Well, another primary has come and gone, with what is expected to be another near-record-low off-year turnout. In one of the region’s most powerful elected offices, King County Council, only one of the 13 seats—half of them up for vote—had anything even approaching a competitive race; in all of the others, incumbents ran with no or only token opposition. In the other high-profile offices, Seattle’s City Council, the at-large system of election virtually precludes anyone who can’t raise large sums of cash from taking their case to the voters; it’s considered an upset when someone who wasn’t the leading fundraiser in a contest is the leading vote-getter.
Compared to most other Western democracies, the US body politic is pretty badly diseased. Our levels of voter turnout are extraordinarily low, raising the question of just how few people would need to vote before the whole thing got called off as illegitimate. In a recent mayoral election in Dallas only 5 percent voted; 6 percent in Charlotte, 7.5 percent in San Antonio. In 1998 elections nationally, only 12 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted. Something like 98 percent of Congressional incumbents seeking reelection get it, often collecting huge campaign coffers (a.k.a. “bribes”) even when facing no opposition.
The “choices” given us are between two parties that are often indistinguishable, especially on economic issues. National politics in the US has for at least two generations been sold on a myth of meaningful difference between “conservative” and “liberal” ideologies. Both, ultimately, serve the same goal; political power, in the US and virtually every other country, is held by economic elites. The economic tension between liberal and conservative is the tension between those who want to use government to make government richer and those who want to use government to make the rich richer. Since the rich are the government, what this boils down to is a debate by those in power on which is the more efficient means of enriching themselves. Sometimes, as in the current boom, others are helped by political policies; sometimes, as with our ever-shrinking civil liberties, we are hurt. But ultimately, we are largely irrelevant.
People sense this, and sense the Waco-like contempt for us with which government is operated. Peoples’ more memorable personal experiences with government tend to be the negative ones; not just the tax bill, but the infringement on property rights or the casual contempt with which a DSHS bureaucrat treats a client.
Seattle: one-party town
At the local level, things are both better and worse. They’re worse because Seattle doesn’t even have the luxury of having two indistinguishable parties; it has one, and if you’re not a socially permissive liberal you won’t be represented in local government. The opposite holds true on the Eastside, where even anti-growth bomb-throwers like Brian Derdowski operate as Republicans. There, and in much of the rest of the state, the language of conservatism is mandatory.
Things are better, though, because in local politics it’s easier to have an impact and make a difference. Local politics is dominated by money, and someone like Thomas Stewart (GOP icon, picnic host, and chief illegal architect of Seattle’s districting vote a couple years ago) can make or break a career without too much thought.
But ideas matter, too. Charlie Chong was badly outspent when he beat Bob Rohan for a City Council seat in 1996; his one-year tenure on council, and the anti-downtown spirit he brought to his multiple campaigns, have defined council politics in this year’s election. In less visible races (school districts, the Port of Seattle) one or a few active citizens can make a huge difference.
So why vote?
Whether we like it or not, government and elected officials have come to represent a lot of negative things in recent years. The trend is to enact laws and programs that are destructive to most of us and enhance the comfort of a few elites. Those good things government does do—even such basics as education and infrastructure—are under constant attack. The bad things government does—oppressive laws and multiplying jails, stadiums and convention centers, taxes for the middle class and corporate welfare for the wealthy, green lights for pillage of our natural resources, and so on—it’s been doing at an escalating rate for 20 years now.
In that environment, voting—along with staying informed and community activism—is one of our few means of self-defense. I’m biased, of course, because I write about politics. It interests me. But ultimately, paying attention to the politics of a city, a state, a nation, is a form of standing up for my (and our) rights.
Governments have become extremely powerful institutions, through which great sums of money flow. Corporations and other monied interests who want some of that lucre have far greater ability to influence the decision-making process for public policy than the rest of us—with campaign donations to elect their favorites, armies of lawyers and accountants and lobbyists, and media spin specialists.
Against all this, we have each other, in the spare time left over from trying to live our lives, and we have the voices we can raise. The choices we’re given are often pathetic, the system flawed (proportional representation, for example, would be a vast improvement), but the electoral process is often the only time in which critical, well-hidden issues see the light of day. Voting can, at the local level at least, still make a difference.
Ultimately, our strengths are in our numbers; our power is in our community; and our appeal is not merely altruism, but our direct self-interest in creating better lives for everyone.