When I lived in New York 20 years ago, the United States was beginning a 20-year war on Iraq. We protested at the United Nations. The Miami Herald depicted Saddam Hussein as a giant fanged spider attacking the United States. Hussein was frequently compared to Adolf Hitler. On October 9, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl told a U.S. congressional committee that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of an incubator in a Kuwaiti hospital and leave them on the cold floor to die. Some congress members, including the late Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), knew but did not tell the U.S. public that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, that she’d been coached by a major U.S. public relations company paid by the Kuwaiti government, and that there was no other evidence for the story. President George H. W. Bush used the dead babies story 10 times in the next 40 days, and seven senators used it in the Senate debate on whether to approve military action. The Kuwaiti disinformation campaign for the Gulf War would be successfully reprised by Iraqi groups favoring the overthrow of the Iraqi government twelve years later.
I think two opposing trends have been at work in U.S. history. One is that of allowing more people to vote. This is an ongoing struggle, of course, but in some significant sense we’ve allowed poor people and women and non-white people and young people to vote. The other trend, which has really developed more recently, is that we’ve made voting less and less meaningful. Of course it was never as meaningful as many people imagine. But we’ve legalized bribery, we’ve banished third parties and independents, we’ve gerrymandered most Congressional districts into meaningless general elections and left one party or the other to exercise great influence over any primary. Rarely does any incumbent lose, and rarely does a candidate without the most money win. Extremely rare is a winning candidate who lacks some major financial backing. Rarer still is a candidate who even promises to pursue majority positions on most major issues, or who convincingly commits to following the will of the public over the will of the party. Most Congress members are pawns in a government with two partisan voices, not the voices of 535 individual representatives and senators. Rare, as well, is any possibility in a close primary or general election of verifying the accuracy of a vote count.
There appears to many observers little, sometimes even nothing, to be gained by voting. A lack of decent education and news media, combined with negative campaign ads that make the whole process seem filthy are probably a turn off. Yet roughly 55% of voting age people in the U.S. continue to vote in presidential elections and roughly 35% in off-year elections. And those numbers would probably go up if we didn’t take people’s right to vote away when we convict them of crimes, if we didn’t deny citizenship to so many immigrants, or if we made voter registration automatic, stopped trying to intimidate people out of voting or forcing them to vote on second-class provisional ballots, made election day a holiday, etc.
We’ve also created a dominant media cartel that can — without any exaggeration — instruct large numbers of people whom to vote for — a situation that outrages some of us, but by definition is deemed acceptable by many others. Or, rather, it’s not deemed acceptable, but it’s either unnoticed or it’s viewed as a tragedy of the commons that cannot be countered by any individual alone. On the Kucinich 04 presidential campaign, he would win the most applause, but then people would say “I’d vote for him if he were serious,” because their televisions had told them he wasn’t one of the real, serious, viable choices, and either they believed that or they believed that everyone else believed it which left them powerless to single-handedly do anything about it.