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Trading democracy

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Voting – the marker of democracy U.S. nation builders boast about, has dwindled significantly at home. In the 2000 election only 55 percent of eligible Americans voted. Participation rates have dramatically decreased in political conventions and campaigns. Less people take the time to watch candidate speeches and follow the campaigns. In the book “The Vanishing Voter,” Thomas Patterson asserted several theories to reform the structure of electoral politics to combat systemic inequalities and alienation from politics. While I agree with his points, another force may be as much or more applicable to low voter turnout.

We have been duped into believing that political democracy is bunk, inefficient, corrupt and unimportant to our daily lives. In a society such as ours, the interests of wealth and power use their every resource to design social structures to serve their own ends. Additionally, to ensure their success, the ruling class comes up with seemingly sound reasons for these societal institutions. In regards to political democracy, powerful interests directly benefit from low voter turnout and decline of public participation through unions, protests and mass coalitions for social change.

Its neo-classical economists, big business heads and conservative politician proponents have built up the free market economic system as the true source of freedom, individuality, expression and democracy. Through marketing and new management theory, the free market windbags have subverted all the traits of democracy to legitimize its existence. Instead of going to the polls, we should show our support for Pepsi over Coke at the 7/11. Instead of reading campaign news to make educated voting decisions, we can peruse Consumer Reports to find the most reliable car ever. Instead of getting involved with a campaign, people rather cast their lot for themselves as independent sellers of storage containers or makeup. Instead of voting for the president, people would rather spend their dollars to decide the Billboard Top 40. “One dollar, one vote” is the new democracy, and people fall for it every time, much to the delight of free market advocates.

Free market gurus want us to believe our actions in the marketplace have direct and meaningful influence. By buying our favorite brand of toilet paper, we are actually making a statement in favor of soft absorbency. It seems business no longer primarily sells products. Through the focus on brands, they produce useful – and a lot of useless – products, yet are proclaiming to sell style, image and human characteristics.

If you come from the neo-liberal view that the free market offers us more choices and freedom than the Democrats and Republicans, you are sorely mistaken. Writer and historian of business culture, Thomas Frank writes, “Markets are fundamentally not democratic … The logic of business is coercion, monopoly and the destruction of the weak, not ‘choice’ or ‘service’ or universal affluence.” On the supply side, workers receive starvation wages (or none at all), labor under dangerous conditions, and have extreme job insecurity due to capitally mobile factories. On the demand side, consumers have no say in how products are produced in regards to health, environmental, and labor issues. For example, growth hormones that are banned in other developed nations like Great Britain and Canada for their link to sickness in cows and cancer in human by-product consumers are still used in the United States.

Bill Gates and the Walton family could not care less if you and I have jobs when we graduate, which is not a certainty since 10 percent of the class of 2004 is unemployed. It is not Warren Buffett’s problem if citizens cannot afford adequate health care and food simultaneously. We do not get to elect or impeach the people who control the corporations and dominate the markets that have such direct effects on our lives. Business deals on terms of payment – not on inalienable rights and citizenship. The free market serves only a small section of special interests to maintain power and leverage to do anything – often endangering our lives and the future of the planet – for profit.

The free market neither protects nor encourages our existence. Embracing it over sources of true democracy harms our liberties and our society. Voting will not cure everything, to be sure, yet the right to suffrage is real power. No wonder Americans throughout our history have sacrificed so much, even their lives, to participate in the selection of our leaders and representatives. We can start today, by registering to vote, getting others registered and participating in the most important election of our lifetimes. Democracy cannot be a bought, sold and traded like a commodity; it is the right of all citizens to access and influence as Americans.

Kamaria Porter is a junior history major. Her column appears every other Wednesday. She can be contacted at kporter@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.