Old arguments are perhaps not as attractive as old wine, but they don’t have an “Enjoy by” date either; and unlike a new bottle for the wine, a new context may do no violence to the idea. Sometimes, indeed, ideas can enter the foundation of a theoretical structure and cause ripples of change.
Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose a society like ours in every particular but one: they’re so disillusioned they want to change things, and they begin voting for the candidates, laws, and propositions they think are the best on the ballot.
Take a moment before you say, That’s what I always do.
Many of us, myself included, employ voting strategies. We pick the main opponent of the person we detest the most, or the most likely to win of those we can stomach. This is precisely the thought experiment: suppose we dumped those strategies, and voted for what we really want, given the limited choices on the ballot, for three straight elections. For convenience, I designate those elections with numbers: 2008, 2010, and 2012.
First let me define my terms. Suppose you completely agree with Mike Gravel’s analysis of the Democratic establishment; fine, vote for him. Pick the choice that’s closest to yours. If you think John McCain has the soberest plan for victory, vote for him. If you detest triangulation, don’t vote for anyone who does it. If you respect anyone who’d spend $400 on a haircut, vote for them; if you think that’s equivalent to warmongering, vote against them.
In this hypothetical society, no one votes based on a calculation about winning or losing. We’re not talking about Nebraskans rooting for the Lakers because the Lakers are likely to win. We’re talking about doing what our innermost selves tell us is right. The only legitimate criticism of a vote would be insincerity.
Imagine the possible results.
Maybe there’s a movement, with a website where people pledge to vote their conscience, organized like those for people pledging not to do so. Froomkin raises the issue, Broder disses it, the Times ignores it, Olbermann approves, O’Reilly’s frantic.
In other words, there’s no effect. The talking heads do so, and the deciders do so. Moderate Democrats win the election we’ve designated “2008”, and by “2009” the US still hasn’t figured out how to get out of Iraq.
In the America we know, that’s the end of it; the experiment has failed, politics is a one-armed bandit. We go back to football or beer or Xanax.
But in our hypothetical society, they want change. In fact they want Jefferson’s generational revolution, but they’ve decided to try the non-violent path before deciding whether they’re miserable enough to erect barricades in the streets of Paris, Kentucky.
When the vote tallies come in, the head-scratching starts. An unprecented level of protest votes! Eight percent of Paris, Kentucky, votes Green? Peace and Freedom beats the Democrats in San Francisco for second place? Five percent of the country voting for what TV ridicules? What’s this?
Fox Noise makes a living on the meaninglessness of the vote. MSNBC combines the honesty of Microsoft with the environmentalism of General Electric and gives both sides: the vote was meaningless, but the voters in question made a costly mistake.
A section of the blogosphere trumpets the size of the vote as a measure of discontent, but the Times reminds us how unreliable bloggers are. Why, look at what this one said…
By the run-up to the election we’re calling “2010”, candidates on the political fringe are courting the Disillusioned, and Time is using initial uppercase for the word. Despite some warnings from the punditry, no real playa takes them seriously.
In the election, those who voted their true beliefs the first time do so again, and are joined by a number of others: some driven over the edge by the unresponsive system; some first-time voters who get the vision of their vote actually pissing someone off; some who decide that this is really a viable strategy for change. Perhaps the total increases by half, or maybe goes as high as twice the “2008” election, say eight to ten percent.
In the weeks immediately following the election, a number of media executives decide to spend more time with their families. Politicians try not to look like they’re scrambling to retool their messages and organizations. Congress finds that Iraq can really do just fine without our presence. Tax cuts for the rich aren’t even proposed; education and health care are front and center.
Proposals for proportional representation and better voting methods like Condorcet are tabled countrywide, and pass in all college towns and a few heartland places.
Like the year we’re living through, “2011” would see a lot of Presidential politicking. But in the hypothetical society, Presidential candidates have changed. Unable to assume the majority will be silent, they’re confronting a new job: trying to reconcile the conflicting interests in our society, rather than representing the satisfied against the disillusioned.
Democrats bring up FDR a lot; Republicans mention Kennedy, and talk about their empathy for LBJ. Two Democratic candidates for President promise to name Dennis Kucinich the first Secretary of the Peace Department. Union leaders play important roles in planning domestic policy. Average hourly wages begin to keep pace with the increase in productivity of American workers, nearly matching the increase in profit margins of the companies they work for.
When, in the “2012” election, the Disillusioned persist, whoever’s elected will face enormous pressure to find accommodations with them. With fifteen percent of the votes, they’ll have non-symbolic presences in real campaigns and government offices.
Sounds delusional, eh what? I admit that asking Americans with their famously short attention spans to consider a five-year plan is an unlikely proposition. Probably, too, we’d have to choose a period that didn’t have the Communist overtones. But would it work?
Of course it would, and of course it wouldn’t.
World hunger would not be a thing of the past. Wars would still break out. Given the havoc our corporations and our intelligence agencies — increasingly difficult to distinguish — have wrought around the world, blowback might once again bring violence to our shores.
But if the world saw us choosing democracy over empire, we’d regain some of the esteem our military adventurism over the past half-century has lost us. We’d have real friends and allies again.
At home, we probably wouldn’t break the two-party monopoly, but we’d sure become the object of its toadying, the use of which could allieviate many social ills.
As an experienced government bureaucrat is said to have instructed a new one, you can’t use tact with a Congressman. A Congressman is a hog. You must take a stick and hit him over the snout.
Anyone for pick-up-sticks? How about a bumper sticker, “I’m Disillusioned and I Vote!”?