American Muslims seem to be caught in a dialectic of reaction. In 2000, we voted, as a block, for Bush. We witnessed with horror, the consequences of that collective decision vis a vis the war on terror, violation of international law, the invasion of Iraq, covert operations and assassinations, support for tyrannical regimes, torture, etc. Then, as a reaction to our own collective idiocy, we swung to the other end of the political spectrum, this time voting collectively for Obama only to see, in many ways, a continuation of the same atrocious policies that Bush implemented albeit in a more nuanced and hip fashion. Now, the rebuttal would undoubtedly be something along the lines of: we’re not morally responsible for the outcome of our votes. But within this argument is a concession that voting is, for all purposes, truly ineffective. If we had no control over the outcomes of our vote, then why vote at all? Given the dire consequences of our actions resulting in the loss of millions of lives, it might be prudent to stop for a moment and investigate whether voting is worth it.
Voting has become something of an annual ritual reinforcing the dogma that we live in a democratic society. Philosophically (via Chomsky) and legally (via Sanford Levinson), one can make a decent argument that America is not a true democracy. Such an argument is not merely based on merely arguing over semantics, but on the argument that if one defines democracy in a particular way, America factually does not fit that description. Either one would have to alter the definition of a democracy or engage in a lengthy historical analysis justifying why anti-democratic filters exist within the U.S. political system.
A simple exercise which highlights the futility of voting will suffice. Let us suppose that the average American Muslim feels strongly about a single issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us suppose he wants to vote on this issue. However, when he comes to the ballot, voting on that issue is not a viable choice – not because the issue is not addressed – the issue is addressed, but because their is no actual choice. Both parties and both politicians will undoubtedly take a position in favor of Israel. The formal structure of power does not accommodate a true ability to choose in this situation. Now one might be able to vote for a third party, say the Green party, but the end result would be that one’s vote would be thrown away.
The counter argument, naturally, would be some sort of sentimental idealism – “Droplets of water when bought together form a mighty river” or some other sort of naive and unrealistic claim. The point is to take a moment and stop and ask: why isn’t real choice presented? Before we go on and on talking about how the situation is not ideal but it works and we have to keep trying like Thomas the Train, choo-chooing our way into social justice and democracy, let us stop and explore the reasons why true choice isn’t present on the ballot.
Let us ask, for example, why won’t either party or candidate go against Israel? The answer might be the Israel Lobby or connections with defense contractors who desire a permanent war economy or perhaps U.S. strategic thinkers wanting to beat up the Arabs in order to ensure control of the world’s energy sector, etc. The point here is that there are systems of coercion and power beyond what the average person is capable of influencing. It is here that the actual system of power reveals itself. It is not that we lack choice, but we lack meaningful choice and the tools to implement such a choice. Special interest groups whether driven by ideology or pecuniary interests are influencing the political system in ways that the average voter cannot.
Noam Chomsky points out that coercion within a seemingly democratic society cannot be based on the formal structures and institutions of power using force, rather, coercion must come via informal structures and institutions of power. Thus, there are political parties, corporations, lobbies, foundations, media, unions, think tanks, and other informal institutions of power that influence the entire political system. How does this system functionally operate?
A good example of how informal institutions affect the political system is a recent series of advertisements for and against slot machines at a major mall in Maryland. The argument against the slots is that it is destructive for families. The argument in favor of the slots is that it will be taxed and help create jobs, promote education, and various government services. Now, as a voter, if this is all I am told, then my vote will go a certain way. However, with a little investigation, I found out that the people making the commercials against the slots was Laurel Raceway which didn’t want the competition. The people who were defending the slots were the slots company. Now as a voter, am I really voting on family values v. government social services or am I voting in favor of a specific corporation’s interests? The same goes for the Palestine question – at the end of the day, one isn’t really voting for anything if no true choice is presented.
The point is here not to promote apathy or revolutionary approaches to politics, but to simply describe how a system actually functions in order to develop reasonable and effective alternatives. If electoral politics isn’t the way to go for effective change, perhaps there are other options. However, in order for us to get to that, we have to first face the illusion of choice and expose farce for what it is. Let us move beyond touchy-feely slogans, false dichotomies, and holding hands and singing kumbaya. Let us first admit that we don’t actually know what is going on and how things work and sit down, roll up our sleeves, and start dissecting systems and process. Let us call for a moratorium on voting and study it in detail and find it if it truly the most effective means for achieving specific political objectives and if it is not, what other option are out there.