climate around drug policy. Same with the Million Mom War, where one party avidly seeks it and the other party is too cowardly to stand in their way.

First things first.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 09:40 AM:

The other problem with municipal socialism is that it doesn't scale. To govern even a medium-sized US state — never mind the whole country — we need a system that doesn't depend on personal contact. You can try having the municipal soviets elect regional representative bodies, and so on, but what you end up with is citizens feeling even less ownership of the national government than they do now.

For years I've been bemoaning the media's tendency to turn electoral politics into a horse race — every time Cokie Roberts comes on NPR to tell us what so-and-so's position means for the such-and-such party's chance of regaining control over Congress I find myself wanting to scream "But what about the ISSUES, Cokie????"

But I think I've been making a mistake. Watching a sizable fraction of the people around me obsess about the basketball prowess of colleges they probably can't even find on a map, I'm thinking, maybe, to get people interested, we need electoral politics to be more like sports, not less.

The problem is that the people who market politics — the political consultants — have no incentive to get more voters interested; rather the reverse. Does anyone remember a science fiction story from, oh, at least fifteen or twenty years ago, about a future society where there was just one "representative" voter who was asked a long series of poll questions to determine national policy? That's what the political consultants would prefer, because then they could tailor their marketing message to that one single consumer. Sports promoters, on the other hand, are trying to sell advertising, not buy it; they have an incentive to get as many people as possible whipped into the largest frenzy possible about their product.

Advertising-supported political campaigns. An idea whose time has come.

Ruth ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 11:03 AM:

I must say, I92m glad to see that there are discussions going on that finally get beyond the tired dualities that generally pervade US political discourse (sic). As a foreigner used to slightly more nuanced politics, my eyes tend to glaze over when the good guys vs. bad guys / liberal vs. conservative/ Democrat vs. Republican rhetoric gets trotted out again and again and again. This doesn92t really get anybody anywhere.

What I find really hopeful about this particular moment -- the reactions to the war, the protest, the discussion, and even the despair 96 is that it seems like the questions and the emotions may begin to move a critical mass beyond the blind alleys of the usual narratives. There are a lot of people wondering. And I think they suspect that electing the 93right94 Democrat just ain92t gonna do it.

I feel hopeful when I come across discussions like this one, that ask the right questions, like what do you do when your political system totally doesn92t serve you? It92s useful to look around and see what others are doing. Real interesting things going on at the local level in Argentina right now, for example. And I have been surprised to see the emergence of a new political party in Canada whose platform is quite explicitly a critique of economic globalization and domination of society by corporate interests. I don92t think the answer is to dismiss electoral politics completely, but to be realistic and recognize that the current two party system in the US is unproductive. Sure, when you have multiple parties the thing has to start to shift and have some actual content and begin to address real issues. Right now, that92s just not the case.

It92s important to broaden our imagination of political life and to know that it does go way beyond ballots and campaigns. The notion that the electoral dimension is all there is, that it is the only legitimate arena, is a fundamental part of what neutralizes people and fuels despair. Changes will happen at that level, but they will not be sufficient. We need to think about what democracy and justice mean on the deeper, fundamental level of everyday life. How do we democratize our economic systems? Educational institutions? What kind of food systems do we want to create? Etc. I think people understand more and more that the Dem vs. Rep narrative is ultimately not helpful, and this opening in the culture92s consciousness is extremely hopeful because it will help generate alternatives and drive people to work on this stuff at many different levels.

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 11:08 AM:

I think the short story with the single voter was an Asimov piece and maybe 30 or 40 years old, although my memory of it isn't what it used to be.

Actually, sortition is a not dissimilar concept: selecting a statistically representative sample of the population, and then giving them the time and resources to really research every issue and make up their own mind.

It has its advantages. It scales at least as well as representative government and far better than municipal committees, although it makes assumptions about linguistic and cultural uniformity which may not apply on a larger scale than the nation-state. It is less subject to media manipulation, because people with the time, resources and encouragement to listen carefully to several different sides hash out their differences and get into the complexities of an issue are unlikely to be swayed by 15 second sound-bites. It is also automatically fully representative of women and ethnic and racial minorities as well as of any widespread but minority point of view without requiring ethnic voting blocks or quotas.

And, there are no elections. No candidates covering up blowjobs, no parties with skeletons in their closets and no public personas with kingly reputations to uphold. And nobody has to be interested in politics unless they're called up by the sort, and then they're best off just keeping an open mind and using common sense. The rest of the time, they can watch basketball for all the political difference it makes. Unless they want to press for some specific issue or agenda, in which case the only effective strategy is to convince as many individuals as you can and convince them well enough that they won't change their minds, because you never know who will get selected for government.

However, it has the same problems as municipal socialism: how do you deal with the professional wing of the government and how do you guarantee consistent policies over time? The Greeks gave civil service posts out the same way: by drawing lots. However, I don't think that's an effective policy for the industrial age.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 11:56 AM:

I think the flaw in sortition is the assumption that most people make up their minds based on a rational assessment of the facts, rather than arranging the facts to suit what they've made their minds up to do already.

I also think those chosen by sortition would be at just as vulnerable to lobbying as our current legislative bodies -- maybe more so, since with no reelection to face, it doesn't matter whether after the fact someone accuses them of being a tool of the oil industry or the trial lawyers or whoever, so long as they can't actually prove anything illegal.

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 12:35 PM:

But at least with sortition the decisions will represent the irrationality of the public instead of having an elite make the same rationalisations. Furthermore, I think an appeal to the common good is likely to make more sense to someone who has little or no vested interest than someone subject to reelection. The indirect bribery and extortion that passes for lobbying now would be much more difficult to do when the people in power are unlikely to write books, take executive positions in companies, have investments or elections to finance. At least the lobbyists would have an equal opportunity for access, instead of buying it through campaign contributions.

I'm not exactly advocating sortition. The whole problem with advocating a world substantially different than your own is that you don't ever really know how things will turn out. The scheme has its disadvantages. However, it also has its benefits. The problems could be mitigated by a more mixed system, like a three power government with an elected chamber, a chamber selected by sorition and a professional executive.

But, I think on the face of it it's at least as reasonable and democratic as electoral politics.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 01:10 PM:

My recollection is that the short story with the single voter was by Harlan Ellison. But there might be more than one. Story, not voter.

Scott Martens wrote, "But at least with sortition the decisions will represent the irrationality of the public instead of having an elite make the same rationalisations."

There's nothing that would anger the public more than being forced to face their own irrationality, rather than being able to conveniently blame it on an elite. Elected officials represent their constituencies very well if they want to get re-elected, and most do. So we have the amusing spectacle of term limits and other attempts to free politicians from expressing the will of the voting public.

As for the non-voting public, in a drafted sortition government they'd be reluctant mules, like people who want to get off juries. (And jury service is a doddle compared with this.) I love my relatives dearly, but I wouldn't want them making political decisions for me. My brother would develop detailed plans which would be quite mad; and my sister would agree to anything that would allow her to go home sooner.

Lenny Bailes wrote, "My current fantasy is that 10,000 people who are sufficiently distraught about war issues might simply fly to Washington D.C. and attempt to sit on the White House lawn every day."

It is my understanding that protesters with big signs and loud voices, standing outside the White House fence every day for 5.5 years, was a significant annoyance to Richard Nixon.

Charlie Stross wrote, "It's now looking as if Jack -- and possibly even Labour dominance over Scottish politics -- is going to be the first political victim of the war outside Iraq."

And which party(ies) do you think will benefit? (Sorry: politics as sports again. I'm curious, that's all.) I don't know so much about Scotland, but in England, it looks as if the growing aversion to Labour is leading to a tremendous political vacuum, as that aversion has nowhere to go: the Conservatives are a joke, the Liberal Democrats suffer from third-party syndrome (people won't vote for them because they think they can't win, even though they could win if those people did vote for them), and the English nationalists are racist pigs. What do you think?

Ruth wrote, "I have been surprised to see the emergence of a new political party in Canada whose platform is quite explicitly a critique of economic globalization and domination of society by corporate interests."

Which party is that, Ruth?

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2003, 06:16 PM:

[Scraps] The story David Moles may be thinking of, by Isaac Asimov, is called "Franchise." It was written over forty years ago and first collected in _Earth is Room Enough_. [/Scraps]

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2003, 02:40 AM:

Scott, you write: "Why do you think people are disaffected by the political process? The process doesn't seem to offer them much in return."

In part I agree--it is striking how far the representatives are from the electorate on a number of major issues. But I think more modest reforms can substantially improve matters and I prefer them. Truly radical changes in governance are risky.

But many people also don't value what our democracy has given us and what it does give us. There's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that operates in long-term governmental processes; when they work, many people take them for granted. Then it is possible to propagandize that the governance is unnecessary.

I remember how computing professionals sweated to be ready for Y2K. People worked and worked and worked. It was an astonishing outpouring of civic spirit and caring. A large part of it came from our much-disparaged civil service. And--we did it! Only to hear complaints that the problem was overblown, must not really have existed.

Jim, there aren't many moderates here, I think. Let me point out, though, that we could only have a drug war because we had many healthy and functional government operations. An analogy with an illness for which surgery is the appropriate treatment is perhaps helpful: the patient must be still have many healthy biological systems for surgery to be undertaken, and it is helpful for the patient's recovery if the patient and most of the medical staff treating the patient concentrate on that.

Simon, I find it interesting that the UK situation, with their far more responsive parliamentary system, nonetheless tracks the US situation. Comments from the Europeans?

Ruth, you write, "How do we democratize our economic systems? Educational institutions? What kind of food systems do we want to create?" These are, I agree, good questions, though I'll point out that if we undertake these things it can only be because we choose them--imposing democracy is self-contradictory. But we must get to a state where they may be addressed! Right now, serious consideration of such ideas by a large number of people in the USA is not possible--there is too much fear.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2003, 01:31 PM:

Scott: Avram's reference to Ken MacLeod is really a reference to various kinds of municipal socialism.

No, Scott, it isn't. I'm not quite sure what municipal socialism is, though I'm sure you can find it, along with a dozen or more other kinds of political systems, in Ken's books. But the point I was making had little or nothing to do with any kind of political system, and more to do with how political change is made.

I'm talking about how Matt Cairns and Grigory Volkov go about making changes in the society of New Virginia in Dark Light, by making connections with people in bars and coffee houses and homes and at political meetings, and how lasting social change in that society happens because of how a parade turns out.

I'm talking about Jon Wilde's father in The Stone Canal, going to socialist marches and handing out literature and starting conversations with people half a century younger, and how Dee Model winds up radically immanentizing a liberational social movement because of someone she met at a bar and a connection she made at a party.

Yehudit ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2003, 08:41 PM:
Digby writes about the Republican "base of committed true believers." But their beliefs are based in fear. They are for almost nothing--there is no vision there. Having acheived governance of the most powerful nation on Earth, they can think of nothing better to do with that power than to oppress, abroad and at home.
This is incredibly condescending and out of touch with reality. You may disagree with Republicans all you like, but refusing to try to understand the ideas and visions that animate them is lazy and arrogant. (But very typical of counter-culture protest types, as I well remember from my college days.)

The SDS didn't impress the "masses" with this kind of rhetoric and you won't either.