The big issue in NY? Mid-term mechanics

Opinion polls, surveys, voter registration patterns: in the absence of politics everyone is obsessing over the technical process instead.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

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One of the strangest aspects about this year’s mid-terms was that Americans seemed most comfortable talking about them when politics was not involved. Reading the tea leaves of poll reports, opinion surveys, voter registration patterns; debating the quality of get-out-the-vote efforts and field campaigns; and hotly debating strategies and tactics in the electoral numbers game were the most common ways of engaging with the election.

It was impossible not to get swept up in the obsession with process. Even though I had helped organise a day-long event recently about why voting is not a very political way of participating in our democratic life, and why we need to step back from the short-term logic of elections to consider and generate new political ideas, I nonetheless found myself consuming and discussing the latest polls like everyone else around me.

Even most radicals have been unable to free their minds from the issue of electoral process. The most common way in which they have tried to express opposition to the mid-term elections is by alleging voter fraud, intimidation, and, most frequently of all, corrupt voting machines. The last few weeks have seen the release of numerous documentaries, special reports and journalistic exposés all claiming to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate the results of new electronic voting machines. On the basis of these reports alone, one could be excused for thinking the greatest threat to American democracy is disfranchisement and dirty tricks. The solution: to ‘purify’ the process.

No doubt there are some problems with the process, but it is odd to focus on the technical aspects of democracy when the most striking thing about these elections was how impoverished they were in substance. Since I helped organised a teach-in on the mid-terms a few weeks ago, I happened to have had a number of conversations with various ‘voters-on-the-street’. What was striking was how even the most committed voters were willing to admit that there were no interesting ideas on offer in this election.

Almost to a man (or woman) the people I spoke to had separated the act of voting from thinking about inspiring political ideas. I generally tended to ask: ‘Should we vote?’ After the customary ‘yes’, I then asked: ‘Why?’ This produced some hesitation, after which the interviewee said usually ‘because it’s a duty’ or, in a slightly more partisan vein, ‘because I want the Republicans out of there’ (I live in liberal New York). If I pressed them, they quite readily admitted that the Democrats are not at all inspiring, and have done little to present a coherent set of alternatives. In fact, almost in confidence, they would admit to me they are deeply pessimistic about and disappointed with the Democrats. Their vote was entirely negative.

This has been a general trend in the elections. Rather than build a positive case for themselves, each side has tried to scare and cajole its voters into voting against the other side. While Democrats banked on anti-Bush and anti-Washington sentiment, especially amid recent corruption scandals, the Republicans trotted out the politics of fear, repeatedly implying a vote for the Democrats was a vote for terrorism and insecurity.

In this climate, it is not surprising that so much was invested in the process and its outcome. Most people probably did not wish to retreat entirely into private life, but it was difficult to invest either party with any degree of political hope and energy. Caught between these two unattractive options, it was easier simply to set aside the question of whether one’s side stood for anything substantial and instead ask questions about the process – ‘was it fair?’ ‘Who will win?’ ‘How will they win?’ ‘What was the breakdown?’

As I left my building on the morning of the election, the woman with whom I shared the elevator asked me if I was voting. I said I did not see anyone worth voting for, and that I preferred other kinds of political engagement. She looked at me disapprovingly and said: ‘I have not missed a vote in the 30 years that I have been able to vote. It’s a religion in my family. It’s how I was raised.’ I am not sure if she meant that as an argument about why I should vote, or as an explanation of her own behaviour. Either way, it was not very convincing, and expressed the very dispiriting way in which this election took place. It became about how we relate as individuals to a substanceless process, rather than an opportunity to discuss and decide upon competing collective visions.

The strange thing about it is that most people seem to share the view that this process is rather meaningless, and will admit it with enough prodding. But everyone feels powerless to change it.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University and a co-editor of Against the War on Terror. He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of International Relations.

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Topics Politics


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