Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter the Voting Booth

There's a strange article at the Hankyoreh today, full of parallels to and implications for American politics. Ahn Chul-soo, an academic and software tycoon with political ambitions, told an audience made up largely of students that if you want change, you have to vote.

“Active voting is practically the only way to go from an old system to a new one and reflect the values of the future,” the dean of Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology said.
The reason why the article is strange is that the reasons Ahn gave for voting sound more like arguments for de-emphasizing voting. For example:

Ahn previously urged voting just before the Seoul mayoral by-election October 2011, citing the example of the US civil rights activist Rosa Parks (1913~2005).
I don't doubt that Parks thought voting important, but she isn't famous for voting: she is famous for breaking the law by refusing to move to the back of a city bus, thus setting off a boycott of the Montgomery Alabama bus system that led to its desegregation. Change in that instance, as in others, came about not from voting, but from direct action.

Voting was not an option for Parks at the time anyway, since Jim Crow practice effectively excluded blacks from voting in Alabama. This article tells how Parks had registered to vote in 1942 but never received her voting card. But it makes another typical error, saying that she "refused to give up her seat that day not because she was tired, not because she was looking for recognition, and not knowing that her actions would spark a movement. Instead, she refused to give up her seat because she had courage, passion and an extraordinary commitment to end the injustices endured by her community. In doing so she showed all of us that you do not need to hold political office, nor be wealthy, nor famous to change the world." The movement was already in existence, and Rosa Parks knew it: she was already a committed activist who knew that change happens not by one person committing a dramatic act, but by many people working and acting together. Similarly, an obsessive focus on voting -- on the isolated individual in the voting booth -- distracts people from organizing.

But in the meantime, what good does voting do if you can't vote? Ahn conveniently forgot that the end of dictatorship in South Korea came about not through voting, but through mass mobilization of citizens, including civil disobedience.
Ahn also mentioned the example of California as described in US journalist Fareed Zakaria’s book “The Future of Freedom.” In California, where direct democracy is strongest in the US, a number of bills have been put up for referendum voting, but the real influence is enjoyed by wealthy interest groups that have the opportunity to promote their position through television advertisements and other media. As a result, the voting outcome is generally in line with the wishes of the wealthy interest groups.
Ahn characterized this as the “old system.”...
If Ahn is right about the influence of the "wealthy influence groups," then again, measures other than merely voting are necessary to keep referenda from being bought by the rich. What does he propose, having a referendum on the referenda? It's a safe bet that the "wealthy interest groups" are ready and able to block any changes in the system, whether in California or in Korea.

Ahn Chul-soo confirms a lot of my darkest suspicions about academics and software tycoons. (Would you want Bill Gates in political office? I sure wouldn't.) They must have TED Conferences in Korea, because Ahn's exhortations sound a lot like the TED videos that friends have insisted I watch: gaseous, platitudinous, superficially plausible but seriously flawed under inspection.

I don't say that people shouldn't vote. I've never missed a Presidential election since I became eligible to vote, and I have also voted in off-year elections most if not all of the time. As I've gotten older, I've voted less from conviction than because it's not difficult to do, and it allows me to criticize incumbents without being distracted by party loyalists -- at least, not being distracted by them too much, since they generally don't hear when I tell them that I voted in 2008 and 2010, and that in fact I voted for Obama. They simply refuse to hear or engage criticism.

In the US this fall, voters will be faced with a choice between two great evils at the Presidential level, and often with little more real choice in the states and municipalities. Unlike Democratic operatives, I don't blame people who can't muster the energy to go to a polling place, knowing that the outcome will be bad no matter who wins. That's especially true for voters who will face a gauntlet of barriers meant to keep them from voting because of their color or class, or who find it difficult for whatever reason to get to a polling place. If I were advising them, though, I'd remind them that both parties offer rides and support, and they should take advantage of it. Vote, but without illusions -- and then think about what can really be done to bring about change. One of the worst things about Obama -- and paradoxically the best at the same time -- is that he will have dashed the hopes of many naive voters who believed that voting the rascals out would make things better: they got new rascals, including in the White House. Abandon hope, abandon illusions, and think about real change and how to produce it, so that voting will someday have meaning.