Allow me to quote an editorial by the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s two national newspapers, from April 27, 2011.
We are nearing the end of an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign, marked by petty scandals, policy convergences and a dearth of serious debate. Canadians deserved better. We were not presented with an opportunity to vote for something bigger and bolder, nor has there been an honest recognition of the most critical issues that lie ahead: a volatile economy, ballooning public debts and the unwieldy future of our health-care system.
The real question is, how could we have expected more? History is repeating itself, and has done every election for decades. If you are disappointed, you have not been paying attention.
Citizens of democracies like to feel that they are in charge. After all, every so often they decide who gets to sit in government, and government is in charge of everything. There is little reason to be so cocky.
Most people do not understand politics and government very well. That is simply a fact. How could they? They have other things to do besides study politics, economics, law, philosophy, congressional voting records, campaign contributors, and everything else they would need to make an informed decision. They form strong opinions on things they do not understand. And then they go vote. These are the same people who believe 10% of the US government budget is spent on foreign aid, when in reality it is closer to 1%. (More here on the consequences of the uninformed voter.) Reading the newspapers and listening to candidates speak do NOT make you an informed voter.
Here is something else voters might not know: you as an individual are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the polling station than you are to make a difference in a federal election. Perhaps the solution is, as many a disappointed democrat stresses, to get more people out to vote. But they would vote for the same people and the same system. Doing so would not address the problems with elections.
To win an election or nomination to the head of a political party, you need to be competitive, ruthless, and know how to play voter ignorance like a violin. If politicians were wise and benevolent, there would be no need for elections. We could trust them to do what is right. But since they consistently do not do what they say they will do, turn out to be corrupt and incompetent, we need elections to vote them out. So we vote out Guy A and vote in Guy B, because Guy B promises change. But then Guy B ends up being just as corrupt and incompetent as Guy A! Am I the only one who considers this an exercise in futility, to say the least?
But people don’t get it. They say things like, “democracy is good because we have choices.” Yes, you have a tiny percentage of a say in which of a few people that you do not know very well will impose his or her policies and taxes on you, in which person’s salary and retirement benefits you are forced to pay for, but you do not have much choice in anything else. The only real choice you have is obey or go to jail.
Elections seem to legitimise democracy because people get a say in politics once in a few years. I argue that elections reveal how meaningless democracy is. Millions get together to vote and nothing changes. The politicians who demand action do nothing. All the same pointless policies get shuffled around. And voters have the same complaints about every government in every election: they don’t listen to us, they don’t do what we want them to do, they don’t solve our problems. It is the same thing every single time. Do you really think this next election will make anything better?
Elections do not force governments to do what the people want them to do. Let’s say there is a broad consensus in the US to end the war in Afghanistan. 75% of Americans from both parties (as if there is much difference between the two) believe it is time to end the war. It does not matter which party you vote for—either one will make their priority the ending of the war in Afghanistan. This is where democracy’s being better than dictatorship as a way to get things done ends. Because, if there is no consensus on the other issues, the government, whichever party forms it, will spend the rest of its time in office rewarding campaign contributors and enriching friends.
As such, the platform you voted for, or begged for, did not mean squat. Whatever politicians say while campaigning does not matter, because they are going to change their minds when they gain power anyway. One reason is that it was never about the electoral platform. The platform is a PR document and little more. Another reason is that politicians are constrained by a host of factors, which remain the same regardless of who is in the White House. They are wined and dined by the same special interest groups, including innumerable business lobbies, lawyers, public and private sector unions, the bureaucracy, the AARP, the Israel lobby, etc. As Will Durant said, “the political machine triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.”
Have you ever passed by some pathetic-looking wretch in the street with his hand out? That’s you. Elections are like begging. Please, government, end this war, please change this law, please give me a tax cut. The only difference between voters and beggars is that voters have already given their money, and through voting they are begging for some of it back.
I suggest not voting at all. When you vote, you are encouraging a system of coercion. You are voting to perpetuate the system of violence you live under and have no power over. And no candidate will end that system. (I think George Carlin would have agreed.)
The alternative is to educate oneself and others as to the nature of this system, so that the people will realise it does not work and decide to change it from the bottom up.