Interpreting elections is a national spectator sport, offering as many “meanings” as there arc board-certified spin doctors. Nevertheless, all of these disparate revelations, insights, and brilliant interpretations share a common, unthinking vision: elections, despite their divisive, contentious character, exist to facilitate citizen power over government. Whether ineptly or adeptly, honestly or dishonestly, government is supposed to be subjugated via mass electoral participation. This is, it might be said, The Great Democratic Belief of Popular Sovereignty.
Less understood, though hardly less significant, is that control flows the opposite way: elections permit government’s effective management of its own citizens. The modern state’s authority, its vast extractive capacity, its ability to wage war, its ever-growing power to regulate our lives, requires constant reinvigoration via the ballot box. Moreover, and even less obvious, properly administered elections promote cohesiveness, not acrimonious division. Indeed, this periodic reaffirmation of the political covenant may be elections’ paramount purpose, relegating the actual choice among Tweedledee, Tweedledum candidates to mere historical details. Like the atmosphere, this phenomenon appears nearly invisible, escaping both popular attention and scrutiny from talking-head television pundits. Even scholars, those investigating civic matters of profound obscurity, with few exceptions (particularly my former colleague, Ben Ginsberg) are neglectful. Put succinctly, marching citizens off to vote—independent of their choice—is a form of conscription to the political status quo. Election day, like Christmas or Yom Kippur, is the high holiday, a day of homage and reaffirmation, in the creed of the modern state.
Those at the Constitutional Convention well understood this conscriptive function. Though the Founders arc now fashionably branded as unrepresentative elitists who distrusted the downtrodden masses and oppressed women and toilers of color, what they never doubted was the political usefulness of elections. James Wilson and Elbridge Gerry openly acknowledged that a vigorous federal government required extensive popular consent, freely given by the ballot. Voters could not, and should not, guide policy, but without periodic popular authorization, how could the national government efficiently collect taxes, compel obedience to its laws, solicit military recruits or gain loyalty? This is what “no taxation without representation” is all about: the ritual of consent. Elections, however tumultuous or corrupt, bestowed legitimacy far better and more cheaply than brute force, bribery, appeals to divine right, or any alternative. Opposition to the direct elections of senators, predictably, arose from state sovereignty advocates—allowing citizens to vote for such a prominent national office could only enhance centralism.
Elections as a means of state aggrandizement, not popular control of government, was clearly grasped during the 19th century’s march toward universal suffrage. Today’s liberal vision of common folk clamoring “empowerment” via the vote is much overdrawn; extension of the suffrage was often “topdown.” The modern, centralized bureaucratic state and plebiscitary elections are, by necessity, intimately connected. To Napoleon III and Bismarck the freshly enfranchised voter was the compliant participant in their push toward unified state authority. Casting the national ballot liberated ordinary citizens from the influences of competitors—the church, provincial notables, kinfolk, and champions of localism. Elections soon became essential ceremonies of national civic induction, a process ever-further extended as wars evolved into expensive million-man national crusades.
Modern dictatorships are especially taken with elections, typically combined with some form of compulsory voting, as means of state domination. The Soviet Union’s notorious single-party elections with 99+ percent turnout are the paradigmatic but hardly unique example. Many African nations boast of near unanimous turnout to endorse their beloved kleptocratic leader. The Pinochet government of Chile even went so far as to make nonvoting punishable by three months in prison and a $150 fine. While it is tempting to dismiss such choice-less, forced-march elections as shams, the investment of precious state funds and bureaucratic effort confirms that elections are far more than mechanisms of citizen control of government.
In general, the electoral process, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship, performs this citizen domestication function in various ways, but let us examine here only three mechanisms. To be sure, the connection between state aggrandizement and elections is not guaranteed, and much can go astray. Nevertheless, over time the two go together. The first mechanism might be called psychological co-optation via participation; I take part, cast my vote, therefore I am implicated. All of us have been “victims” of this technique beginning, no doubt, as children. Recall, for example, when mom wished your acquiescence to visit hated Aunt Nelly. Despotically demanding compliance, though possible in principle, was too costly. Instead, mom “democratically” discussed alternatives with you, including cleaning house or going to the ballet. Given such choices, you “freely” opted for visiting Nelly, and your subsequent complaints were easily met with “you freely decided.”
Such co-optive manipulation extends beyond devious parenting; it is the essence of modern management psychology. Beginning in the 1920’s, industrial psychologists realized that “worker involvement” usefully gained cooperation, especially when confronting unpleasant choices. Let workers conspicuously offer their “input” and they will be far more malleable. Internal “selling” to oneself flows from public choice. Personal participation need not even occur—it is the formal opportunity to add one’s two cents, or the involvement of others, that is important. Provided executives define the range of options and control decision-making rules, this “worker empowerment” benefits, not subverts, management. That manipulative inclusion can be labeled “democratic” and “enlightened” and flatters “worker insight” is wonderful public-relations icing on the cake.
This process applies equally to elections. Recall the 1968 presidential contest—a highly divisive three-way race of Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace in which the winner failed to gain a popular majority. Nevertheless, despite all the divisiveness, Ben Ginsberg and I discovered that views of national government, its responsiveness and concern for citizens, became more favorable following the election among voters than among nonvoters. This was also true among those choosing losing candidates. Involvement transcended and overpowered the disappointment of losing. Even a nasty, somewhat inconclusive campaign “juiced” citizen support for government. The pattern is not unique—the election ceremony improves the popularity of leaders and institutions regardless of voting choice.
Elections are also exercises in “Little Leagueism” to help prop up the political status quo. That is, potentially dangerous malcontents are involved in safe, organized activity under responsible adult supervision rather than off secretly playing by themselves. All things considered, better to have Lenin get out the vote, solicit funds, ponder polls, circulate petitions, or serve in Congress. This is equally true in democracies or dictatorships—regular electoral activity facilitates “conventionality” (regardless of ideology) among those who might otherwise drift to the dangerous, revolutionary edge. This is especially true where bizarre groups overall constitute a relatively small minority. At a minimum, humdrum details and ceaseless busy work hardly leaves any time for sitting around a cafe plotting revolution.
Even if all potential revolutionaries are not “domesticated” via the election process, the easy availability of elections helps keep the peace. Why risk mayhem when public employment by stuffing ballot boxes is so simple? The 1960’s Black Power movement is the perfect poster child. The urban guerrilla movement back then seemed imminent—the infatuation with Franz Fanon’s celebration of violence and similar mumbojumbo rhetoric, the macho allure of automatic weapons, and the gleeful “in-your-face” public para-militarism demeanor. Urban riots were everywhere; Newark and Detroit had become virtual garrison states. Comparisons with Northern Ireland or Lebanon were not absurd.
Nevertheless, the pedestrian seduction of public office easily overcame this intoxication with violence. The Malcolm X Democratic Club and similar entities suddenly materialized while numerous cleaned-up revolutionary agitators entered “the system” as “progressive Democrats,” often occupying positions set aside for minorities. The “Black Mayor” became institutionalized. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, its extensions, and generous subsequent interpretations made black electoral mobilization a national government priority. The federal registrar served as the neighborhood convenience store for “selling out.” Within a decade, the once-familiar “revolutionary” agitator spewing forth cliches about insurrection was a political antique. By the 1980’s, it was impossible for a “take-to-the-hills” Black Power revolutionary even to think about competing with elections.
The transformation of revolutionary “Black Power” into humdrum conventionality highlights the third way elections domesticate potential disruption: tangible inducement (or bribery, in plain English) to malcontents. The “cooling out” via granting a piece of the action is a time-honored American tradition, from 19th-century populists and socialists to the I960’s antiwar movement. Entering “the system,” at least in highly permeable American politics, wonderfully corrupts revolutionary ardor. At a minimum, rabble-rousers in remission must come out of hiding to collect their salary, sit in their offices, boss around subordinates, issue press releases, accept financial contributions, and, if necessary, bounce a check. If Maxine Waters (D-CA) seems like an out-of-control ballistic missile, imagine her unchecked by the obligations of high public office. As a comfortable congresswoman, she is far more constrained than if preaching the street-corner revolutionary gospel or a tenured professor with an endowed chair. Ditto for the thousands of others contemplating revolutionary violence but who now owe their prestige and income to elective office. Let the most ambitious attend endless dull committee meetings. The very existence of this electoral opportunity, apart from bodies enrolled, is critical—the prospect of a few well paid prestigious sinecures, like playing for the NBA, can work wonders on millions.
This relationship between rising electoral involvement and the demise of 1960’s-style revolutionary radicalism helps to explain our collective blind eye toward the extensive corruption in “minority politics.” Why do the Protectors of Democracy, from the ACLU to Common Cause, seem so unconcerned with racial gerrymandering, districts comprised largely of illegal aliens, abuses of absentee ballots, outright selling of votes and other nefarious customs when such practices bring blacks and Hispanics to office? More must be involved than just having Third World standards. The answer is simple, though seldom articulated: rotten boroughs, our versions of autonomous homelands, are part of the bargain to guarantee domestic peace. The actual outcome is irrelevant; what is important is that up-and-comers, would-be “community leaders,” are brought into “the system.” Fundamentally, shipping a few dozen would-be agitators off to legislatures or city councils, even felons and dope addicts, hardly puts the national enterprise at serious risk; consider it midnight basketball for the civic-minded. If Washington, D.C., can “survive” Marion Barry, the entire nation is bulletproof.
Elections are but one of many tools of social control and, as with all tools, mere use does not guarantee success. Critical details of administration and organization must be attended to— matters of timing, suffrage, modest enforcement of anticorruption laws, countervailing power within government, and so on. Nor do elections come with an unlimited lifetime warranty to remedy deep political problems. It is doubtful whether elections would solve much in Bosnia or Rwanda, while the jury is still out for Russia and South Africa. Elections are wondrous, circuitous devices, but not all-powerful magic.
Having described this little understood but critical purpose, what lessons can be learned? Two in particular stand out. Most evidently, if one wishes to maintain one’s ideological purity, remain uncontaminated in the quest for a higher truth, avoid elections. Those seeking to transform society via “playing the game” will inevitably be metamorphosed by the game itself. This lesson should be heeded by everyone from fundamentalist religious groups to those promoting the redistribution of political power in the United States. Purity and empowerment via elections do not mix. The loss of revolutionary zeal among the formerly faithful, an inclination toward “wheeling and dealing,” and being comfortable with petty enticements need not result from flawed character; pedestrian opportunism comes with the territory. If this seems farfetched, one only has to review our history virtually every splinter group, no matter how ideologically noble or distinct, that ventured into the electoral arena, has been mainstreamed and today exists only as a domesticated, digested fragment within the Democratic or Republican parties.
The surrender of purity via electoral absorption need not, despite advice to the contrary, be a particular good deal. There are costs, and no guarantee of gain, for getting into bed with the state. You might even get a serious rash. Groups that have devoted themselves extensively to electoral achievement, especially for economic advancement, have seldom, if ever, accomplished much beyond politics itself. This has surely been the case with black infatuation with electoral success since the mid-1960’s. Despite all the voting rights laws, federal court interventions, registration drives, and elected black officials, blacks as a group continue to lag behind whites on most indicators of accomplishment. In some ways, conditions have deteriorated. By contrast, Asians and Indians have made remarkable strides without any electoral empowerment. Like polo, electoral politics may be a worthwhile sport only after first becoming economically successful. How this plunge into electoral politics will play out for today’s moral issues—abortion, pornography, religion, sexuality—remains to be seen.
The second lesson is the converse: if domestication is the objective, get the would-be revolutionaries, extremists, grumblers, and malcontents enrolled. Are antigovernment militias posing a problem? Take a clue from the Motor Voter bill and allow voter registration at all firearms and survival equipment stores. Voting, even corrupt voting, should be as convenient as possible. Rig the district boundaries so that leaders must serve their time in state capitals and Washington, D.C., consorting with generous lobbyists. Make those with talent precinct captains, election judges, convention delegates, county commissioners, and paid advisors to established political parties. Within the decade the militiamen will be as threatening as an agitated American Legion post forced to give up its bingo.
In sum, as we observe the 1996 campaign, we should not be distracted by the details. Far more goes on than selecting candidates. Despite the acrimony and divisiveness, all the talk of a people freely exercising sovereignty, we are witnessing a ceremony for reinvigorating the covenant between citizen and state. All sorts of would-be troublemakers are being domesticated and brought into “the system.” Those who attempt to escape will be brought to the attention of the Department of Justice.