A response to Cody Hipskind, part 2

Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The first part of my response is here.

Using an electoral campaign as a focus for political organization and action

Electoral campaigns are like military campaigns. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns can in principle be fought for good causes – causes that serve the greater good. But there is no reason to believe this is generally the case. Like military campaigns, electoral campaigns, at least those with any traction, are invariably led by an elite, for purposes determined by that elite, and with power in them held by that elite. Like in war, the masses are mobilized by the elite using sloganeering and propaganda rather than rational argumentation and once mobilized they play the role of canon fodder. In political campaigns, the masses are milked for their political and moral energy as well as for time, money and, eventually, votes. Yes – there could be benevolent elites who promote good causes, but these surely are the exception. Thus, as a rule, electoral campaigns serve elite purposes.

It might be objected that it would be easier to recruit the electorate to campaigns that serve the greater good. This, however, relies on the false assumption that people join political campaigns based on informed and considered analysis of their objectives and prospects. Just as is true about recruits to the military, a realistic assessment of the objectives, actions and consequences of the organization which one joins is rarely a major factor in the decision to join a campaign.

Even if one has successfully overcome the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of an electoral campaign and managed to send a democratically-minded delegate to an elected chamber, one has won a single contest. While one is busy with the effort of identifying a campaign worth supporting and then putting one’s precious spare time and energy into that campaign, a well-funded effort by a narrow interest group has broadcast its messages into the minds of millions and has co-opted promising candidates as well as those already in power. Rather than getting an effective platform, the rare democratically-minded delegate is ignored or painted in mass media as a lone lunatic.

So the fact that electoral campaigning may actually be one of the relatively more effective ways to promote democratic goals in an electoral system is really an indication of how dysfunctional that system is. With all its futility, an electoral campaign may actually be a relatively promising political activity in a system that is so thoroughly oligarchical.

The oligarchizing effects of electoral campaigning are largely effects of mass politics in general, where nominally egalitarian political relations in fact almost invariably result in hierarchical relations. Having no formal hierarchy is far from a guarantee of democracy. Contrary to liberal, Marxist and progressive dogmas, democracy in large groups is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. It does not just appear due to the good intentions and hard work of the members of the group. It needs to be designed and applied with care and rigor in order to exist and thrive.

3 Responses

  1. Good one, Yoram.

    One of the exemptions which you granted to the generality of the above: An organisation like GILT which explicitly does not want any decision power on political subject matter or on persons who shall be in power, an organisation which has the sole mission to design and implement processes for (rational) decision making by the Many and campaigns for voters to legitimise such a system, even if led by an somewhat elite which researches, develops and decides best processes: it decidedly serves not an elite but the Many.

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  2. I completely agree with Yoram here. I was a campaign manager and a candidate myself many times (I won in 10 of my elections). Campaigns and the mobilization involved are fundamentally non-democratic and do not enoble the participants. In countries like the U.S. with single seat winner-take all elections (no proportional representation), campaigns also inevitably promote cults of personality… seeking to forge an emotional link between campaigners and voters with the candidate, which is ultimately harmful to democracy and rational decision making.
    WITHIN an electoral framework (which we all are in), feelings of solidarity and the metaphor of fighting a battle are seen as positive, and may be the only way forward. But the goal is to change the game so that democracy itself can flourish (without the psychological manipulation of campaigns).

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  3. […] Cody Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and here. […]

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