I used to be very anti-democratic. I preferred a fake objectivity that looked at politics from above, as if careful reasoning could somehow plow through the great mass of words in public policy discussions. I thought the best approach to political news was to be like a dedicated investigator untangling the threads of motivation and purpose in a bizarre murder case, with only newspaper stories as evidence.
This approach came from learning about American politics by reading newspapers in the late twentieth century, when the ideology of journalistic objectivity was promoted as an essential control on the excesses of all the other parts of society. The purpose of journalism was not only to watch out for government corruption or corporate malfeasance, but also to temper the vulgar radicalism of the “common people.” In this way, the journalist presented not merely a private point of view, but a carefully curated narrative about how a democratic society balances different interests and works everything out for the common good, without allowing a mob mentality to take over the public agenda.
However, that perspective required me to believe that whatever was written in the newspaper had a special window into objective truth. Between the reporter, the fact-checker, the copy editor, the section editor, and the editor-in-chief — all of them working together to verify details, eliminate bias, and hold each other accountable — the end result was supposed to be as true as possible. The problem is that this purely inductive method of collecting evidence, refining it to make it credible, and presenting it artfully never actually arrives at truth.
All it does is make a good story. And collecting a lot of these stories together can give a pluralistic, multifaceted story, but it is still not necessarily objective or true. It is simply the story that is agreed-upon by the majority of the journalists, newspaper owners, and trusted sources. Other people are left out of the story: the ones who can’t talk to journalists because they know too much; the ones who won’t talk to journalists because they don’t trust them; the ones who contradict the journalist’s boss; the scary people; the boring people; the crazy people; the criminal people; the ugly people; the drunk people; the inarticulate people; the dirty people; and anyone who just doesn’t fit within the little circle of what a journalist considers to be someone whose opinion matters.
When politicians allow a free press, it is because they think it works out for everyone concerned: they can massage journalistic messages to direct public opinion, but they don’t have to take responsibility for anything because it is simply being reported by a third party. Meanwhile, the public is entertained by the spectacle of democracy being played out in front of them, the feeling of identification and fake involvement in civic affairs. The self-satisfied middle-class person can sit back and ponder how wonderfully the public conversation in the press reflects both kinds of middle-class people that they know.
This system functioned reasonably well in the twentieth century as long as there were media monopolies for the most credible journalists. It worked in tandem with the venerable two-party US election system, which creates fake coalitions in order to justify peaceful transfer of power.
The US electoral system was designed by Democrats and Republicans so that a third party will always fail on a nationwide basis. In fact, it isn’t even possible for it to work at all if there are more than two large factions, since the US has no tradition of sorting out coalition leadership, as with some parliamentary systems. If a third party were to reach a level of committed support nationwide among eligible voters equal to the other two parties, that would actually disable US representative democracy, because then whoever won an election could not claim to have even the implicit support of half the electorate. The pragmatic reason for continuing US-style representative democracy is precisely because it enables an enduring narrative about how everyone comes together after an election to support the resulting government in the national interest, on the principle that it has at least a bare majority of public support.
So, it was always obvious to me that the two-party system was just a pragmatic arrangement to ensure the complacency of the populace. It worked well enough to keep politicians on their toes, insofar as they always had a “loyal opposition” in the form of the other party, which nevertheless completely agreed with them on all the important matters of governance. By maintaining the appearance of providing a choice every four years, it enabled a release of tension that might otherwise build up into some kind of revolutionary or insurrectionist movement.
All the potential leaders of any anti-government movement were sequestered in their little DC lobbyist offices or their little think-tank seminars, planning for the day when public opinion would shift again and they would get their chance to ride the wave. Those who didn’t want to play the game were marginalized as radicals or extremists and ignored. Anyone ignored on a large scale is not a credible threat to order, they are just isolated nuts. They may be very principled nuts who are happy with their self-contained rationalizations, but they are not actually part of the broader society.
This is where the so-called third parties exist. Their function is to work tirelessly to play with ideas that are unacceptable to the two major parties, but which nevertheless might get the attention of a portion of the public. In that way, if a fringe policy proposal ever does get popular opinion behind it, one or both of the major parties can just pick it up and use it after it has broad support, without sacrificing their credibility, and their voting public, beforehand. They are the bush league for ideas that seem wacky but may someday get to play in the big league. The third parties themselves will never win broadly, because as parties they are undemocratic: they can never represent, even by passive consent, a majority position.
So, anyone who has carefully thought-out and consistent policy positions, yet is unwilling to compromise for the sake of an imaginary, nationwide political coalition, will always be a loser politically. The leaders of the major parties know this, and the party hacks know it too; that’s why they spend a lot of time posturing, pretending to be virtuous in their blind, animalistic party loyalty. In every election they try to pull the third-party voters over to a major party with imaginary bargaining or emotional appeals. Eventually they lose patience and start to virtually spit on third-party voters, mocking them for their airy principles and calling them stupid and useless.
Some third-party sympathizers react by simply not voting. Not voting works to send a message, but it takes awhile. Also, the message is ambiguous, so the parties can lie to themselves about what it means: Does nonvoting mean that some people are too lazy, too happy, or too hopeless to vote?
Voting is not actually effective as a means of individual expression, because it is depersonalized and anonymous. As expression, it only matters when expressed to other people in words or images, rather than in the form of an actual “vote”; and then it just functions to let everyone know whether someone is “in” or “out” of their little ideological group.
No single vote actually affects the outcome of a national election, either, unless it happens to agree with other similar votes — which means that with the proper manipulation of groups, it would be possible to make a difference. Setting aside the concept of manipulation, what actual political function does voting have?
Voting functions to help the populace accept a peaceful transfer of power, because they believe that the results of an election represent “majority rule”, meaning that one side won the game and so everyone should accept the result and move on. Voting also functions for the governing authorities as a census: Every election is a referendum about what kind of ruling figurehead, and what kind of ideology, will be accepted by a majority of the electorate (that portion of the population who are allowed to vote, able to vote, and care enough to vote). So, as a census, it allows the authorities to take a reading on the most effective rhetoric to justify governance and avoid insurrection or revolution.
This is how I was finally able to rationalize voting for one of two fake coalition parties with fake ideals, fake policy positions, and fake talking-head representatives: by seeing my vote as one of millions of census datapoints representing which of two possible options are the most acceptable. As with any measurement of millions of datapoints, each individual sensor can only show local conditions, and they all together reflect a general trend.
This the the truth of democracy: It doesn’t seek truth and it doesn’t discover truth. In that sense, it is completely unprincipled. The only options it presents are the options that further the interests of the people in power. Its only purpose is to enable people with power to rule the majority through subtle manipulation instead of deadly force. Sometimes the majority fixes on a particular injustice it wants to correct, or a particular injustice it wants to perpetrate, and if the people in power want to stay in power, then they go along with it. Sometimes the people in power take a risk and move against majority opinion, but more often they don’t; the inherent imprecision and inaccuracy of measuring public opinion, and the cyclical nature of elections, make it worthwhile to take such risks. Truth is not under consideration in these scenarios.
Several years ago, I decided that if voting is simply a way of participating in a census, then there is nothing wrong with voting according to my gut feelings from the choices I was given. This was a huge insight for me: I could move with the herd in support of democracy rather than protest its mindlessness by voting third party. Even though I could not identify with a group, I could move with it instead of standing detached from it, like some kind of omniscient narrator.