An evening spent contemplating a California election is not for the faint of heart. Last night, I plowed my way through a few trees’ worth of crappy, useless, expensive campaign mailers. The copious smear propaganda made me feel like taking a bath. The tendency to lean on the lowest common denominator made my heart sink: one candidate for local office spent his entire glossy full-color mailer trumpeting his attendance record at Council meetings, as if showing up were the supreme accomplishment of public office.
In the end, I cast my absentee ballot exactly as recommended in this excellent California voter’s guide from The Courage Campaign and Credo Action. (Do likewise, please, dear California readers!)
For me, the most important propositions are:
Proposition 25, the “Majority Vote for the Legislature to Pass the Budget Act,” a constitutional amendment which would make it possible to actually pass a budget in our pathetically governed state, and which is supported by just about everyone except for the who’s-who of corporations paying for the opposition campaign.
Voting yes on Props 19 and 25, and no on Prop 23 can make a significant difference. A state that keeps spending public time and money locking people up for marijuana, a state that rolls back even its existing inadequate environmental legislation, a state that insists on operating by rules that prevent government from actually working—let’s just say I would hugely prefer not to have to live amidst the consequences of wrong votes on these measures.
Yet even the mailers that presented solid information and analysis exude an air of existential defeat. How could it be otherwise? The whole enterprise is so overdetermined by entrenched power and money, no one really has the illusion that this is strong democracy or anything like the best way to make public policy. We just do it because it’s the only game going, and accepting the rules is necessary to ante in. In a few days, the election will be decided, clearing away the dust of the horse-race that dominates campaigning. And when it does, what would a Martian anthropologist say about all this passionate, ritualized intensity attached to numbered referenda most people won’t remember a short time from now? Here’s my guess:
To: Martian Department of State, Cultural Anthropology Section
Report on Fieldwork in California
This culture is focused on a massive type of potlatch ceremony, redistributing wealth from ordinary citizens to politicians and their operatives. The ceremony focuses on periodic “elections,” in which leaders and laws are determined by a majority vote of generally no more than half the adults. (The remainder choose not to participate, claiming the ceremonies are rigged, or have no relevance for them, but this ritualized protest has been incorporated into the ceremony itself.)
As the ceremony has evolved over two centuries, larger and larger sums of money are spent on displays designed to persuade citizens to cast their votes in a certain way. These may include presentations of relevant facts and figures, lies, insults, promises, and images designed to evoke certain emotions. Most rely on the persuasive power of association, including long lists of endorsers designed to convince citizens to align their votes with those they admire (or least dislike).
These customs originated to elect leaders, but as the ceremonial system increasingly preoccupied most leaders with heaping up the most wealth so as to demonstrate the greatest power to redistribute it, citizens recognized that they could not trust many leaders to act on their behalf. Gradually, the system was extended to cover laws and policies of keen interest to citizens, but controversial, and therefore avoided by many leaders who feared jeopardizing their future ability to command wealth.
The election potlatch has had several subsidiary social effects. It has created a huge class of shamans, intercessors, and interpreters who read the signs and predict outcomes; they retain authority regardless of their accuracy. It has also added immeasurably to the wealth of those who create the displays designed to persuade citizens to cast their votes in particular ways, flooding the public arena with their works. It has eroded public interest in truth, focusing attention instead on comparitive skill levels as manifested in competing displays, with extensive commentary on their relative effectiveness.
Overall, the ceremonials’ greatest social impact is to occupy citizens with these ritual enactments while real power is being wielded in other arenas. Many citizens realize this, but their attachment to the electoral ceremony is such that they don’t seem to mind. They enact their roles with the utmost sincerity and conviction, and whomever wins, the ceremony prevails.
Barack Obama’s candidacy for President unleashed a tremendous hope that a new way of politics might be possible, and I endorsed him with as much conviction as anyone. In an essay posted as I cast my ballot in 2008, I wrote about how a century before, the Crow people recognized that their values and ceremonies had ceased to serve them, and undertook to radically change the way they faced the future. It is an inspiring story, even if Obama hasn’t turned out to be the modern-day equivalent of Plenty Coups, the Crow leader whose vision turned the tide for his people. It can be done again.
Eddie Harris and Les McCann from the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1969, “Compared to What:”
I love the lie and lie the love
A-Hangin’ on, with push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin’ up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what? C’mon baby!