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It’s Time for an Honest Conversation About Why People Don’t Vote

People understand that voting alone will not magically change the system.

"The will of the people is a resounding vote of no confidence in our broken political system." (Image via Shutterstock)

The recent US election had the lowest voter turnout since World War II. Only 36 percent of eligible voters showed up to cast their vote – giving the Republicans a “grand majority” of garnered support that adds up to a measly one-sixth of the adult population. The will of the people is a resounding vote of no confidence in our broken political system. Two out of three of us were uninspired with their limited choice between the Party of Financial Elites and the Party of Financial Elites Lite.

Looked at another way, the jaw-dropping $3.6 billion spent to buy this election has only further distanced the majority of people from participating in a rigged system. Many of us already know about the flood of “dark money” that routinely distorts the electoral process. Most Americans know full well that our democracy is a farce. We live in a plutocracy where money buys elections and wealth rules supreme. We didn’t need political science scholars to do a massive study to show us this.

This understanding is the common thread that weaves disgruntled Tea Partiers, marginalized progressives, and frustrated libertarians into one American quilt. It is what brought millions together in shared sympathy during the Occupy protests back in 2011. We already know that elections have become an inadequate instrument for democracy on their own. What has yet to be said is what to do about it – how do people with such diverse ideological views (famous for making us interpret the facts differently) come together and replace the system with one that is more democratic, more pluralistic and more effective at solving the problems we all care about?

First off, we have to acknowledge that old political labels conceal more than they reveal. It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats, or even liberals versus conservatives. Yes, there are real ideological differences between these groups. And yet – when it comes to macro economics and regulation of the financial sector – a singular ideology permeates the upper echelons of power for both sides. Call it neoliberalism, or free market ideology, or the Washington Consensus. Regardless of the label used, this internally consistent approach to corporate rule goes unchallenged by either political party.

There is a singular (and secretive) political party calling all the shots. Martin Kirk at calls it the One Party Planet in a revolutionary pamphlet released today. He makes the case for how this unified ideology pulled off the largest secret coup in world history. Sometimes it operates through back room deals like the one recently exposed by Rolling Stone, where $9 billion was spent to silence the very people who could bring corrupt bankers to justice with evidence that the 2008-09 financial crisis was orchestrated as an inside job. Other times it arises in more subtle ways through the social conventions of “business-as-usual” across industries – like when tax havens get used to hide income from governments as a standard practice around the world.

The frames that divide us are the weapon of our common enemy. Every election cycle the same predictable “wedge issues” are hauled out – gun rights, abortion, religious freedom and wasteful government – to break the populace into manageable pieces so the One Planet Party gets an easy win. Books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States are littered with examples where divide-and-conquer strategies ignited flame wars between different victimized groups while the real culprits set up a Federal Reserve Bank and tinkered continuously in the shadowy bowels of the financial industry where no one was looking.

This is how they pulled off the greatest heist in history – the so-called banking “bail outs” from a financial crisis created by the very same beneficiaries who bought politicians for pennies on the dollar and gutted regulatory agencies while placing their own people at the helm of enforcement. It is also why Democrats and Republicans in high office are so similar in their views about economic orthodoxy. NAFTA was put in place during Clinton’s term. Bush rammed through the Patriot Act. Both extend the powers of corporations (and their military industrial branches that have infiltrated the defense sectors of our federal government) to deregulate markets, break up anti-capitalist protest movements and structure “trade” agreements that serve the elite at the expense of citizens the world over.

Said another way, a silent “Neoliberal Party” has taken the reins of all major political parties in the leading countries of the world. So naturally they have control over the economic heart of this global empire – the United States itself.

Global trend data shows that wealth inequality in many parts of the world was in decline from the 1940s to 1970s. Then, abruptly, the trajectory of economic development shifted as neoliberals gained control of executive posts in both the US and UK governments when Reagan and Thatcher were elected. In the subsequent decades, we have seen institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund push a coherent agenda of economic imperialism upon the developing nations of Africa, Asia and South America.

During this time, we also watched union busting, the outsourcing of labor and manufacturing (under the protection of “free trade” agreements), and an explosive growth in global poverty and inequality. The rich got richer while everyone else was taken for a ride. Now is the time to acknowledge this truth. If we are to take back our country here in the United States, we will need to know against whom we should unite. It isn’t the Republicans or the Democrats, though one has clearly aligned more with the neoliberal elites than the other.

We must stand together – at home and around the world – against the One Party Planet that has wrought so much havoc during its reign. And we must do so before the full effects of ecological decline jeopardize our collective prospects as a global civilization in the decades ahead. We have the tools necessary to do this. All that is missing is the collective will.

The citizens of this great country are smarter than the corporate media wants us to believe. A great majority of us have disengaged from the largely meaningless act of voting in national elections (though we continue to experiment with democracy at the state and local levels). We know what is going on. Now is the time for us to come together and do something about it.

For starters, we need to have an honest conversation about why people don’t vote. It isn’t that Democrats are bad communicators or that Republicans spend so much on attack ads (though both statements are true). These are symptoms that don’t go deep enough. A solution will only come when we look at root causes.

Many solutions do exist for this problem. Some are explored in the One Party Planet pamphlet mentioned above. We can organize around election reform, call a constitutional convention or engage in other political actions. My goal here is not to prescribe a course of action.

The American people are tired of experts telling them what to do, and I don’t want to inadvertently become part of the problem. My goal in writing this essay is simple: to state how it is important that we acknowledge the real cause of disengaged voters. These people are not stupid. They do care. What they don’t believe is that voting alone will fix the problem.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves that voting alone will somehow magically change a system that has been decades in the making. It must be dismantled and evolved into new configurations of civic participation and collective action.

But first, a simple act is required of us. We need to admit the truth. And then we need to respectfully talk to one another about what might be done about this problem.

Onward, fellow Americans.

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