Friday, November 16, 2007

Democracy Part II: Voting Among the Unruly Masses

The Mirror
A hideous man enters and stares at his Reflection in the looking glass.
“Why do you look at yourself in the mirror, when your reflection never gives you any pleasure?”
The hideous man replies: “Sir, according to the immortal principles of 1789, all men have equal rights; therefore I have the right to look at myself; and whether with pleasure or with displeasure, concerns only my own feelings.”
In the name of common sense, I was certainly right; but from the legal point of view, he was certainly not wrong.
Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror, , in New Directions (Arthur Symons, trans.) reprinted in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems 168 (Joseph M. Bernstein, ed., Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1947).

And thus, a mirror on voting:

Voting serves as the method through which the people speak within the institutional context of the state. It serves as a proxy for participation in the affairs of the political community, and indeed, to some great extent, voting defines the limits of the formal participation of the people in the affairs of a republic. Voting is both a collective and an individual act. Every person is believed to act individually, and every act of voting is an expression of the individual conscience, of individual power, and of individual choice. At the same time voting is a collective act—only the vote of a certain percentage of all individuals voters is taken as the collective expression of the popular will. Voting is the performance of democracy; it is also a symbolic expression of the reality of democratic political organization. Its performance constitutes a democratic state with a sense of its legitimacy as such. It vests the subjects of that performance with authority and the objects of that expression with legitimacy. Voting, especially in the form of popular approval of the constitution of government, served as the foundation even of imperial states. Roman imperial power in the first centuries after the end of the Republic was grounded in the supposition of popular investiture through law (clearly at the end a fiction, but one that survived to become part of medieval political theory in Europe). See Karl Loewenstein, The Governance of Rome 271-273 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973). Voting is thus both an act and object whose presence is a necessary predicate for government constitution, the absence of which may interfere with the legitimacy of the constitution of the apparatus of state or its acts.

And not just political institutions. The collective of shareholders of corporations, like citizens of a political state, manifest themselves as a group through the expression of their collective preferences through individual voting on a variety of matters deemed suitable for their approval by the higher power of the board subject to the overall supervision of the state. Shareholder democracy has been a rallying cry for those who maintain that corporate legitimacy in the absence of shareholder democracy is impossible.

It is the voting that matters—the performative aspects of participation. Its reality, like that obtained in connection with the investiture of Roman Imperial power, is less important. It is for that reason, perhaps, that voting is as important in the United States, as it is in Cuba, or General Motors, or the People’s Republic of China. Meaningful and meaningless, voting and its object, and its relation to the state, is hard to reduce to a simple set of understandings.

The complexity of voting as performance, constitution, collective and individual act, with more of less actual relation to the power of governance becomes clearer by even the most cursory review of current events. I offer a simple example—a gaggle of stories published from a great priest of the cult of voting: The New York Times. On Sunday, November 11, 2007, the New York Times offered, through its reporting of a number of stories, a window on the complexities and paradoxes of the vote. Consider the facets of this complexity:

1. Malaysia: constrained choice, meaningless voting, and the corruption of a democratic system, democratic form over function. Thousands March in Malaysia to Demand Electoral Changes, The New York Times, Nov. 11, 2007 at A-11. The police in Kuala Lampur used force to break up a demonstration orchestrated by members of political factions, led by a major figure of the opposition parties, Anwar Ibrahim, a veteran of the brutal democratic politics of Malaysia, which marched to the “king’s palace to demand changes to the country’s electoral system.” Twenty six opposition parties banded together to demonstrate their conviction that the election system “is plagued by rigged elections, judicial corruption and widespread corruption in the dominant political parties.” Id. Voting legitimacy requires a subject and an object. The subject (the voter) cannot assert legitimate voting power when the object (the candidate) is controlled. But not all control, just the control sufficient to deny the subject the object of her (collective) action—the vote. Voting makes possible the legitimation of an “unnaturally” limited choice in Malaysia (that is choice over-constrained given the tastes of some voters) and thus detracts from the legitimacy of the act (the constitution of a government). Voting is thus a corruption. Id. Corruption and the electoral system are tightly interwoven. Empty voting reinforces a system that is unaccountable except to its own members, which do not include the members of political parties not in power. Voting in Malaysia both deepens corruption and is seen as the principal means to lessen its effects in the country.

2. Jordan: constrained choice, meaningful voting, and the development of a stable democratic political system by suppressing the democratic expression of anti democratic movements. Thanassis Cambinis, Jordan, Fearing Islamists, Tightens Grip on Elections, The New York Times, Nov. 11, 2007 at A-6. Jordan has a “byzantine electoral law.” Id. That law is meant to control both the individuals seeking to run for office and the manner in which elections are held. Id. “’Jordan needs stability,’ said Mr. Saleem, a bureaucrat in the mayor’s office. ‘We don’t like to make trouble. . . . We can’t have more freedom right now, conditions don’t allow it.’” Id. Voting both grants the elected government legitimacy (Zaki Bani Rsheid, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front explained “We gave the government legitimacy and got nothing in return. . . . The election will not be fair, it will not be clean.’” Id.). And it robs the systems of legitimacy as well (“’The system has disfigured democracy [shouted Hamza Mansour, former general secretary of the Islamic Action Front], ‘Don’t let them hold us back.’” Id.). Control of elections—of the choices available for voting—may deepen stability (“We have a democracy, but we don’t want it to go to an extent where the radical people could rule the country.” [quoting Hakim Habahbeh a supporter of a political candidate] Id.). But it also fosters corruption (“’Here the head of a corrupt government decides who can and cannot run for office. . . . They want a Parliament that won’t hold the government accountable for corruption.’” [quoting Toujan Al-Faisal] Id.). In Jordan, voting is critical to the development of the state, but too much voting can destroy the state as currently constituted. Voting thus is valuable only to the extent it serves to validate the constituted system and is illegitimate to the extent it is used to advance changes to that system inconvenient those currently in power (and those privileged by those structures of power). Thus, voting is a powerful tool, but only in the service of the state apparatus. And for that effort must be carefully controlled.

3. Pakistan: constrained choice, empty voting and pro forma democracy without democratic choice. Jane Perlez, Bhutto Persona Raises Distrust, as Well as Hope, The New York Times. November 11, 2007 at A-1. Benazir Bhutto has offered herself as the only viable alternative to the Pakistani people in the elections that are supposed to occur within a few months and relieve the state of martial law. She is the objective choice for which the lawyers and judges take to the streets of Pakistan, in a way at least. She keeps the tyrant in check. One day “barricaded in her home, surrounded by police officers, “ the next she is “guest of honor at a high flying diplomatic reception in the Parliament building.” Id. Returned to a democratic basis of governance upon the exercise of the franchise by the Pakistani people, all will be well. Yet choice is deceptive where the political system continues to recycle failed leaders, and the only choice the people retain is that to vote or not. “Ms. Bhutto, 54, returned to Pakistan to present herself as the answer to her nation’s troubles: a tribune of democracy in a state that has been under military rule for eight years. . . . But her record in power, and the dance of veils she has deftly performed since her return—one moment standing up to General Musharraf, and then seeming to accommodate him, and never quite revealing her actual intentions—has stirred as much distrust as hope among Pakistanis.” Id., at A-14.” Indeed, Bhutto has been at the center of as deep a set of allegations of corruption as has the object of the globe’s democratic ire—General Musharraf. She and her husband were accused of stealing sizable amounts of money from state coffers during her last stint in government, a charge she denies. Id. Indeed, “her view of the role of government differed little form the classic notion in Pakistan that the state was the preserve f the ruler who dished out favors to constituents and colleagues.” Id. While she exhorts individuals to exercise their franchise by voting for her, “she rules the party with an iron hand.” Id. And who will ultimately help shape the choice offered Pakistanis, with respect to which the Pakistanis may indulge in the act of voting? The Americans. The Americans are the patrons of General Musharraf. Tough they have him on a loose enough leash. But they appear to be running Ms. Bhutto as well. Peter Galbraith, “a former senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former American Ambassador to Croatia” (id.), it turns out, is “one of Bhutto’s informal advisers and a longtime friend.” Id. He is quoted as suggesting the mechanics of a resolution to the democratic crisis in Pakistan—splitting the baby (the state) among Musharraf and Bhutto, “with Ms. Bhutto as Prime Minister and General Musharraf as president.” Id. Thus, we are told, “made a lot of sense for Ms. Bhutto and the United States.” Id. This formula would restore legitimacy to government. Id. And that, apparently, is sufficient. Democracy is preserved, the franchise is vindicated, and the power of the people to exercise their will in constituting the state is deepened. Irony.

4. The European Union: voting discipline, minding one’s betters and rationing voting to situations where the outcome can be controlled. Ireland to Vote Next Year on European Union Treaty, The New York Times, Nov. 11, 2007 at A-11. The leaders of the European Union, after a multi year long carefully orchestrated campaign came up with a complex Constitutional Treaty, which some Member States of the European Union submitted to a popular vote in 2005. The expectation was that the voting was to be pro forma—the people, individuals and the collective of the voting populations of the Member States, would do as they were instructed by the political classes. But the voters in the Netherlands and France rejected the Constitutional Treaty and the ratification process ground to a halt. Resurrected practically in its entirety in 2007 in the form of changes to the current treaties constituting the European Union, the Member States have chosen to avoid popular ratification of what is now termed a series of treaty amendments. Id. Except in Ireland. There, the effect of the Reform Treaty would require amendment of the Irish constitution, and that requires popular ratification. Id. And so will begin governmental “campaigning to persuade the Irish voters to back the Treaty.” Id. The citizens must vote, but the state will use its resources to ensure that individuals vote in a particular way. But more importantly, the Irish voters will serve as voters by proxy for the whole of the EU. The Irish Prime Minister was reported to have indicated that “the debate in Ireland would stretch far beyond his country. ‘Because of this, we can expect people from abroad to try and shape the outcome,’ he said, ‘for some, particularly those opposed to the European Union, it will be a proxy for a national debate that they wished they could have had in their own country.’” Id. In Europe voting is good, but too much voting, and voting that is uncontrolled, is less good and can be avoided in good conscience.

So what? Voting is the touchstone of legitimate modern political organization. Yet held up to a mirror, voting in the context in which it is practiced reveals a hideousness that is both necessary and majestic in its purpose and irony. Its relationship to democracy is tenuous at best. Its symbolic value seems larger than the reality of its effective use as the expression of popular will. It appears to legitimate both corruption and its elimination. It has been an obstacle to governance by rulers in even the most advanced democratic states. It evidences both the power and the powerlessness of the people. People vote but they do not control for what or whom they might vote. Voting is a marvelous vehicle for subterfuge. It has the benefit of appearing to vest power in the people as a collective, and the individual as an independent voter. Yet that vesting masks a reality in which the power over the vote is allocated elsewhere—to the political classes, dictators, boards of directors, managers, administrators. Voting is the foundation of popular democracy, of individual rights, and of its negation and irrelevance.

Baudelaire, perhaps, understood this best.

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