Dez 10 2009
I have been thinking recently about the declining voter turnout that we see today in the democratic elections of Europe and America. I think part of the cause is that “the election” has become a great cathedral, like Chartres. Both are public icons of institutions (Democracy, the Church), and both are widely praised in the West as “better than the alternatives,” though few can offer a compelling reason why; both were installed at great effort by ancestors with unknown faces in response to issues that are no longer truly fathomed; both evoke awe, and are inspiring to gaze upon, but are rarely attended by people possessed with the fervor of their original visitors; and in both cases the institutions they represent are attended by a specialized priesthood speaking mostly to itself and for its own benefit, in a language imperfectly understood and suffused with archaisms.
Voters enjoy their freedom, but no longer see the connection between freedom and elections any more than they see themselves connected to the throngs that gravitated to the basilica of yesteryear, living in a society that essentially orbited that focal point. This is to say that people have lost track of the link between liberty and democracy. Their freedom is guaranteed (somehow – they know this, though none can imagine why, beyond, “I’ve never known anything else, so it must be so”). And because freedom is not perceived to be at risk, today’s elections are a cold dinner, to the point of seeming non-nutritious, maybe even unwholesome – unlike the contests swirling around erstwhile democracies, which had to actually get in there and throw off kings and tyrants. Many voters see the polling process as a load of leftover symbols, sustenance that long since either putrefied or mummified, and talk-talk in ancient tongues.
Enter so discreetly those who will take the public freedom away, because freedom is power – and the ambitious agent will usurp it and concentrate it in himself if not prevented from doing so. How, in a modern democratic state, does one gather freedom – or its control – all to oneself, leaving others with none? How does one reassert despotism, while extolling the virtues of free elections and democratic principles? Not so difficult really… leave the elections in place while sapping away choice. Voters will scarcely notice as their choices grow progressively more feathery, in small steps more diaphanous, finally to evaporate entirely, like the last wisp of mist in the hard, hot light of a new day. Can’t happen? Well – predictable as dawns are – new days come often in the world of states. It is the state of the world, and always has been.
How to defend against this electoral stealth attack? Curiously, and with great justice to poetry, it is by voting. The trick though is that one (everyone, actually) must vote soon enough… in elections that still contain choice. No choice… no voice, regardless of how many ballots are cast. Failing this… freedom, like elections, will become ever more like the cathedral: an ornate shell enclosing a volume of echoes – the destination of tourists gaping at the vestige of an earlier era, rather than the destiny of social architects building for participants and posterity.
Or we could erect a monument in the capitol… a Tomb of the Unknown Voter. But probably less than 12% of eligible visitors would turn out.