The United States is a republic, so in principle it is the people who are in charge. In practice, it has not worked out that way. Nonetheless, because we remain a formal democracy there remains a possibility--a potential--that is as tantalizing as it is breathtaking: the people could reclaim their government.
There are effective barriers in place to prevent this:
- Voting is deliberately made difficult.
- Voters are heavily propagandized.
- Voters' choices are limited.
Because of these barriers only slightly more than half of Americans who could vote actually do so in presidential election years, fewer than half in other national elections, and far fewer in local or state-level elections that are held apart from national elections. Voter participation has steadily declined since 1960. Those who fail to vote, when polled, cite the difficulty of voting as the primary cause. 1
Erecting hurdles on the way to the voting booth is an American tradition, from the poll taxes, literacy tests, and good-character tests of the Jim Crow era to today's voter id laws and proof-of-residency requirements. Polling places are often put in locations that disadvantage voters who don't have a car. Voting is held on a workday, forcing voters to miss work or try to fit voting in before or after work, a time when the polling places are busiest and the lines to vote in crowded urban districts can be hours long. 2
Voter suppression begins well before polling day, however: the fact that Americans must register to vote enables a number of mechanisms to block them. Registration requirements and restrictions vary significantly from state to state, and change frequently, so voters tend to be poorly informed about their eligibility to register as well as what process to follow. Also, deadlines to register come a month before election day and vary from state to state, so many miss their chance to register without knowing it, especially young and first-time voters. States are not required to notify voters of their registration status, so voters are unsure of whether they may vote come election day, or what will happen if they try to vote when they aren't pre-qualified. 3
The 2012 election is especially remarkable for the boldness of the attack on voting, an attack coordinated at the national level but aimed at individual state laws. 4 5 In 2011 alone 14 state legislatures enacted a total of 25 laws to restrict voter registration, increase documentation and residency requirements for registration, enhance disenfranchisement of former convicts, restrict early or absentee voting, and require government-issued photo ID at the polling place. 67 Some states are purging their voter rolls on spurious grounds, disenfranchising many voters without their knowledge and forcing them to meet new, onerous registration requirements. 8 9 10 The "voting fraud" problem that serves as the public rationale for erecting these barriers to democracy does not exist. 11 Rather it is clear that these measures are meant to deflect the threat to elite interests that broad participation at the polls might represent. 12 13
Supposing you run the gauntlet and cast your vote, there is a good chance you are deceived about what you are voting for. In the 2010 national elections the majority of conservative voters believed that healthcare reform will increase the deficit, that the economy was shrinking rather than growing, that the stimulus included no tax cuts, and that scientists do not largely agree about the existence of climate change. In the same election, most liberal voters believed that the Chamber of Commerce was spending foreign money to support Republican candidates, that troop levels in Afghanistan were not increased during the Obama administration, and that Democratic legislators did not support the TARP bank bailout. All of these beliefs are contrary to the facts. 14 Similar findings have been reported in the past. In the presidential election in 2000 significant numbers of voters were confused about such basic matters as which candidate was more conservative and which party controlled the legislature. 15 16
If enough voters are confused about the candidates and policies they are voting for then the entire electorate is disenfranchised. But voter confusion is not accidental, and it is not owing to lack of interest or to intellectual incapacity. It is deliberately imposed. Like all other advertising, the information that voters are exposed to is meant to hinder their critical faculties, place a distorted frame on their perceptions, and appeal to their prejudices. The U.S. presidential campaigns alone will spend $3 billion dollars on political ads in the 2012 cycle,17 while political action committees and other partisan organizations will spend far more. This money is being spent not to inform but to persuade, and it is being spent on the most effective public relations that money can buy. Obama for America, the president's 2008 campaign, won top national and international prizes from advertising industry organizations for its effectiveness. 18 19
Behind and superior to the major party campaigns is big media's role in setting the agenda: 20 21 22 the issues to be fought over and--critically--the issues to be left undiscussed. So in this election cycle voters are being trained to treat the deficit as the paramount economic concern, the "threats" from Iran and China as the top international issue, and women's reproductive health choices as the top social issue. 23 Of these, only the third has any connection with voters' interests, as opposed to elite interests. Off the menu: the military-security establishment that absorbs over half of income tax revenues, the capture and rape of the economy by an international financial elite, the sacrifice of individual privacy and civil liberties on the altar of the War on Terror, the collapse of our civic commons 24 25 26 and disintegration of the physical infrastructures 27 on which any long-term economic recovery depends, and the poverty and poor prospects that define the lives of a majority of Americans. As Jim Naureckas put it, writing in FAIR:
When you're exposed to network TV news, it's always good to bear in mind that you're watching millionaires working for billionaires, telling stories whose main purpose (from an economic perspective) is to get you to hold still long enough for corporate advertisements to rearrange your value system. 28
The first tool of propaganda is partisanship, and it is unsurprising that the top social issue on the agenda--abortion--is one of the most polarized issues among voters. Partisanship is the mechanism by which voters are most often deceived, because their understanding of the facts is easily distorted when such distortions fit the biases and narratives they have already adopted. 2930 31 In addition, partisanship makes voters less likely to pay attention to or be influenced by new information. 32 A highly polarized and partisan electorate is a neutralized electorate, provided approximate numerical balance between the parties is maintained--a dynamic ensured by a two-party system in which capture of the political center ("center" as defined by the agenda-setters) is key to success. 33
The partisan duopoly exploits popular political impulses in ways that ensure those impulses don't threaten the system. Corporate-media news sources are careful to maintain an artificial standard of "balance" in any story focused on political issues, even when it requires treating isolated, unsupported opinions on an equal footing with readily verified facts. 34 35 36 False balance doesn't just avoid undermining partisan narratives, it places a partisan frame on issues that then limits what can be considered legitimate points of view. Any view not within the defined spectrum is automatically "extreme" and "unserious," and hence unworthy of public attention. In this way the "center" of political opinion, the views that count as moderate, can be adjusted over time to suit elite interests. 37
Elections are presented as a competition between opposing teams, like a national sporting event not much different than the Super Bowl or the World Series, and voters are kept focused on how their team is doing and the latest indicators of partisan advantage. Local and state-level races become the focus of national media only insofar as they are relevant to the national outcome, offer scandal, or become the focus of fierce partisan competition; local media ("local" in the sense of coverage, not ownership) largely ignore them too. 38 News coverage of any issue that is relevant to voters' choices in the election--already limited by the boundaries of the set agenda--becomes further limited by the need to emphasize the role of the issue in determining the outcome of the competition, emphasis that often comes with a large dose of false balance.
Candidates and policy proposals that don't conform to the partisan narratives are considered fringe, and denied news coverage or a podium in the debates. Third parties such as the Greens, the Libertarians, or the Socialists are actually called "spoilers"39--literally people who ruin the game for everybody else. Any votes they get are said to have been "stolen" from the major party candidates, and the votes themselves are said to be "wasted." The harsh language used to describe any deviation from the partisan dynamic indicates how firmly established that dynamic is; most voters have completely internalized it, and are unaware that other ways of approaching the conduct of American politics might be rational, or even possible.
Partisanship inexorably increases. 40 Those who vote don't vote for things. A partisan vote is fundamentally a vote against because a partisan vote is about winning, and you can't win if your opponent does. Political discourse in the United States is therefore dominated by the superficial, the personal, and the polarizing. Above all it is increasingly negative. 41 42 It has to be, because that is how you motivate people to v ote against. The resulting political environment is hostile to constructive debate of the kind that forges consensus and fosters leadership. We are left with an electorate whose representatives are unable clearly to articulate the nation's problems, much less imagine their solutions.
Taken together, the obstacles to voting that reduce turnout, the propaganda that keeps likely voters misinformed about and distracted from the issues that affect their lives, and the constraints on discourse and political action enforced by a duopoly of parties that are distinct in far fewer respects than they are identical (and in nothing more so than the interests they serve)--these defects in American democracy neutralize the ballot box as a tool for self-government. There is no other tool for self-government. Without it the notion that our government is "of and by the people" is a fiction, convenient to no one but those whose hands are on the real levers of power.