28 September 2011
'Voting is worthless'
In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kulish contemplates a worldwide wave of protest spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to encompass India and Israel, Spain and Wall Street. He asks whether the young people leading these protests in the democracies are actually repudiating democracy, while it's clear that the real problem, as perceived by the protesters, is a failure of representative democracy. A Spanish protester claims membership in the first generation to realize that "voting is worthless." A "crisis of legitimacy" is declared when "we don't think they [i.e. elected representatives] are doing anything for us." Around the world, it's assumed that politicians and parties are more responsive to money and special interests than to the masses and the common good. While that charge is hard to refute, what do demonstrations and "occupations" like that under way on Wall Street do about it? Not every public place is Tahrir Square, where crowds can actually drive a government out of power. Representative governments retain too much of their traditional legitimacy to collapse as easily as the morally hollow Mubarak regime. Worse for the youngsters, many others in every democracy in this age of austerity see no failure of democracy in an unresponsive government. They say that government should not do "anything for us," and that we should not expect or demand it to do so. They see the protesters in their tent cities, their three-dimensional chat rooms and similar bubbles as nothing more than sore, spoiled losers -- and that impression is only enhanced when the protesters complain that the game is rigged. In countries with established democratic traditions, as opposed to Egypt's past parody, protesters cannot expect to stand aside and watch the establishment collapse before their eyes. There remain two choices: vote or fight. Protests like those Kulish describes are not exactly useless -- they often have great consciousness-raising potential -- but are they substitutes for voting or fighting? It's too soon to tell, but I remain skeptical.