Friday, July 27, 2012

Democracy Part XXVII--The Utility of Voting in the Shadow of the Administrative State

I have been considering the value of voting in the shadow of the administrative state.  Larry Catá Backer, Democracy Part XXVI: Democratic Accountability--From Voter to Managed Mob, Law at the End of the Day June 4, 2012. And I have suggested that though it has lost its function of direct accountability for representative actions by those charged with the government of the state at the behest of the electorate (and those dependent on the electorate), it retains a symbolic effect and more importantly served as a barometer of behavior management (social harmony) and a general sense of resistance or acceptance of the techniques of governance brought to bear on the voting population (and in their name). 

The Monkey Cage, Oct 20, 2011)

While  this might produce a certain level of disillusionment, and perhaps spark a confrontation with the governance apparatus of the administrative state, on the part of voters at least, no such effect is discernible.  Indeed, the opposite might be said to be true.  Voting in political elections is more popular than ever and a number of regimes that have failed to conform to to poplar assumptions about voting, have fallen in 2011 and 2012, including those of Arab/Berber North Africa and along the Saudi periphery. Let's consider briefly why that might be.

1.  Voting is a social act and an act of social discipline.  In societies increasingly grounded in principles of mass democracy, voting represents a periodic affirmation of the legitimacy of the system and an act of political solidarity.  Those acts may not be connected in any way to the policies and acts of political leaders in a micro sense--that is, voting cannot be understood as a ratification of specific acts of governance.  That would be impossible in modern governmental systems where the connection between the masses and those charged with creating complex webs of rules is tenuous at best and most likely substantially unconnected.   Instead, it represents a macro affirmation of the system and, as between candidates, of the generalized rhetoric for which each candidate serves as a mouthpiece.   But it has another important purpose, one that was more visible in old fashioned Marxist-Leninist States (like Cuba and North Korea where virtually everyone is expected to vote) but which are also important in the most "advanced" Western democracy--voting serves as a disciplinary technique.  Compulsory voting best evidences this disciplinary aspects.
Brazilian law requires that all citizens from the age of 18 – 70 are required to vote in the presidential elections held every 4 years. This has lead to a voter turn out averaging 85%, as opposed to 57% in the US and 59% in the UK.
Those Brazilian’s who do not comply and participate in the process are subject to having their Titulo de Eleitoral (voting card) canceled. Data released by the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (Superior Electoral Court) on May 6, 2009, revealed that 57,000 Cariocas have had their right to vote revoked, and across Brazil over half a million are now prohibited from voting. (Philip Sever, 57,000 Voting Rights Revoked in Rio, Rio Times, May 12, 2009).

While states like Brazil engage in the social disciplining of the masses through affirmative obligations ot vote, other states, like the United States, engage in a similar practice but in inverted form.  The recent controversy over voter identification suggests that in states like the United States, it is the power of the state to deny the right to vote, rather than in the power of the state to compel voting, that the disciplinary functions of voting is articulated. See, e.g., Pennsylvania Voter ID Trial On Law's Constitutionality Begins, AP/The Huffington Post, July 25, 2012.

In either case, voting effectively serves as a physical manifestation of allegiance to and membership in the sovereign masses.  Citizenship, then, is disciplined by an obligation to participate in elections that, in turn, are designed to affirm the legitimacy of the state apparatus which is meant to be the expression of the sovereign power of the people. There is a circularity here that works to the benefit of the state apparatus, and protects the fundamental disconnected between the masses, from whom all power flows, to the apparatus of government from where all power is exercised in intricate and substantially unaccountable ways. In managing the state, the state manages the mob!

2.  Social Discipline Through Voting Manages Violence.  Voting as a disciplinary technique is also deployed as a means of ensuring social stability.  By encouraging the believability of the connection between accountability and voting, voting serves as a technique to reduce the potential of revolutionary action or violence.  For those frustrated by the actions of the government apparatus, there is always the ballot box.  That is so even when, in polarized societies grounded din principles of majority voting, it is unlikely that a minority will prevail.  But even there a disciplinary consolation is offered--the minority can work hard to change the cultural foundations of the majority and on that basis prevail.  That, certainly has been the case in the United States, where movements away from application of the death penalty, movements toward acceptance of sexual minorities have been held up as examples of minorities moving slowly (over the course of more than one generation) to turn majorities.  in the military, and the regularization of their intimate relations, and other similar matters have been But there is a limit as well--cultural changes are tolerated only to the extent that they do not threaten the fundamental premises on which the state apparatus is founded.  This is as true in Cuba ("within the revolution everything, outside the revolution nothing")  as it is in Saudi Arabia ((secularization) and in the United States (socialism).  

3.  Voting Serves as a Measure of Governmental Legitimacy and Affirmation of Mass Democracy  Grundnorm as a Basis of Political Organization. Here the focus is to outside stakeholders--the community of nations--rather than inside stakeholder (citizens).  The state system increasingly has moved toward a harmonization of the parameters under which governments may be organized and respected.  Transnational constitutionalism, whether conceived as international law or as a form of natural law based on unchanging principles of mass democracy as the sole organizing principle of states, suggests a set of norms that help structure the rules for determining the circumstances under which states may project power into the internal affairs of other states. See, Backer, Larry Catá, God(s) Over Constitutions: International and Religious Transnational Constitutionalism in the 21st Century. Mississippi Law Review, Vol. 27, 2008. The recent international intervention in Honduras (illegitimate "coup" and Libya "violence against citizens) provide contemporary examples. (e.g., Democracy Part XX: Democracy With or Without Elections in Honduras; On Intervention in Libya: The Emerging Nature of Supra-National Legal Framework/Norms for Disciplining States and their Leaders by Others).

4.  Voting serves as a method of popular organization to support or undermine the state apparatus.   The mass will tends to find of way of expressing itself, even as it is managed by those with the power and interest in that task.  Mass organization tends to manifest itself within the social and political structures in place in the context in which it appears. Factional politics in ancient Greece, popular power disguised as Hippodrome parties in early Byzantium (Procopius, Secret History (Richard Atwater, trans.,  Ann Arbor: U. Michigan Press, 1966) (553 A.D.), religious parties in the Middle East and North Africa, and the like tends to mark social fissures.  Voting tends to serve as a means of organizing oppositional parties in ways that make it harder for their opponents within the state apparatus to curtail.  Voting, then, has strategic value as a means through which systemic opposition can be nurtured because the penalties for suppression exceed the risks of revolutionary change through policies of toleration.  In this sense voting is useful--but not for the purpose of electing representatives or for holding the state apparatus accountable or even for poltiical engagement within the state.  Instead, it serves as a space for oppositional activity, including those that would replace the state apparatus itself.

5.  The semiosis of voting. Voting, then, serves as affirmation of belonging, an acceptance of the basic premises of state organization, of obedience to its apparatus, and of the possibility of revolutionary change. Voting is object, sign, symbol and interpretant.  Protean, it reflects the norms within which it is exercised and the techniques through which that exercise is legitimated. But voting has little to do with the rhetoric within which it is assembled for consumption by the masses and utilized by social managers. Voting, then, can be better understood as essential to the operation of the modern state within a community of states supporting a web of increasingly inter connected governments. 


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Anonymous said...

voters and election

Nicholas J. Rowland said...

Larry writes:
"Protean, it reflects the norms within which it is exercised and the techniques through which that exercise is legitimated. But voting has little to do with the rhetoric within which it is assembled for consumption by the masses and utilized by social managers. Voting, then, can be better understood as essential to the operation of the modern state within a community of states supporting a web of increasingly inter connected governments."
These are great lines, and they remind me of a debate in the Science and Technology literature about the "norms of science" (originally formulated by sociology big-hitter, Robert K. Merton). The argument goes like this: there are four norms in science and the legitimacy of science is largely predicated on allegiance to these norms. As debate emerged, the notion of "norms" started to be question, in particular, this insight: norms and rules do not contain the (let's say) meta-rules and meta-norms of their scope and applicability.
That squares interestingly with your comments about voting...

Brian Green said...

Well, voting shows your patriotism also fro your country..