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Political Philosophy

The Cult of Voting

By Howard Zinn and Gary Krane
From The Columbian, Vancouver, Washington, November 12, 2000

We all act as though it matters who is president. It doesn't.

The political culture of the United States is obsessed with and totally dominated by voting. Every election year is accompanied by the media's and the politicians' obsession with persuading Americans that voting for one candidate or another (and only if they are Democrat or Republican, of course) is the most important act of citizenship.

We get high on voting and forget that, whether presidents have been Republican or Democrat, impotent or oversexed, they have followed the same basic policies. Whether crooks or Boy Scouts, handsome or homely, agile or clumsy, they have taxed the poor, subsidized the rich; squandered the nation's commonwealth (our minerals, airwaves, water and forests); wasted our taxes on bombers, missiles, ships and other corporate welfare; ignored the decay of the cities; and done so little for the children of the ghettos that for every Afro-American in college, five are now in prison, and for every Latino in college, three are in prison.

Harry Truman was blunt and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon wily. Carter, Reagan and Clinton were charming. But the first three spent billions and sent armies to Asia to defend dictators and massacre more than 2 million of the people we claimed to be helping, and the latter three again spent billions of our taxes to also arm and prop up dictators and oligarchies, to subvert democratic movements against those governments in places like Indonesia, El Salvador and Guatemala. And this, too, ended in the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Kennedy was witty, Carter was "caring," Bush was firm and Reagan said he was against big government. But all expanded our federal budgets enormously by spending hundreds of billions building up grotesquely huge nuclear weapons systems (we continue building B-2 bombers at $2 billion apiece!) at the expense of providing a great public education system, health care for all Americans regardless of income, jobs that pay a living wage and mass transit for all of our cities. Despite the decimation of the former Soviet Union, Al Gore and George W. Bush both want to continue this military spending madness, which year after year consumes more than 50 percent of our discretionary federal budget (the budget that the president and Congress determine).

Nixon was corrupt and Ford straightforward, Reagan endearing and Clinton someone who claimed to feel the pain of the poor, but all coldly cut essential benefits for the poor and gave hundreds of billions of dollars of favors instead to rich corporations and billionaires.

This obsession with voting goes hand in hand with the cult of personality in America and media addiction to fine distinctions. They are all powerful distraction drugs. And there seems no end to the obsession of the corporate media establishment (now including NPR and PBS) with the fine distinctions between Gore and Bush.

The more they can keep us distracted by the political horse race, the more they (and therefore the major candidates themselves) can avoid dealing with the issues and solutions being purposely ignored by both major party candidates -- issues like who in fact owns and controls both parties, universal health care, full public funding of elections, seriously cutting the defense budget, decriminalizing drugs and returning to labor their rights to organize and the frightening concentration of media ownership itself.

Mediocre white males

The tragedy of all this is that this cult of voting and personality takes the energy of ordinary citizens, which -- combined -- can be a powerful force, and depletes it in the spectator sport of voting. Today, sadly, our most cherished moment of democratic citizenship comes when we leave the house once in four years to choose between two mediocre white Anglo-Saxon males who have been trundled out by big corporate and billionaire-run political caucuses, million dollar primaries and managed conventions for the rigged presidential debate and multiple choice test we call a "democratic" election.

Presidents come and go, but the 200 top corporations keep increasing their almost complete control over our elections and the two major parties' candidates (with big corporations and billionaires funding 90 percent to 98 percent of both parties' budgets); over our work lives by weakening labor's rights; over our health care rights (43 million uninsured now compared to 32 million when Clinton took office); over our airwaves; and over our legal and court system, even determining how easily any of us can be sent to prison for victimless crimes.

To further prove greed knows no boundaries, they now want to take over public education and Social Security. No president in this century has stopped the trend. Not even FDR. Only when mass movements have galvanized the country have presidents made important reforms, as when strikes and turmoil throughout the nation in the '30s pushed FDR into his New Deal measures.

Roosevelt was a sensitive man, but it took mass protests to sharpen that sensitivity and make it take action. Then and only then did he take huge steps to help the poor, establish the minimum wage, and create Social Security and Relief. But that didn't change the basic nature of an unfettered capitalist system, whose highest priority has always been profits and power, and to hell with the rest.

Wake up and get involved

We will go a long way from spectator democracy to real democracy when we understand that the future of this country doesn't depend, mainly, on who is our next president. It depends on whether the American citizen, fed up with the buying off of our Congress and president by giant multinationals; fed up with the murderous greed of our health care system and the pharmaceutical companies; fed up with the planetary self-destructive path of our energy, auto, lumber, agribusiness and chemical companies; and fed up with the increasing sex and violence-obsessed corporate control over our children's minds, will organize all over the country a clamor for change even greater than the labor uprisings of the '30s or the black rebellion of the '60s and shake this country out of old paths and falsehood into new paths and the truth.

What does that boil down to? Well besides becoming a lot more generous with our pocket book and volunteer time than most of us have been, it means getting apolitical people - the 100 million eligible nonvoters - to wake up and get involved instead of writing them off.

Here's one way to do that. The next time someone tells you they're not political, say the following: "OK. So tell me, what are a few things that get you frustrated during your typical day?"

They will invariably start mentioning things like traffic jams, HMOs, the lack of workplace rights, the fact they are working harder now than they were 10 years ago and with less security. If they are young, they might mention lack of low-interest student loans, the drug war, etc.

You yourself should know enough to quickly relate these items to government action or inaction and the corporations that were behind such decisions. And then you conclude, "So you see, if you don't get turned on to politics, politics turns on you. And the first step is to get the big money out of our elections."

And it works, if you just work it.

HOWARD ZINN is a professor of history at Boston University, the author of "People's History of the United States" and "The Twentieth Century." GARY KRANE is the director of David v Goliath Communications, a communications firm in Van Nuys, Calif. Readers may write to them via e-mail.

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