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The Peculiarity of U.S. Politics

Richard Wolff Nov 9, 2010

The 2010 elections revealed yet again the peculiar habits of the U.S. electorate. The majority of eligible voters – about 60 percent – did not vote despite the months of endless media hype devoted to the campaigns, politicians, funding groups, and even to some of the issues they raised. Many elections were very close, thus pitting 20 percent of voters on one side against a roughly equal number on the other. The exit polls indicated that the overwhelmingly dominant issue on most actual voters’ minds was the ongoing economic crisis.

This dominant concern about the economic crisis continues to focus on electoral politics. The voters’ upset focuses primarily on unemployment and home foreclosures, secondarily on government priorities given to bailouts of banks and other corporations blamed for producing the crisis. Yet those voters seem totally uninterested in taking any action – political, electoral, or otherwise – against the chief, direct agents of their upset. For example, the rise of unemployment since the current crisis began (December, 2007) has overwhelmingly occurred in private employment. Those who fired almost all of the 8 million US workers added to the unemployment rolls are private capitalist employers. Yet voters concerned about unemployment focus their rage and action against government and thus the party in power as if private capitalist employers were passive by-standers rather than active agents causing unemployment for their own profit-driven reasons.

The same applies to home foreclosures. The active agents there are banks and other holders of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. They are the people going into courts to initiate and pursue foreclosure actions. Yet voters seem again to literally overlook actions against those agents and instead rage against government and politicians in power.

The same applies yet again to government bailouts of the banks and other corporations since it was their private boards of directors that pleaded for and provided massive public support for those bailouts. Those boards also threatened the direst economic consequences – for everyone – if the government did not bail them out with huge sums in ways they specified.

Needless to say, capitalist employers of both financial and non-financial enterprises must heartily support voters thinking and acting in these ways. It permits the employers’ private-profit driven actions – those that cause social problems – to be blamed not on them but instead on politicians.

Finally, this peculiar syndrome of US politics may also help to explain one reason why majorities of the eligible population usually don’t vote at all. Perhaps they see through the peculiarity. That is, they grasp that it makes little difference – especially in economic matters – which politicians win elections. They understand that switching parties and politicians leaves untouched the actual, direct agents making the key decisions about jobs, wages, and prices that determine our economic situations. So in 2008 and now again in 2010 when those economic issues have been uppermost on peoples’ minds, the voting minority gets excited about denouncing the government and switching parties, while the non-voting majority sees elections as pointless and irrelevant. The fact that the same electoral focus of voters drove a party switch in one direction in 2008 and in the opposite direction in 2010 will likely reinforce such aversion to electoral politics.

We might understand U.S. voters as citizens who have given up and perhaps cannot any longer even imagine changing the economy or its ruling corporate structure. So, in depressed resignation, they focus on politicians and parties that can at least be alternated periodically, however minimal the results. Yet that also suggests real political possibilities for new parties or other political formations that explicitly retarget their struggles to confront the direct agents of the economic problems at the forefront of mass concerns.

This article was originally published on Richard Wolff’s blog.

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