Monday, May 19, 2008

Why I am not a Democrat

A Case for Nonaffiliation

In the weeks leading up to April 22, I was often asked which candidate I planned to support in the Pennsylvania primary. As a writer with discernibly progressive leanings, it was assumed that my vote must go to one of the two remaining Democratic contenders: Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

In the interest of full disclosure, I believed then, and still do, that Sen. Obama is best equipped of the three major presidential candidates to draw the country together and begin healing the wounds inflicted by eight years of Cheney/Bush supremacy.

That said, I did not vote for Obama on April 22. As a registered Independent, I am not permitted to vote in the Commonwealth’s closed primary.

Of course, like thousands of other Pennsylvania Independents, I toyed with the idea of switching my party affiliation in order to take part in what was clearly becoming an historic primary. But as the days ticked off to the deadline and the rhetoric from the candidates’ camps swelled, the idea of formally embracing the Democratic Party, even temporarily, became increasingly unappealing to me.

It’s not that I don’t agree with many of the Party’s principles, or that I won’t be voting for the Democratic nominee come November (which will almost certainly be the case, no matter who it is). But votes are negotiable; political identity is not. By registering my support for one party or another, I’d be giving tacit approval to an electoral system that in my view has failed the American people: a system that critics like political scientist Lisa Jane Disch have called a “tyranny of centrism;” one that makes voting “a ritual of consent performed by citizens who reproduce the system even as they are persuaded by the trappings of the campaign that they are making a choice.”

There is more than a little truth in Disch’s assertion. Our self-perpetuating two-party system has locked American politics in a virtual revolving door of faux populism and broken promises cloaked in the illusion of choice.

Looked at in this way, it’s not surprising that so many citizens choose not to vote at all. But rather than affirming the existence of some mass apathy, the decision not to partake in the system should be seen for what it is: an organic -- albeit largely unconscious -- protest against an uninspiring process. In other words, low voter turnout is a symptom of the problem with American politics, not the cause of it.

As it stands, the major political parties in America are like breakfast cereal – different names and packaging, but essentially the same ingredients: a raisin here, some sliced almonds there, but at the end of the day they’re all served the same way, and if allowed to sit too long get soggy and unpalatable. The parties know this, and so work diligently to divert the focus of the electorate onto the raisins and almonds: those emotionally charged issues – like gay marriage, or how and when Terry Schiavo should die – that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of life of most Americans.

Yet absent such diversion, voters may actually awake from the Matrix of issue politics and realize that there is little substantive difference between Democrat and Republican; that on the broad continuum of political ideals, the two are in fact barely discernable.

There are individual exceptions, of course. But where policy is concerned, both parties overwhelmingly support pro-business free-trade initiatives like NAFTA, CAFTA and FFTA; both voted to invade Iraq; both support the death penalty (the Clinton administration greatly expanded the federal death penalty to include 60 new classes of crime); and both are essentially elitist, with entrenched corporate interests and a vested commitment to maintaining the status quo.

(And why shouldn’t they be? Presidential campaigning itself has become a luxury afforded only the privileged classes. How many of us can afford to loan ourselves $11.4 million – as Sen. Clinton has done over the course of her campaign?)

The point is, the two-party system leaves little room for variation, meaning that most Americans are forced to make substantial concessions when choosing which party to support. Somehow that seems decidedly un-American.

“The two-party system as we know it short changes democracy because it…silences the voices of dissenters,” writes Disch.

It is sadly ironic that in the realm of political representation, our beacon of democracy has been bested by the citizens of most of our western counterparts. Germany's Bundestag hosts five parties, the Italians choose their leaders from five major parties and at least a dozen minor ones, while our neighbor to the north, Canada, has four political parties represented in its parliament.

Yet how many Americans are even aware that former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has declared a presidential bid on the Green Party ticket? How many know there is a Green Party ticket? How about the eight candidates vying for the Libertarian Party nomination?

Nationally, it’s been suggested that independents may account for up to one-third of the votes in the coming general election, meaning nonaffiliated voters may sway the contest. If we keep the parties guessing which way we’ll vote, maybe they’ll be more apt to speak directly to our concerns rather than exploit our presumed loyalties.

To quote FDR, “The future lies with those wise political leaders who realize that the great public is interested more in government than in politics.”

In an America that is sadly absent the radicalism that made its very existence possible, I submit that a mass transition to political nonaffiliation may provide a last refuge for salvaging what’s left of American democracy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Truth to the Highest Bidder

In a show of force against media consolidation, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to undo an FCC rule allowing media companies to own a newspaper and a television station in the same market.

The “resolution of disapproval” (Senate Joint Resolution 28) was introduced in March and is sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-ND), and 26 other senators, including both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

“As corporate ownership over our media grows more concentrated, we see less and less of the diversity of our nation,” said committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), in a statement following the vote. “When programming is the same from coast to coast, our airwaves will no longer reflect the rich mosaic of our country and our citizens. Such a landscape should prompt the FCC to act with an overabundance of caution, but it has not.”

The proposal is now cleared for a full Senate vote; President Bush has threatened to veto the measure should it come to his desk.

The FCC voted Dec. 18 to lift the ban on the ownership of newspapers and TV and radio stations in the top 20 markets, subject to certain conditions, which Martin called modest reform.

The Monopolization of Information

The world is in the midst of a revolutionary period of transformation, fueled by two major drivers: information and privatization. Technological developments have pioneered unprecedented access to information while simultaneously a movement towards mass privatization extends into nearly every aspect of our lives.

We live in an age of privatization. Every day, multinational institutions secure the rights to everything from the water we drink to the very genes that make life. And information is no exception. Information has become a commodity with truth available to the highest bidder. In such an atmosphere, we as citizens need to be especially vigilant when it comes to our ability to access the broadest spectrum of information available, unhindered by the forces that would undermine our liberty in the pursuit of their goals.

But information is not a commodity in the traditional sense as defined by supply/demand capitalism; and the struggle to control this singular commodity has given rise to a contradiction of monumental proportions. Unlike most products, the value of information is no longer found in the quality of the product but rather in its ability to serve as a conduit to meet the goals of its master: it’s ability to move, to change, to influence, and to meet the interests of those lucky enough to control its use. Sadly, media in general (and more specifically the news) has become a tool used by the elite to beat a path to the door of a culture increasingly focused on consumption.

What this has created is a media culture characterized by a highly complex network of mutual interdependencies – sometimes conflicting, but more often working together as a finely tuned machine for the furtherance of American societal, political, and commercial interests.

The extent to which the powers that be (the political elite and the multi-national concerns from which they profit) can capitalize on the flow of information rests on how much or how little we let them get away with. And so on a micro level, extremely high stakes ride on the manipulation of policies that regulate which way, how fast, and to whom the commodity of information flows.

Today, the American media finds itself smack dab in the center of this power struggle, itself the tragic victim of it’s own unique and conflicting goals. On the one hand, the media is the primary conduit of the commodity of information, making it susceptible to all kinds of powerful forces that wish to control its flow; on the other hand, the media is itself a powerful business concern. The media does not exist in a vacuum, some supreme and objective observer that simply reflects and reports. But rather American media is first and foremost a business initiative, situated within the U.S. corporate landscape, and with the same concerns (profit/prestige) as any other corporate entity. Never has this seemed more apparent than today, as media conglomeration creates multi-national media concerns on scale with companies like General Motors and IBM.

Finally, and most importantly, the press also finds itself in the unique position of serving a social function – constitutionally charged with fomenting the democratic ideal. How well the press negotiates its conflicting goals can tell us a lot about the quality of media in America. And the failure of the press to negotiate these roles has never been more evident. Unfortunately, it’s the most vital function of the press – that of securing the democratic tradition – that has suffered the most.

As it stands, the structure and goals of the modern American mainstream media preclude the revolutionary function of a free press.