Why is this election so painful? Because voting isn't real political power

This feeling of powerlessness and despair felt by many is emblematic of a much deeper problem in America

By Andrew O'Hehir
October 27, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)
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March on Washington | Black Live Matter Protest | Mass demonstration against the Vietnam war (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is not the central problem in American politics, and neither is the 2020 presidential election, as dire and urgent as those things seem at the moment. Our real problem is that our democracy is not a democracy, and that many Americans — most of them, I would argue — feel powerless, disenfranchised and despairing, confronted with a dysfunctional system that thrives on massive inequality and serves the interests only of the richest and most powerful. Those systemic problems made Trump's presidency possible in the first place, and created the circumstances that make this election seem like a last-ditch struggle against autocracy.

I'm here to tell you there are signs of real hope — but they have almost nothing to do with the question of who wins next week's election. Don't get me wrong: I'm invested in the outcome too. But I also suspect that in the longer arc of history, it might not matter all that much. 

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If you're reading this during the last days of October 2020, almost anywhere in the world, you don't need me to tell you that the final stretch of this presidential campaign has been agonizing. It's probably closer to the truth to say that the last four or so years of our nation's history have felt agonizing, not to mention draining and dispiriting, and that the coronavirus-dampened 2020 campaign has distilled all that into its purest form. 

Time has simultaneously been stretched and compressed by the surreal theater of the Trump presidency, which has felt endless largely because the same damn things keep happening over and over — disguised as brand new outrages — in an atmosphere suffused with dread, as if we were trapped in some art-student horror movie. Lenin's supposed remark that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen (which he almost certainly did not say) needs reworking: There are days that contain years of turmoil and suffering, and entire years that vanish into memory like bad dreams.

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There is just a week to go, as I write this, until we reach the culminating stage (perhaps) of an election that we have told ourselves is a crucial turning point in the history of American democracy — but may well be remembered by posterity more in comic or pathetic terms. It looks from here as if a majority of American voters are poised to deliver a sweeping repudiation of Donald Trump and the psychotic, zombified Republican Party that he nominally rules, quite likely in the form of a "wave" election that will reshape the political landscape for years to come. 

At least that would be the logical conclusion: As I've written before, no incumbent president can reasonably hope to survive this much bad news. But logic and reason have little purchase in America's dreamscape, and right now nobody much wants to listen to conventional bromides about what could happen or might happen or will probably happen. Odds are you just want the whole damn thing to be over: the campaign, the pandemic, the rising tide of social unease and constant low-level threats of political violence, the perennial suspension of disbelief of the "Trump era." Who could blame you? 

You certainly don't want me to tell you that none of that stuff will actually go away, no matter what happens on or after Nov. 3. Or that electing Joe Biden and a bunch of Democratic senators won't actually fix anything about our broken political system or resolve the deep-rooted social and economic contradictions that got us here. 

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Democrats and "liberals," of course, remain anguished and haunted by the never-to-be-resolved trauma of 2016, and by the subsequent years of ineffectual hope that somebody would make it all go away, or make it never have happened in the first place: God or Congress or the New York Times or Robert Mueller and his posse of establishmentarian white knights.

Trying to stir up drama in a race that has remained virtually stagnant ever since Biden locked down the Democratic nomination in March — at virtually the same moment as the coronavirus shut down the country — the mainstream media keeps gleefully reminding us that it remains possible Trump could win again, by fair means or foul. There's something to be said for steeling yourself against bad outcomes, but too many people in the left-liberal quadrant of politics — as in almost all of us — seem to be obsessed or paralyzed by those possibilities. We devour the latest polls but tell ourselves not to believe them, casting salt over our shoulders and muttering incantations to the numinous entities of our choosing. 

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Like frightened children left alone in the dark, we invent bogeymen and invest them with immense power: "Shy Trump voters" will come out of the woods and turn the tide; the Postal Service will delay or destroy millions of votes; Republican legislatures in swing states will defy the voters and appoint their own slates of electors; Justice Amy Coney Barrett, newly fitted for her robes, will write an eloquent Supreme Court opinion finding that according to the Constitution's original intent, votes in heavily Democratic precincts simply don't count. Somehow or other, Trump will refuse to yield power even after a conclusive defeat, and somehow or other — with the help of Russian propaganda, Bill Barr's devious machinations and the fine print of the 12th Amendment — he'll get away with it.

I'm not saying that there's no basis in reality for some or all of those fears, and it's only human to resort to magical thinking in times of great stress. As bizarre and unlikely as the outcome of the 2016 election was, it happened — and it did indeed feel like the hand of fate, punishing America for its arrogance and hubris. Mathematically speaking, it could happen again. But taken together, all that fear and fatalism have created a paranoid landscape in which ordinary Americans feel powerless, waiting in finger-chewing, insomniac anxiety for the verdict of history to be handed down. That will happen in just seven or eight days, as I said earlier. Or perhaps it will be more like 14 or 15 days, when a final vote count should be completed. Or maybe 40 days, the approximate deadline for the states to send their electoral votes to Washington. Or, hell, it could take 70 days or so, right up to the moment in early January when the new Congress must count those votes and certify the victor. 

I know, it's torture, and it feels like it will never go away. But this waiting, this dread, this feeling of powerlessness and despair are emblematic of a much deeper problem in America's so-called democracy, next to which the question of President Biden or President Trump is nearly an afterthought. The real problem, as I said above, is that our democracy is not much of a democracy, a problem that is doubly or trebly multiplied in presidential elections. (I live in a state where my vote for president makes literally no difference at all. There's better than a two-thirds chance that you do too.) 

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Voting, the central ritual of American-style democracy, has become the subject of much conflict this year. It is endlessly fetishized and treated with mournful, religious reverence — both by those who would expand it and those who desperately seek to limit or suppress it. What neither side says out loud is that voting is always the most minimal and compromised form of political power, and that treating it as the be-all and end-all of democracy often distracts people from other, more effective, means.

I'm not saying that voting is not important. I'm not rolling out the old leftist line that both major parties are servants of the same corporate masters and there's no point even bothering. That's a half-truth that has metastasized into a lie, as is especially obvious here and now, and we have seen enough close elections in enough different contexts over the last few years to understand that exercising the franchise can be crucial. 

But voting is just one helpful but minor aspect of democracy — and in a locked-down, binary political system, always involves a set of negotiations and compromises. It isn't sanctifying or virtuous, and when smug commentators start saying it is, I get that impulse to check whether my wallet is still there. People who don't vote because they think it's pointless and the whole system is bullshit may be overly cynical, but they've got a point. National elections in the United States have become a bizarre form of symbolic theater or public therapy. If you donated money to Amy McGrath's unwinnable Senate race against Mitch McConnell this year, I hope that made you feel better — because it certainly didn't accomplish anything else. 

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America's climate of near-permanent electioneering, in which the next presidential campaign starts as soon as the midterm elections are over, is itself a symptom of unhealthy democracy. Our quadrennial search for a messiah, or for the least bad option — staged as a mediocre, long-running entertainment spectacle — sucks up so much time, so much psychic energy and so much money that it is better understood as an impediment to democracy than as its demonstration or its instrument. 

We don't have to go all the way to Mao Zedong's famous maxim that political power comes from the barrel of a gun in order to free ourselves from electoral hypnosis — although one could say that the armed militiamen who occupied the Michigan state house earlier this year had absorbed part of Mao's lesson, without any of his party-building discipline. Violence and threats of violence are certainly expressions of political power — and can effectuate change far more rapidly than the slow grind of electoral democracy — but in the 21st century more tolerant and tolerable examples are all around us, well short of the guillotine or the Bolshevik Revolution.

Indeed, America's election hypnosis sometimes conceals the obvious truth that direct action — peaceful or otherwise — is what moves the political process forward, not the other way around. In their famous White House meeting, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. both understood that the constant ground-level pressure of protests (and the impending possibility of something more than nonviolent civil disobedience) was the only force that would compel reluctant Southern Democrats to support the landmark civil rights and voting rights laws that followed. According to Bill Moyers, the only other person in the room, LBJ told MLK, more or less, "You've got to make me do it."

Or consider the early to mid-1980s, when gay men and drug users were dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness, and neither political party wanted to touch the issue. People with AIDS were treated at best with pity and condescension, and at worst as disgusting sodomites who had brought a divine plague upon themselves. As Anthony Fauci could tell you, it was the often angry and controversial activism of groups like ACT UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis that changed the course of that epidemic and ultimately revolutionized the relationship between medical science, pharmaceutical research and the human beings those institutions were supposed to help.

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In the late 1990s, the mainstream media was largely mystified or bemused by what was called the "anti-globalization movement," a series of confrontational protest actions that sought to unite labor unions, environmentalists and the anti-capitalist left, culminating in the "Battle of Seattle" during a 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization. Those protesters were depicted as '60s throwbacks, unwashed tree-hugging lunatics or (at times) violent anarchist radicals, and their movement was generally deemed an incoherent failure. 

But it wasn't. Two decades later, both American political parties have largely abandoned neoliberal "free trade" agreements — and the vision of a new left activism, which seemed like a ludicrous dream in the Bill Clinton era, has come to fruition in multiple ways. That relatively tiny activist moment 20-odd years ago wasn't a '60s flashback: It was a new seedling that produced many offshoots and tendrils; leading more or less directly to Bernie Sanders' political campaigns and the resurgence of socialism, the more radical strains of climate activism, the street-action tendency now called antifa, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

In our own time and a far more mainstream register, the Women's March emerged as a direct and extraordinary response to Trump's election — but can anyone doubt that the Democratic "blue wave" midterm election of 2018 was a direct result of the Women's March? In terms of restoring a sense of hope and possibility, along with the real potential of democracy, which of those things was more meaningful: Millions of women and men and children in the streets, proclaiming their rejection of an illegitimate misogynist president elected by a political fluke, or Nancy Pelosi? 

In terms of conventional political outcomes, the recent explosion of activism among younger adults and teenagers, from the post-Parkland student movement to Greta Thunberg and the climate strikers to the massive Black Lives Matter protests all across America (and the world) this past summer, has not actually accomplished anything. But those are unmistakable expressions of political power that announce the rising consciousness of a new generation. 

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These younger activists have noticeably shifted the national temperature and the national discourse on guns and the climate crisis and police violence. (Consider how far the Biden campaign's rhetoric has moved since the beginning of the primary season.) They have helped create an environment where the widespread popular rejection of Donald Trump and the Republican agenda seems not just possible but nearly inevitable. There is no way to know what long-term political impact they will have, but they offer far more lasting hope for the renewal of democracy than whatever President Joe Biden and a hypothetical Democratic Congress may accomplish. 

This year's election will come and go — and that can't happen soon enough. But Americans are beginning to understand what political power is, and how it works. Maybe they'll learn to use it before it's too late.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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