Speech on Voting and California Proposition 19

by Danny Colligan

Every two years, the American electorate flocks to the polls to make a perplexing choice about its national officials: Republican or Democrat? If popular myths are to be believed, this decision is a matter of granting control of the government to one or another ideologically differentiated party. A closer examination, however, reveals an astounding similarity between the two platforms, so much so that they are practically identical in virtually every important aspect.

Consider, for instance, the candidate that many Democrats this election cycle are attempting to contrast their positions with: the Republican Christine O'Donnell. She finds common ground with Democrats on many policies; to quote her, "There are many things that I have publicly said that I support the Obama administration on. I support Obama's decision to send troops to Afghanistan. I support Obama's decision for drones. I support Obama's decision to treat the American who is recruiting terrorists on American soil, who is hiding in Yemen, I support the decision for our intelligence agencies to do whatever it takes to take him out." [1] O'Donnell is often ridiculed for her stance on masturbation. But we shouldn't forget that former Democratic President Bill Clinton apparently views the same action in a negative light, as he fired his Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for suggesting masturbation should be taught in schools. [2] Perhaps there is some truth to the claim that we are living an an era of post-partisan harmony.

Republican and Democratic candidates are not only almost identical in what they advocate, but also in what they refuse to discuss. Majorities of Americans believe that the United States should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, sign the Kyoto protocols and allow the United Nations to take the lead in international crises. The public also favors expansion of government education, social security and health care programs. Most Americans would also prefer to modify the budget by cutting the defense budget and increase spending on education, job training, reducing reliance on oil and veterans. That is, "the public called for the deepest cuts in the programs that are most rapidly increasing, and for substantial spending increases in areas that are shortchanged." [3] With the lack of clearly identifiable stances on these issues by mainstream candidates, it is no wonder that media outlets from Al-Jazeera [4] to the Stanford Review [5] agree that the American youth is unlikely to rock the US vote.

There is a reason for the suppression of the actual issues that the American people care about in elections: it is a feature of the American government's design. Contrary to popular belief, the Founding Fathers had contempt for popular democracy. President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay's maxim was "The people that own the country ought to govern it" -- certainly not the general population. Inaugural Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton saw the public as a "great beast" that needed to be tamed. James Madison declared that the government ought to be so constituted as to "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." [6]

The public is additionally marginalized in contemporary elections because candidates are promoted the same way that deodorant is -- by the public relations industry. Leaders knew a century ago, and continue to recognize today, that propaganda is an effective means of control in a democracy.

"Harold Lasswell explained in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences that we should not succumb to 'democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.' They are not; the best judges are the elites, who must, therefore, be ensured that the means to impose their will, for the common good. When social arrangements deny them the requisite force to compel obedience, it is necessary to turn to 'a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda' because of the 'ignorance and superstition [of] ... the masses.' In the same years, Reinhold Niebuhr argued that 'rationality belongs to the cool observers,' while 'the proletarian' follows not reason but faith, based upon a crucial element of 'necessary illusion.' Without such illusion, the ordinary person will descend to 'inertia.' Then in his Marxist phrase, Niebuhr urged that those he addressed -- presumably, the cool observers -- recognize 'the stupidity of the average man' and provide the 'emotionally potent oversimplifications' required to keep the proletarian on course to create a new society; the basic conceptions underwent little change as Niebuhr became 'the official establishment theologian' ... offering counsel to those who 'face the responsibilities of power.'" [7] All of which explains why in 2010 discussion focuses more on witchcraft than nuclear weapons.

Voting is also one of the least effective ways of transforming society. A glance at history reveals that true, long-lasting, positive social change comes not from voting, but from popular struggle. Women's rights; labor rights; racial equality -- all of these improvements came about by way of popular movements, not by voting a figurehead of our one-party system into office and praying really hard for "hope" and "change." To genuinely create a world in which decent survival is possible, the American people must take the future into their own hands.

Even though voting is a marginal way of participating in a democracy, I don't want anyone to take this speech as advice not to vote. Voting is sometimes important. Indeed, I think there is a clear moral imperative to cast a ballot in favor of at least one proposition this year. Namely, for the legalization of marijuana via Proposition 19.

For too long, the American people have suffered under the so-called "War on Drugs." Since the declaration of this War against the population, the number of prison inmates has skyrocketed, netting the United States the highest prison population in the world. Civil liberties have been eroded by an increasing invasion into private life under the pretext of suspected drug involvement. Military intervention into other countries, including chemical warfare, has also been justified by claims of fighting drugs, turning a rhetorical war into real wars. Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua are only a few of the countries whose people have been the victims of the United States' anti-drug frenzy. The supposed reasons behind the War on Drugs are a sick joke since it is often the United States Central Intelligence Agency that has a hand in smuggling contraband, causing havoc abroad and hooking drug users at home. [8] Prosecution of the War on Drugs has been a largely racist and classist affair. 100 to 1 sentencing disparities in crack versus powder cocaine and increased enforcement in communities of color are evidence of these grim realities. [9]

A vote for Proposition 19 is a vote for taking a first step towards dismantling the militaristic, regressive, misanthropic policy known as the War on Drugs. Let's stop the drug-related violence plaguing society, both at home and abroad. Let's refuse to lock up nonviolent drug users for the most innocuous marijuana possession. Let's oppose the increasing law enforcement intervention into our personal affairs. Let's cease pretending that drug addiction is a criminal problem and not a health problem. California can show the world the beginning of a path towards a better tomorrow by easing marijuana laws in its jurisdiction.

So be sure to vote (especially YES on Prop 19) this election season, but please do so without illusions. Thank you.


[1] Glenn Greenwald, "Obama finds support from the right" http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/10/18/odonnell
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joycelyn_Elders#Career
[3] Noam Chomsky, Failed States, p. 228-236
[4] "Youth unlikely to 'rock US vote'" http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2010/10/2010102671644697618.html
[5] Catherine Lowell, "What Elections?" http://stanfordreview.org/article/what-elections
[6] Noam Chomsky, Profit over People, p.46-47
[7] Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, p.17
[8] Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Drugs and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_the_War_on_Drugs

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