A Different Perspective on Voting

By Tim Babbidge

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. No truer words than those of Dickens have ever been written in the English language. They are as relevant to the elections of 2004 as they were to the French Revolution over two centuries ago.

The upcoming elections will be the best of times for me. My candidate will win a landslide victory in all local and statewide elections this year and will also win the presidential election by a similar margin.

However, it will also be the worst of times for me, at least in terms of my fervent belief in democracy. My candidate will be, as he or she is in most elections, “none of the above” (NOTA). That my candidate will win by such a huge margin, that he or she has won almost every election in recent memory by similar margins, leaves me fearing for the health of even limited representative democracy in this country.

To give a recent example of my candidate’s success, look at this year’s Republican primary for Senate in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that it was a race with any number of intriguing story lines, including its effect on which party may control the Senate, and despite the fact that it is a presidential election year and that President Bush campaigned for one of the candidates, almost two thirds of the Republicans in Pennsylvania voted NOTA. The Florida Senate primary produced a similar result in both parties. The Missouri primary election, despite the presence of the hot button issue of amending the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage, drew less than half of registered voters to the polls. Based on historical trends, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to predict that we can expect similar results from the presidential campaign. These are not the vital statistics of a healthy representative democracy.

When it comes to explaining this phenomenon, I cannot speak for my fellow NOTA voters. However, I can offer two personal reasons why I vote NOTA and I suspect that they are not that uncommon. In fact, the research contained in Nonvoters: America’s No-Shows, by Ellen Shearer and Jack C. Doppelt, suggests that most other non-voters may share my concerns.

First and foremost, I am tired of being offered echoes rather than choices. Although the two major parties will attempt to confuse the issue with a barrage of attack ads in the interminable weeks before the November elections, I would suggest that we do not have two political parties in this country. What we have are Democrat and Republican wings of the “Republocratic” Party, a party controlled by a few hundred corporations, special interest groups, and wealthy individuals.

There are differences between the two wings of the Republocratic Party, and within them as well, on the social issues of the day, e.g. abortion. But, when it comes to the major economic and foreign policy issues that face the country, they march in lock step. The rhetoric of the Democrat wing of the party sometimes differs from that of the Republican wing on economic issues, a few crumbs having to be tossed to big labor in exchange for its self destructive support, but when you start looking at actual votes, for example Democrat presidential nominee John Kerry’s support for such things as NAFTA, telecommunications deregulation, and the invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq, those differences are exposed as rhetorical rather than substantive.

Here in Colorado we have a perfect example of the Republocratic Party at work. A choice was available to voters from both parties during the recent Senate primary, Mike Miles on the Democrat side and Bob Schaeffer on the Republican. Both men were grass roots candidates who clearly articulated the core values of their parties and who would have provided voters, and potential voters, with a clear choice come November. However, clear choices are the last thing party elites and the corporate media want, for reasons to be detailed below. They found both men unacceptable for a variety of reasons and selected their own candidates, very slightly right Republocrat Pete Coors of the big money brewing family and very slightly left Republocrat state attorney general Ken Salazar. The final result on primary election day was a foregone conclusion. Mr. Miles received around sixty thousand votes, Mr. Salazar about a hundred thousand more, and more than six hundred thousand registered Democrats, a number almost tripling the number of those who did vote, chose NOTA. The Republican totals were similar, with Mr. Schaeffer and Mr. Coors being outvoted by NOTA by a better than a two to one margin. Elites choose echoes and being denied a choice, the voters stay home.

The second reason why I will vote NOTA is the abysmal political coverage offered by the corporate media. It is not only narrowly focused on the “horse race” aspects of the campaign like polls and fund raising totals, but all too frequently drops to the lowest common denominator of discussing, in mind numbing detail, the personal peccadilloes of the candidates. If there is one thing that the media should have learned during the Clinton years, it is that we don’t care about the personal lives of our elected officials. We do care about their policies, but information on that aspect of the campaign will be a tiny part of the coverage offered, even in those small areas of difference that do exist between the two wings of the Republocratic Party.

Why is political coverage of such poor quality? To answer that question, I would suggest that despite the fact that NOTA will wallop the candidates endorsed by the corporate media, recent elections have been the best of times for the press, at least for its corporate owners. That is because there is a built in conflict of interest in the American corporate media’s political reporting, one between what is best for the corporation and what is best for the average citizen. What is good for General Electric, owner of NBC, is not necessarily good for the country as a whole. Unfortunately, there is no “average citizen” media to espouse their viewpoint, only an ever more concentrated corporate media establishment. Given this conflict of interest, it is not unreasonable to say that the foxes are guarding the henhouse when it comes to covering American elections.

I am sure that individual reporters, editors, commentators, and pundits of every perspective are as concerned as I am about shrinking voter turnouts. However, I would suggest that for the corporations that employ them, echoes rather than choices, and the low turnouts they produce, are an acceptable price to pay in exchange for ensuring a steady supply of candidates who support the political and economic status quo, one that has rewarded corporate America so richly. Given that there are few substantive issue differences, between the two wings of the Republocratic Party to discuss as a result, other than on the “social” issues, the political coverage of the American corporate media must focus on the shallow and sensational. No individual commentator or media outlet is wrong or bad. The simplistic and shallow coverage of American elections is simply the result of an institution, the corporate press, with a built in conflict of interest.

There are no villains here. Corporate elites have the right to express their perspectives, both through the media they dominate and through the candidates they select. The candidates so selected mean well and genuinely share the perspectives of those who have selected them, genuinely believe that what is best for the corporation is best for the country. The problem is that, rightly or wrongly, an ever increasing majority of the citizenry do not share that belief, choose not to participate in the political process as a result, and ultimately will create a crisis of legitimacy for both corporation and government that benefits no one.

To be fair, the American political and economic system has weathered many crises of legitimacy. NOTA voting may not even be a crisis. It may be simply a cyclical problem that will resolve itself as natural shifts in our political and economic systems occur over time, a problem that requires no changes in institutions and merely some tinkering with the individuals that run them. However, while change may be necessary or unnecessary, good or bad, in a democratic society that can only be determined by free and open discussion of the sort that is not taking place on this issue, nor on many others. Never before in our history have the institutions that might need changing been in such a uniquely powerful position to limit, or even deny, debate on the subject of change. At the very least, it is time that we had a serious national discussion concerning the phenomenon of the NOTA voter. No one wins if we don’t.

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