Thursday, November 22, 2007

Democracy, Part III: On Popular Participation in the Electoral Process in the United States

Arthur Rimbaud

I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern, because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses, as well as in the lay out of the city. Here you would find no trace of any monument of superstition. Morals and language are reduced to their simplest expression, at last! These millions of people, who do not even know each other, conduct education, business, and old age so similarly, that the course of their lives must be several times less long than that which a mad statistics finds for the peoples of the Continent. Moreover, while from my window I see new specters rolling through the thick and eternal city smoke—our woodland shade our summer night!—new Eumenides in front of my cottage, which is my country and all my heart since everything here resembles it,--Death without tears, our diligent daughter and servant, a desperate Love, and a petty Crime howl in the mud of the street.

Arthur Rimbaud, Democracy, in New Directions (Louise Varèse, trans.) reprinted in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems 224 (Joseph M. Bernstein, ed., Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1947).

Like Rimbaud, we are all citizens, not too discontented, of a metropolis considered modern—up to date! We have absorbed all tastes in order to avoid any, other than a taste for absorption, homogenization, simplicity, and reason. We are all so nice! We are so sensitive! And it is on that basis that modern democracy operates so successfully—as countless numbers of individuals perform participation by voting. And even more are invited to share their views with each other—and through those organs of metropolitan living in which, suitably absorbed, homogenized, simplified and rationalized, they might contribute to the formation and elaboration of suitably metropolitan ideas. And thus processed, thought becomes conventional—and the foundation of a reality that is eventually confirmed—in one or another approved form—by an approving electorate. Voting is the maddest of modern statistics. Ideas and their confirmation—the twin specters of modern political life, processed and performed through an institutional matrix that ensures that all tastes are accounted for and none show. The collective constructs and then approves itself.

These insights were a great help in parsing through the superlative efforts of our betters to motivate the rest of us out of our collective torpor and to political action, the fruits of which will be manifested in the performance of affirmation through voting.

I refer, of course, to that news and entertainment magazine published in New York City and circulated nationally as part of the Sunday edition of a large number of newspapers in the United States—Parade, the Sunday Newspaper Magazine ( In the November 18, 2007 edition, Michael Scherer is called upon to tell the electorate (other than those who are already well represented in this context) that they have the power. Michael Scherer, You have the Power, PARADE (Nov. 18, 2007) at 6-7 (part of that week’s “easy tech guide leitmotif—“How Technology Can Help You Get Connected”—Easy Tech Guide”).

Scherer starts with the essential—and essentially dynamic—linkage between technology, democratic expression, and voting. “In this new Internet age, democracy means more than a trip to the polls.” Id., at 6. Political expression can’t be new in this country, something else is: “Every day at personal computers across the nation, people are speaking back to their politicians—posting essays and videos that will be seen by thousands, organizing their neighbors and delving deep into the issues they care about on their own terms.” Id. Aaah. What is new is the computer—a method of communication both more remote and more insistent than prior methods of democratic participation by democracy’s least common denominator—the people.

And more potent, it seems. “As more voters get involved, politicians are responding.” Id. Politicians are scheduling meeting and campaign stops at out of the way places, choosing campaign songs, and running television advertising based on Internet communications, Internet polls and Internet based campaign footage created by supporters. Id. Somehow, we are told, this has the effect of “flipping the candidate centered conventional wisdom on its head” by allowing people to use candidate web sites as the focus of political expression centered on the candidate whose site is accessed (id., at 6-7), and in the case of Barack Obama, for creating profiles on the site he maintains. Id., at 7.

Yet what appears as inversion to Mr. Scherer might be more accurately described heightening the concentration on candidate in a new communications environment. We are told that a person has begun to shill for the candidate of his choice (Barack Obama) on that candidate’s web site, that other candidates (Hillary Clinton) now more effectively uses a “large web following, with more than 140,000 friends on the popular social networking site MySpace.” Id., at 7. Indeed, in the new means of electronic communications, politicians do not appear to have supporters any more—they have friends. Even the Republican presidential candidates are said to have many such friends, though berated for being less energetic in the contest for electronic friendships (“The four leading GOP candidates have about 90,000 MySpace friends combined; John McCain leads with fewer than 39,000” Id.).

But these friends are worth having. They have become a significant source of fund raising. A supporter who raised about $85,000 was quoted as saying, “It’s very easy. . . Every week I get e-mail from somebody saying, ‘I want to join the network.’” Id. But this is “little donor” collections—harvesting this pool of funds requires a substantial amount of outreach. Yet that is precisely what the Internet serves up best—a low cost way of reaching out both to willing communities of followers (the new virtual communities of friends) and to the uninitiated by methods that might, in another age have required tremendous resources (mail, phone, face to face) but now require only the techniques of spamming. The relationship remains vertical, and the framework remains centered on the politicians and the political classes.

But homogenization, for the perfection of appropriate outreach, and the selection of a appropriately blended political product requires more than candidates, it requires the discipline of virtual political communities as well. In these communities, people serve as large focus groups for the education of candidates bent on more effectively molding their position. More importantly, they serve as the techniques through which raw opinion can be input, considered, remade and blended into an acceptable collective expression. This collective, processed product then serves as the voice of the people to be amplified by the media class—people like Mr. Scherer, who might as a result, have to work less hard, and less sure footedly, to discover and popularize the thinking of the people. As Scherer notes: “virtual political communities have sprung up through sites like the liberal and the conservative, where hundreds of thousands of Americans gather to debate the issues” (Id). . . . and the political classes watch, absorb, process and construct the political consumables that may be acknowledged through the performance, from time to time, of the vote.

“These communities matter” Id. Yes, but less empowering than Mr. Scherer intimates. Mr. Scherer points to the generation of “home” video of a variety of kinds that caught viewer attention as evidencing the shape of what he terms the “biggest successes of the 2008 political season” that were “generated by regular folks.” Id. The greatest of these successes, and a reminder of the level of discourse in the new electronic political community were the “videos of scantily clad models singing about Obama and Rudy Giuliani that burned up the cable news networks this summer.” Id. Yet he also starkly describes an electronic reality that more effectively preserves the dominance of party, media, and political elites in the name of a leveling, more democratic, transparent and open system constructed through the techniques of electronic communication. He tells us that in “July, CNN partnered with [YouTube] to air the nation’s first Presidential ‘interactive debate’—where Democratic candidates answered questions submitted on videos from voters across the country. It was among the most –watched political events of the summer, and the Republican version is scheduled for November 28.” Id. Similar events have been staged by Yahoo! and we are told. More are on the way. Of course. Even religious broadcasting is seeking to harvest its share of the electronic community, and the possibility of managing harvested participation into something greater—legitimating and authoritative expressions of institutions with the power to influence the collective in its performative participation through the vote.

The ironies and inversions of this new people centered system of political participation were nicely brought out with the high values conclusion to Mr. Scherer’s homily:

“We are going back to the old methods, the traditional way of person-to-person politicking,” explains Patrick Ruffini, an online political consultant. “The town square is now the blogosphere. The town square is a message board that someone sets up. The town square is now the entire country.”

Id. But the unit costs of this new person-to-person politicking have been considerably reduced—expanding the market for outreach. And people are being trained to fetch themselves for the work of their political champions. Mr. Scherer suggests five ways to make one’s voice heard: (1) online research; (2) making a video to garner the interests of others; (3) blog commentary or blog creation; (4) giving money to candidates; and (5) e-mailing candidates. Id. All are worthy projects, of course, and the essence of individual participation in the current form of American politics.

Still, each might be more usefully understood as a means toward the greater consolidation of power in the hands of gatekeeper entities—political parties, media and third party organizations that gather, manage and exploit the individual expressions of political will collectively manifested on particular sites. The focus is thus better placed on the gatekeepers rather than on the individual. The individual in this case serves to empower the gatekeeper. And the gatekeeper can now more effectively control and manage opinion—and by managing opinion, manage the vote. Individual political expression through the Internet appears to empower YouTube, MySpace, Yahoo!,, CNN,,, the broadcasters and the other entities identified by Mr. Scherer more than it empowers the individual contributing her input to the “debates” of the moment. Indeed, what emerges from Mr. Scherer’s description is a greater certainty that opinion, like other intangible goods, have become commodified. And thus commodified, serve the interests of those classes who are the principle stakeholders in the markets for political power within a democratic state organized as a republic.

This new Internet age has certainly helped reaffirm the importance of political will formation as a critical step in the process of managing the vote. Yet, the rise of electronic communities and electronic campaigning has done little to change the vertical dynamics of politics, and the passive and post facto nature of voting. which is little more than a more efficient and deeper means of managing opinion and harnessing the appearance of participation for the molding of collective opinion which then can be used to shape (and reshape) individual opinion deviating from that constructed by the managers of public discourse. The individual remains the basic producer of goods, which can be refined, managed, repackaged and distributed for consumption by the electorate, the media and the political classes for the legitimate operation of the state apparatus and the stability of the political system. All is right with the world.

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