Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Electoral Idol: Debating the electoral carnival

By Jan Dichter

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With each reappearance, regardless of particulars, the temporality of the electoral spectacle cycle deposits another greasy layer onto the aura of gruesome despair that inevitably surrounds it. Each time, there arises a great wailing and gnashing of teeth over the ‘new lows’ – of negative advertising, of the influence of money and other shady dealings, the embarrassing incompetence of so many candidates (incumbent and otherwise), and of course, worst of all, the low turnouts and lack of interest from a population that, most experts on public opinion concur,  wants to hear nothing more from any of the official mouthpieces, and increasingly lacks faith in the whole system.

This disillusionment – and the logic of the attempts to dispel it – is especially palpable when, like an ultimate incarnation of “American Idol,” media figures urge us with strained gravitas to Tweet our opinions when the candidates each party has grudgingly, reluctantly consented to back confront each other in a “debate” which consists of exchanging empty claims no one really believes.

No one is pretending that anyone will be convinced of anything, or that anyone is even worrying about which candidate is “right” – coverage revolves almost exclusively around which candidate is winning, what he should do to win, how campaigns and rival media organizations seem to be abusing demographic and/or financial data, etc. No one really seems to believe in their programs – one party has hitched its wagon to an appetite for utopian hopes, the other attempts to defend an obsolete social order with tinted and petrified images of its past.

While there is no shortage of reasons for a general climate of indifference or disgust toward politics, most important is the fact that it should be obvious by now that if existing political systems could have solved our current predicament, they would have at least made some forward motion towards doing so by now.

Instead, everywhere in the world, government is flailing in impotence, mired in corruption, and beset with crises of popular legitimacy; and while economic disaster and social confusion have become an everyday reality, our so-called leaders can only think how best to use them as rhetorical devices for their own gain. How did it come to this?

Only 20 years ago, the end of the Cold War was said to have heralded a new era and a “new world order,” sealing the “end of history” with the permanent triumph of an enlightened global capitalism. Threats to its stability, however, did not disappear with the Eastern Bloc, in which they had been safely externalized and make “other,” and its victory soon revealed itself to be Pyrrhic, and nothing but the start of a disastrous retreat across the “bridge to the 21st century.”

The ugly contradictions of neoliberal globalization began to surface almost immediately, never more spectacularly (if not uniquely) than in burning falling towers in the heart of the metropolis. At the time many began to speak of a “clash of civilizations,” when what we witnessed that morning was the fulfillment of that new world and that ended history: a civilization of clashes.

All the talk of “security” only signified a situation of permanent, prevalent and deepening insecurity, since the moment of triumph left nowhere for the newly unified global economic system to go but in and down into a society that now primarily legitimizes its authority by the indefinite management of its own collapse.

It’s to distract from this general implosion that political discourse now pleads for our participation, attempting to generate enthusiasm intense enough to conjure it all away. Some of the greatest political intensities seen in this country in the past year – a mere echo of the wave of strikes, insurrection, and civil war sweeping the Middle East, southern Europe, Asia and Africa – revolved around contestations of public space, of the meaning of ‘public space’ and the social contract itself.

This dramatic departure from politics as usual nonetheless fell back into its orbit as its leaders began to speak less of the inhabitability of our fading futures and more of “restoring democracy,” dialogue with politicians, and participation in electoral politics. The fact that the recent anniversary of Occupy Wall Street coincided with the start of the presidential race’s home stretch only seems indicative of how far it failed to get from mainstream, middle-class ideology.

The floodgates briefly opened to unleash some of the contradictions increasingly permeating society that make it more and more difficult for more and more of us to live in it, but were just as quickly shut again by the complementary action of riot police and local government on one side and fascinating new theories of social management on the other.

Whatever else can be said about it, though, the recent movements can’t fail to remind us of the potency of direct and local politics, and the gut intuition that democracy isn’t really all that democratic. Politics as collective event has been shunted not just into institutions full of corrupt schemers, but into TV personalities and Tweeters; into all the mediations that keep the whole faltering system together by keeping us at a distance from one another and our capacity for direct activity.

Representatives, even elected representatives, can only attempt to banish the volatility of our really lived contradictions by representing them abstractly, in a variety of issues, causes, ideologies, etc. They try to rouse our enthusiasm because they see the world slipping into a chaotic decline, and they know we see them as failing us.

It is for this reason we should see tent cities and picket lines as a reminder that perhaps the only way out of this mess is to keep in touch with our powers instead of willingly delegating them to those who got us into it in the first place – ultimately, not just our elected leaders, but the whole social logic of the sad farce that is present-day politics.

Jan Dichter is a Collegian columnist.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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