As the midterm elections arrive and our government stands to change drastically one way or the other, I have been trying to reconcile my belief that America is fundamentally the best democracy in the world with the facts that money and media are such a huge part of our process that things are messed up in government. Poll after poll shows that support for the job that Congress is doing at an all-time low. Headline after headline shows that the President isn’t loved either — and hasn’t been for nearly the first six years of his presidency. There is the VA scandal, the economic “recovery”, that doesn’t feel like one, possible war in Iraq, Citizen’s United, and the pitched battle that has been this President’s entire term all happening in Washington. The only thing not happening is the average citizen feeling heard.
On the Right, the Koch brothers are spending money hand-over-fist to continue the present path and Fox News disseminates mis-information and dis-information daily. On the Left, my friend Sean Murphy can tell you that there’s some equivalent person. MSNBC — as much as I love their spin on the news — has a bias, even if they get their facts straight. The “major networks” are going to be full of advertisements and pseudo-news, pseudo-scandals (Obama and the sneeze guard at Chipotle’s? Seriously?) Newspapers publish Op-Ed pieces written by delusional -or- lying people (Dick Cheney knows when to have a war? Really?) Unless you’re really into side-boob or Trans-rights, the Huffington Post has little to offer. Facebook memes are great, but they can also be straight out lies. Actual journalism is, frankly, dead.
Perhaps the only bright spots out there are Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, and a potential rebirth of “Populism”. Sanders was sent to a supposedly unimportant committee by The Powers That Be — but that committee is in charge of overseeing the VA healthcare system, so dysfunction, corruption, and horror stories are being taken seriously for once and people might get the help they deserve and need. Warren is attempting to get The Rules to be fair in the economic sphere — most recently, with a bill to decrease student debt load. Franken is taking over the mantle of Paul Wellstone and deeply involves in issues of Net Neutrality and equal access to the internet. The complexity of those issues and the corporate forces involved is well beyond me but Franken is a trustworthy sort and his heart is in the right place — he wants people to have a voice in their government.
Populism — what I would call actual democracy — has it’s flaws, no doubt, but it boils down to this: Intelligent, well-informed people elect other people to represent them. Those people make sure the people that sent them to Washington actually represent them so the people at home get what they need. When called on, they also make decisions which require leadership because they have information or ideas we don’t. When they make those decisions, they can and do explain them in some sort of transparent way. At that point, we would have a representative democracy that empowers people — the greatest democracy going and America is once again hailed as being the way to be. Other than being good for our collective soul, this legitimacy would save us billions in wars and conflicts because we would be trusted again as a country — and as a world power.
The problem, of course, is how do we get from where we are to where we could be, deserve to be, and (I think) want to be — and how do we get there before the mid-term elections? I’ve thought about it a lot for the past few months and this is the best that I can come up with: Read Up, Tune Out, and Vote. If the last are to be first, then that’s the order we need to consider them: Remembering voting, tuning out to keep our own brains and compassion, and reading up to make good decisions.
1) The thing that all of these people — people in power, lobbyists, PACs, Super Pacs — either forget themselves or want us to forget is this: There are more of us than there are of them. The Koch brothers, the PACs, all the people putting money into this election are — generally speaking — the 1%. That means that for every actual vote they have, we have 99! Democracy is about 1 person, 1 vote at it’s core. Even with the voter ID scandals, the restriction of certain groups to vote by law, even after you take into account graft (did I say that?), the voting population has got to be at least 50 votes of regular citizens to their one. Our Founding Fathers knew and understood that some people think their voice is more important — because they have more money or more land or a certain bloodline. They also believed that was wrong. Their answer: 1 man, 1 vote. Over time, we have come to include women, African-Americans, non land-owners and so on. Our answer to The Powers That Be — and our legacy — is 1 person, one vote. We need to remember that. We need to register, and vote in droves, in each and every election. Even if they make it hard for us to do so, we must do so. Funny hours? Register then. No DMV voter registration? Do it some other way. Polls only open during your shift at work? Take a vacation day, so that you can get real freedom. We have the means to take back our system. We just have to do it.
2) Singer John Mayer, in his song “Waiting For the World to Change”, points out that “When they own the information, they can bend it all they want” and that’s the biggest challenge we face, the one I’ve wrestled with for months. How do these people, with their limited votes, have so much power? They own the information and they bend it all they want. Even if you believe in the “truthiness” of the New York Times or the TV networks or The Washington Times (if you’re a right winger), even with a relatively objective press (which I’m not convinced we have), the people in power can now sell us the information and bend it all they want. The mass media — as you no doubt well know — inundates us with hour after hour of advertising. As the elections near, forget selling vacuums or lumber or the latest cleaner that starts with “Oxy-“, those minutes are bought and paid for by politicians, parties, PACS, lobbyists, industrialists. When these people buy advertising, they buy influence. We fight with each other over non-issue “issues”, we let them tell us what’s important, we end up confused, frustrated, and ultimately depressed about our options. We give away our power to make decisions when we let them tell us what we should care about. You and I know what we care about. Are those issues being addressed in the election? I have yet to hear a political ad talk about building local roads or animal rights or the need for hospitals and schools or all of those things that make up daily life. Why? Because they don’t care about our daily lives, because they don’t know anything about our daily lives. Get elected to any position in the Senate or House of Representatives and you no longer have to worry about daily lives. You will make hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rest of your life, you will have health care free for the rest of your life, you will have security and the ability to talk to the media for the rest of your life — all by getting elected once. There is no reason to worry about an average daily life, because you will no longer have one. That’s another problem all unto itself, but the fact of the matter is that there is no bought-and-paid-for advertising that doesn’t carry it’s own spin. The answer? Don’t listen to it. Maybe a month or two before the election, step away from mass media. Stop watching regular TV. Stop reading the ads in the newspaper. Throw out the ads that come in the mail. Mark as “spam” political advertising. Don’t post or read political thinsg on Facebook. Media outlets will understand, in a hurry, that no one is watching their shows, and they will go back to selling things other than your vote. I know that this sounds hard to do, and it even seems ridiculous on some level, that the only way to get information is to stop getting information. In reality, though, you shouldn’t be stopping getting information. You should stop taking information that is processed, chopped up, put into sound bites or pretty pictures and dramatic effects and sold to you. Instead of eating mental Twinkies, you need to grow your own mental garden. Is your local candidate speaking near you? Go and listen to them. See what vibes you get. Ask them questions that you want answered, about the things that you care about. See if what they say jibes with your experience. If it doesn’t, ask them why. Make them care about the things that you care about. If they are going to check out of regular life by getting elected, send them to Washington with reminders about your life, not the Koch brothers or Warren Buffett.
3) Educate yourself. As I thought about the elections and information, the best actual information I could come up with is the “Voter’s Guide” that comes with most elections, and is usually about various ballot measures. There’s often a pro-side and an anti-side. It’s usually to the point and serious without being boring. Read that. Read up on issues that matter to you — not dogma and philosophy, but actual nuts-and-bolts articles about the things you care about. Don’t like nuclear power? read books about Fukishima and see if it applies to your local plant. Like animal rights or civil rights? Read up on those. Most politicians have websites that explain, in detail, what they want to do. They may seem boring and long, but when they talk about jobs, see if your industry is going to be affected. If you care about another nation for some reason (you have relatives in another country or do mission projects or are in Doctors Without Borders? Who knows why.) Read their ideas and see if that country is affected, and how, by their plans. Libraries are still free. Use them. They also offer quiet places to think. Do that, as well. The internet has information available on all kinds of topics — topics that you care about, frequently without articles about “nip-slips”, side-boobs, or “wardrobe malfunctions”. Read those. If you have to watch TV, watch the debates and remember that it’s not the style of the candidate, it’s the substance of what they say. If you want to spend money on the election, send it to the League of Women Voters because they run the debates. If you want to support a candidate, give to their campaign because you believe in them and because they actually speak to your needs.
4) If you have done all of this, actually vote. Democracy is in our grasp. Populism makes it happen. Be a citizen and you’ll get the respect you deserve, just by looking in the mirror. You will get at least some of the politicians that support and believe in you You will have taken back the American way of life and made the system work for you as best as it can. That is something to be proud of.