As a Canadian living in America, electoral frustration and political impotence are de rigeur for me. Like you natives, we foreign nationals are swamped by television advertisements, furious campaigning and a tempest of debate; yet only we are denied the sole cathartic moment of the entire process, that empowering lever-pulling theophany at the vote-casting machine. However, an increasing number of my American friends now display precisely the same irritation, political ex-pats in their own land. This isn’t so hard to understand: For the past few months, virtually everyone I know was either scrambling to deify one of two startlingly similar candidates, or steadily building immunity to a mounting barrage of persuasion.
You Americans do confuse me. Your fanatical devotion to a two-party system is alien to me, and the bounding of debate in this country is spectacular. The one candidate who routinely embraces nontraditional views was drummed off the stage, and the mere mention of Nader still drives many Democrats to frenzy. Perhaps I haven’t lived here long enough, and my indoctrination is not yet complete; nevertheless, slamming a candidate for daring to run, daring to “steal” votes from the established left, seems to me a complete mockery of democracy. Sure, in Canada our ballots occasionally read like comic strips: Each riding sports its own idiosyncratic independent and playfully named candidates, and established outliers — like the Marijuana Party and the Natural Law Party (which endorses “Yogic flying” as a panacea for world troubles) — always command a few hopeful votes. Is a vote cast for the Marijuana Party entirely trivial? Perhaps. But is any vote for a fresh new candidate automatically a squandered ballot? At the very least, this certainly isn’t up to the sitting government to decide: After all, self-perpetuating governments resilient to removal are the antithesis of democracy.
What strikes me about voter apathy here is the popular notion among undecided voters that no matter who wins, nothing will really change. Pause to consider this, and you will find it remarkably, fundamentally true. Neither Bush nor Kerry even suggests it was incorrect to invade Iraq. Neither will so much as fondle the grossly obese Pentagon budget, much less combat the actual obesity epidemic in America by regulating the food industry. Neither will provide significant respite to the working poor; neither has suggested a serious welfare system, and neither would dare to offer the much-demonized “socialized health care” Canadians enjoy (and I do mean enjoy). Neither will deal with Cuba, yet both are happy to praise China as an emerging power on the right track. Neither will repeal the first-strike policy governing the thousands of nuclear warheads currently standing on 15-minute alert. Neither will submit to world government in any meaningful way, and, too constrained by the need to satisfy the interests of major corporations, neither candidate can afford to espouse real environmental reform. I will not suggest that all of these things must necessarily change, but if you happen to care deeply about any one of these issues, you’re out of luck: They’re simply not on the table. Your choices are abortion, taxes and health-care premiums. End of debate.
If you’re peculiar enough to fixate entirely on stem-cell regulation above any other issue, congratulations: The topics debated in this election no doubt seemed very relevant to you. And while embryonic research is an important concern, to subsume the preceding list of glaring injustice to a freezer full of cells is pure lunacy. And I’m a biochemist.
The fundamental agreement between Democrats and Republicans on so many key issues begs a question, and I’m going to ask it: What happens if we consider both parties as the dual faces of a single social elite? Well, we’d expect airwaves blanketed with propaganda, careful selection of certain topics for debate, collusion and taboo avoidance of other issues, and a strong resistance to any outside political challengers. In times of serious political decision-making, such as the weeks following 9/11 or the beginning of war in Iraq, we’d expect these two parties to rally together, uniting in common interest at the very time when stakes are high and debate should be most vigorous. Arguably, supporting either party does carry with it silent support of a great number of highly questionable socioeconomic assumptions. It all gets very Orwellian, very fast: The end result is a maelstrom of mudslinging and circular reasoning that leaves the average citizen overwhelmed, exhausted, isolated and understandably unenthusiastic about endorsing any candidate. Voter turnout consistently hovers around 50 percent.
Meanwhile, disproportionately enthusiastic (and puzzlingly named) “get out the vote” campaigns combat apathy by flogging the benighted masses to the polls. I’m all in favor of easy access to the polls, but the tactics employed in pursuit of this year’s projected record turnout are truly startling: The New York Times reported Tuesday that gangs of canvassers employing “knock-and-drag” coercion scoured neighborhoods across the country in rented vans, hustling unwitting citizens to polling stations. Being really controversial for a moment, let’s allow that perhaps not every American shares the views of either presidential contender, and let’s further allow that perhaps these citizens are not lazy but are actually unwilling to endorse one or the other as their elected leader. Given this possibility, how will historians view the knock-and-drag gangs, the free tacos, extra credit in courses and other perks that accompany the rote endorsement of the two-party system? (I’m not making those up, by the way.) Volunteers, answer me this — is it really your civic duty to coerce others into a lose-lose decision by endorsing a leader they would not otherwise support?
For a nation that prides itself as a pillar of democracy and freedom, debate seems sharply constrained here, and your real choices as citizens are very limited. Of course, the standard rebuttal to all this is to dismiss political hegemony as a response to public will, claiming that corporations and parties merely give the citizens what they want. This is a convenient fiction and a pleasing one, and will persist so long as no real options exist to assay it. After all, it’s impossible to know how this election might have turned out, divorced from the months of partisan spin and incessant harping on carefully selected topics.
So who cares what a Canadian thinks about your elections, anyway? Probably no one, but I ask what difference your own views made yesterday if they didn’t fit nicely into one of the two glossy political receptacles available to you. Likely, you found yourself either casting a guilty vote for a doomed candidate, or like so many others, just disenfranchised, unsatisfied and reluctant to vote at all, hounded to the polls by fanatical and predatory canvassers. So go ahead, dismiss these views as the crazed ramblings of a foreign national. Like you, I’m just glad I don’t have to see “I’m George W. Bush, and I approved this message” ever again.
Michael Seringhaus is a second-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.