The Rituals of Electoral Politics

Those who have followed this blog for a while, and those who know me well are aware that I have a general distaste for traditional electoral politics in this country (see here, and here).  Perhaps that’s not so surprising since most people share that distaste.  I see the Presidential election cycle as a meta-ritual encompassing a number of smaller rituals (primaries, conventions, debates, stump speeches, etc.).  There is no inherent reason why these elections should be so dramatic and symbolic when they are, practically speaking, only about selecting a high level bureaucrat.  I think the real purpose behind the grandeur and drama of the Presidential election cycle is to, over the course of the ritual, symbolically deconstruct and subsequently reconstruct (starting on election night and going towards the inauguration) our image of the nation.  In doing so, I think there is a kind of sleight-of-hand at work – reminiscent of the sleight-of-hand that David Graeber describes in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value.  According to Graeber, the value that is created by the mundane work and interactions of ordinary individuals is abstracted and expropriated through the ritualized exchange of money.  In the election ritual, the energies, inspirations, and values of the people are abstracted (and – depending on your point of view, perhaps – expropriated) through the selection of this high level bureaucrat.  In these rituals, we symbolically place our hopes and values upon the body of this individual, and, when this person is elected, those hopes and values are dissipated into a space where they can make little, if any actual difference.  I don’t think that anyone designed it this way, I just think that that’s what it has become without our really realizing it.

It’s not that the President has no power – that is clearly not the case.  It’s that the President’s power is contingent and subject to feedback such that any changes s/he makes will not have to total, systemic effect that we seek.  We saw this in the sudden emergence of the Tea Party.  Certainly there were special interests behind it, egging it along, but there are also a lot of people who genuinely feel that Obama is ruining the country.  This effect severely hampered any attempts by Obama to make significant changes.  There were some partial successes, for sure, but the vast sweeping Change that we sought in his campaign was muffled and muted by the strong reaction from the Right.

What we crave by putting our values upon this person and this office is systemic change – the revolutionary transformation of the nation into the embodiment of our vision.  The problem is that the President is only one piece of a much larger machine.  Changing who occupies the position has noticeable effects for the working of the machine, but these effects are never revolutionary or systemic in the way that the election rituals make us believe.  As a result, the hopes that we place in whoever we select as President are dissipated within the workings of the machine.  The best thing that a President could do is to use his/her symbolic position as the embodiment of a certain set of values to encourage the people to continue to work, to continue to struggle for what they believe in.  I think Obama tried to do this in some ways – especially towards the beginning of his term – but with little success, and he was very quickly overwhelmed with other issues and concerns of the office.

Systemic change is possible. I have said before that it isn’t, but I misspoke.  What I meant to say was that systemic change takes work.  And it takes a lot of work by a lot of different people (and let’s not forget non-humans as well) over a large expanse of space and time.  It can’t be done simply by one person in one office for one brief period.  Think about all of the energy, time, and money that’s put into the election ritual.  All of that just to elect a simple bureaucrat.  Imagine if all of that were channeled into creating a better health care system, or fighting poverty, or improving the environment.  But instead it’s channeled into its own ritualized dissipation.  I’m not saying that we need to get rid of the electoral process or even its ritualization.  What I’m trying to convey is that the work – the struggle – cannot end with the election, and that, in some cases, there are better ways to use your energy and enthusiasm than on working to get a particular individual elected President.  After the election has been won, and the balloons have been dropped, and the parties have been thrown – this is only the beginning.  A new world awaits, but only as long as we continue to work to bring it into existence.

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