I FIGURED JUNE was a good time to go on a trip because, honestly, my practical role in politics is over until November. Like many millions of Americans who are political, I grapple daily with the fact that as a citizen I am increasingly unnecessary. No matter what my wishes, I must admit that, with the primary election in my state long over, there’s little left for me to do.
This is partly because I live in “a captive state” (and in a heavily Democratic city) that, come November, can be counted on to go a certain way. If I want to see a negative campaign ad or some old-time campaign-trail mud-slinging, I’ve got to visit Unedited Politics (a fine online repository of contemporary political video, by the way). It’s sad when watching second-hand commercials is what political involvement comes down to.
Don’t get me wrong: I always volunteer for candidates and give money, too. My husband and I purchase gobs of campaign buttons to give away, because this basic currency of political attachment no longer circulates as freely as it used to.
Voters still want to be involved as much as ever, but campaigning—which once depended on face-to-face social relationships—has become much more impersonal and scientific. Yes, we still rely on social networks to some extent, but this reliance is increasingly mediated by the commercial and technological tools campaigns love to use. Campaigns no longer build social relationships—they just want to use mine.
This, and the fact that only a human can “pull the lever” in a voting booth, are the only things saving me from political extinction.
Otherwise, ordinary citizens are problematic in a political system where cash procures and arranges everything else. Money comes into political coffers from the checkbooks of large entities and individuals; it goes out to consultants, mass-mailing experts, ad agencies, staffers, and media companies. It all gets spent trying to connect the untouched and the untouchables: apathetic voters and their potential leaders.
This heavily capitalized and bureaucratic system overlays original democratic rituals that are still practiced, but with greater care, today: stumping, pressing the flesh, baby-kissing, even treating. The messy, ribald rituals immortalized in works like George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 painting The County Election (below) would horrify us today, but the personal and social pleasures once part of politics were exactly what used to keep voters engaged.
Besides the déclassé (and male-dominated) nature of this scene, it is striking for its openness and communality. Candidates today are too worried about inefficiency and terrorism to contemplate taking part in anything so ordinary. Ironically, the very success of our political model is killing off participatory democracy. The last time I volunteered to work on a presidential campaign, I was encouraged to use the Internet and work remotely from home—an efficient arrangement that connected everyone but me.
Voters clamor for greater “say,” but power moves farther up the ladder, anyway. As entire freeways close for the safe passage of official motorcades, and staffers orchestrate campaigns from within closed compounds, the disconnect in our body politic is likely to continue.
Images: George Caleb Bingham’s The Verdict of the People (1854-55, top)
and The County Election (1852, bottom),
both owned by the St. Louis Art Museum, from this source and this.
Susan Barsy, The Closed-Door Campaign, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, Political Affections, Our Polity.
Sasha Issenberg, Abolish the Secret Ballot, The Atlantic Monthly.
Walter Kirn, Knowledge of the Future is Messing with the Present, The Altantic Monthly.
Susan, I will develop a motorized lever that will pull down the voting booth arm for you, so you can
be completely set free. (eee gads girl, where do you vote, anyhow?) William Komaiko
Bill–please do not nudge me any further toward obsolescence!!!! Thank you very much (and happy 4th)–SB
I think the tone of your article was pretty pessimistic~~~too much so. I am a voter like you but kind of enjoy all the political hoopla that is thrown at me via the differing types of media out there. It makes me feel “important” which indeed every vote is.
Frankly, Sam, I too feel the petulance running through this article, but perhaps that was what made it worth publishing. It truthfully captured an aspect of my attitude toward politics, and it connected that attitude to a certain set of facts about how campaigns are conducted, and to the types of relationships that are likely to exist between a voter and her or his representative in a society like ours.
Sometimes I don’t like how I appear on the page, but if what’s there is true, it’s like a catalytic event that prompts me to improve.
Susan, I have not had time to read this, but I love your use of the Bingham paintings. An artist dear to my heart.
Kitty–Thanks for writing in. The Bingham paintings are beautiful, rowdy, unsentimental things–it struck me anew, looking at them, how dark they are. I guess he knew from life, being that rare thing, the painter-politician. SB