REV. STEPHEN H. PHELPS FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Imagine a consumer economy with these rules:
* For any particular product—shoes, lawnmowers, canned tuna, etc.—only two brands may be offered. Other brands on display behind the glass are not for sale.
* When a customer steps into a store to find a product, she must purchase one of the two brands. She may not leave empty-handed unless she agrees to forgo searching elsewhere for the product for two years, when the same rules will apply.
In the land of the free, we would not stand for such restrictions, right? Un-American! Communistic! we'd shout. Why, if two companies got to split 100% of the market, they would take no risks. To capture maximum market share, their products would turn out similar as soap. Quality would sink, but not the price, for no matter what shoddy merchandise they sent to the shelves, the consumer would still have to buy it.
Well, America, this is the system we have installed in the brain stem of our government. Come election time, only two brands are on offer and we generally have to buy one or the other —or suffer the scolds who say "Those who don't vote can't complain." The notion that third par-ties are free to compete is mostly sung by people pitching the status quo, since politics is a money game run by rich citizens united to make it next to impossible for third parties to compete.
The marketing for our two electoral brands differs noticeably, but the ingredients—not so much. Quality deteriorates steadily. Prices explode. All the shelf space is bought, so even when the people are set on seeing a big change in policy—real gun control, for example, or real health care, or immigration reform—nothing happens. With few exceptions, politicians offer no leadership and pay attention only to the interests of their brand, not their nation. American democracy is a Potemkin village shadowing a nation in decay and the suffering of tens of millions of its people. Capital is the only customer who gets seated and served.
Electoral politics in America is simply un-American.
Pole star for a lost nation.
The location of a star by which the American people might navigate out of these dangerous waters can be calculated. First, the star must be in the constellation of the First Amendment. Right-wing majorities on the Supreme Court hold that the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech to corporations, which, according to these judicial partisans of wealth, gives them the right to influence elections with any amount of money, regardless how such corruption drives us toward ruin. These men will control the Court for a long time, so the star must move within these bounds. Second, since money in politics is the black hole swallowing our democracy, the star must be shining far away from the corporate campaign finance nebulae. Finally, the guiding star must be visible to the naked eye. It cannot be a revolution or a hope for social enlightenment supposed to exist beyond the rim of human nature or human time.
If there is a solution this side of disaster, it will include those elements. We know that power concedes nothing without a demand. Therefore, we must demand that our politics be worked out in a genuine free market of thought. Try this free idea. Suppose the people had the power to say No—to vote for “None of the Above.” If that option was on the ballot for a given office, and if it tallied better than all the other candidates, then, in the same way we leave a shoe store that can’t get us what we want, and take our buying power elsewhere, we need to be able to leave the voting booth—with power. If No One is the people’s choice, no one gets to fill that office.
How the No vote would work
If voters choose No One for an office, then a new election is scheduled, eight weeks out. The parties may re-run failed candidates, but if they do, a third-party candidate has the edge in the re-scheduled election. In practice, few will run the risk of the voters’ rejection a second time.
Regardless how many times a contest is re-scheduled after a No vote, the people can still vote for “No One.”
An incumbent continues in office until a successor is elected and installed. This provides continuity in government, and puts a check on facile use of the No vote, since choosing No One does give an unwanted incumbent a few more weeks in office.
What happens under the influence of the No vote
A. Voter participation increases. People who are disgusted by mediocre politicians finally have a reason to go to the polls. Now how you vote is how you complain.
B. Candidates clearly differentiate their positions. Similar candidates are similarly easy to reject; better to lose on principle than for having none. On the flip side, when candidates clearly articulate different positions, voters hardly need the No vote; democracy can work.
C. Big money gets scared. Everybody knows, especially candidates, that big money tries to buy both candidates—six chips on red, four on blue—certain to get something in return. But big money cannot stand that their millions might melt into the maw of manipulation for nothing. With the No vote, this nightmare is a real threat. Now the people own the house and the house can sweep up all the chips and send big money home with empty pockets. The candidate the people finally elect is beholden to no one.
D. PACs collapse. When the people get a public servant beholden to no one, lobbyists can no longer turn politics into an ATM machine to pay their own fat salaries. Big money backs out of political action committees.
E. The length and expense of election campaigns shrink. Once the people feel the relief of just one eight-week campaign (the norm in many nations), everyone loses the stomach— and the purse—for the 12 to 24 month ordeal we now suffer through.
F. Qualified candidates with limited finances become viable. Third parties compete with the depth of their proposals, not their pockets, while billionaires’ stocks are no longer used to take the people in, because the people take stock of the billionaires first, and toss the nuts.
G. The hammerlock of incumbency on money and media is broken.
If the people pulled the No vote lever just a few times, it would begin to work the way an “invisible fence” works on a dog. Those electrified perimeter devices efficiently persuade a dog to stay in the yard by sending a painful jolt of juice at the collar. This is for the dog’s own good, of course, and the neighborhood’s. Soon enough, the dog learns the boundaries and the apparatus rarely hurts the hound again. But it is always ON. In the same way, after a few shocks to the political system, parties and candidates would learn to stay in the yard of real democracy, serving the people so the people don’t have to jolt them with the No vote very often.
Of course, politicians and their owners presently have no incentive to strengthen democracy. Without the No vote, it seems, we’ll never have the No vote, though feisty citizens with nothing left to lose could put it to a referendum. Maybe No One knows what democracy looks like yet.
Copyright Stephen Phelps for BuzzFlash at Truthout