By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
The Incredible Shrinking Vote
As the major-party conventions near, it is instructive to remember that politics in America is increasingly defined by non-voters, whose numbers have mounted steadily since the 1960s. About half the public stays home during presidential elections, and congressional elections often are decided by a third of the electorate. Tiny minoritiesas low as 15 percent of constituentscan elect a senator or U.S. representative. It seems that the more money that is poured into elections, the less people vote.
Proof of the electorate's disaffection is that if voters are given a chance to vote for someone different, they jump at it. John McCain's win in the New Hampshire primary with two-thirds of the independent vote illustrated this. The conservative Arizona senator ran against the entrenched GOP political system in town meetings throughout the state. In the end, McCain had to capitulate to George Bush's money and organization. But his experience, along with the Reform Party model, is what is currently galvanizing Ralph Nader in states like California and Michigan.
Elections are one gauge of political democracy. Protest is another. In the 1960s, the New Left turned its back on electoral politics and took to the streets. It is a minor irony that what the leaders of that movement fantasized as revolution today has devolved into the stuff of caricature. Currently, a demo is likely to be a nostalgic affair, with the nuclear or extended family setting off to march against nuclear power or boo the NRA, listen to a folk-influenced singer or two, and then head to a vegan restaurant or a trendy bar.
Thus, postmillennial protest has become fodder for fashion statements and ads. Unlike the civil rights demonstrations in the South during the '50s and '60s, where violence was real and fear palpable, or the antiwar demos of the '60s, where fighting often eruptedmost visibly at the '68 Democratic convention in Chicagotoday's demos are usually choreographed affairs, where nothing unexpected happens. When an occasional demo breaks the mold, such as the protest planned in Philadelphia by a group of homeless people during the upcoming GOP convention, permits are routinely denied.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Richard Riordan is using the anarchist bogeyman to rationalize arming cops with rubber bullets and pepper spray. The city is barricading the Staples Center, where the Democrats will convene, as well as Pershing Square, the venerable park that is one of the few places where crowds can gather downtown. State Senator Tom Hayden, a veteran of Chicago '68, says Riordan is on "a collision course with demonstrators, which will cause the nightmare he says he's trying to prevent."
The Future of Protest
The real future of political protest lies on the Internet, where already storms are raging that will affect the economics and politics of the 21st century. One example: The government's knock-down-drag-out with Microsoft had the effect of freeing up development of Linux's open-source software. And then, who would have dreamed that Linux would get a major push from Beijing, which is planning to adopt its software for government use? Meanwhile, Net pols are working to knock out Bill Clinton's ICANN, the insiders' group that controls the doling out of domain names and standards.
All of this occurs against the background of the stagnation and death of the alternative press, the stepchild of the protest street politics of the 1960s, which in its infancy made advocacy journalism a worthy enterprise. Today, these increasingly merged papers have for the most part degenerated into bootlicking shoppers, whose main function seems to be to wrap ads around listings and an ever-shrinking news hole. In the process, advocacy journalism has given way to consumer-oriented journalism, which is essentially another form of advertising.
In this bleak landscape, the Web promises to breathe new life into advocacy journalism, with once "underground" news now instantly available, from raw data on political contributions to information on lobbyists to details on environmental pollution. Breaking news sites on the Web are harnessing wire services along with regional news providers and offering an international level of journalism. (If you find the clipped reports in The New York Times lacking, get on the Web and check out the BBC.)
And (talk about an anarchist front line), the international community of hackers now chews right through the tangle of patents, copyrights, etc., utilized by those who are attempting to control intellectual property on the Web, pirating music, film, and books.
Coverage of regional conflicts, like the one in the former Yugoslavia, which were framed by the ultranationalist, state-controlled press, faces the prospect of correction and confrontation on the Web. So, even though it truly was a low moment in Belgrade when Milosevic's goons shut down Radio B92, within a few days the Dutch had it back up on the Web and the underground station carried on, as all over the world Web sites and alternative radio jumped into the fight to defend the independent Yugoslav press, among the best and feistiest in Europe.