The Incredible Shrinking Vote

Electoral Protest

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 minorities — as low as 15 percent of constituents — can 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 erupted — most visibly at the ’68 Democratic convention in Chicago — today’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

Cyber Storms

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.

Even this spring’s worldwide onslaught of computer viruses spawned by Net freebooters can be viewed in a protest context — and it augurs poorly for the top-down monopolists who seek to control the Web.

U.C. Campaign Brouhaha

Bush Payoff?

A prominent Los Angeles financier who also sits on the University of California’s board of regents may have shunted a consulting contract worth more than a quarter of a million dollars to an investment firm after the head of the company gave $80,000 to a Republican soft-money committee tied to George W. Bush.

The San Francisco Examiner reported on Sunday that Gerald Parsky, the L.A. moneybags and state chair of George W. Bush’s campaign, had been angling for a major overhaul of U.C.’s $59 billion pension fund. To that end, sources told the paper, Parsky was planning to get rid of longtime university treasurer Patricia Small.

Allegedly, Parsky persuaded the university to grant a $350,000 no-bid consulting contract to Wilshire Associates, an L.A. firm whose president, Dennis Tito, recently made news with the announcement that he would pay $20 million to ride on the Mir space station. The contract was awarded in May. On May 11, one week before the regents’ vote on the contract, according to the Examiner, Tito gave $80,000 to the committee that is backing Bush. Parsky and Tito denied any wrongdoing.

Business of Government

Hocus Locus

The mantra of the Republican Right’s theory of governments is, of course, local control. Party leaders like Tom DeLay and Dick Armey insist that many functions of federal government can be better executed by state and local government, and right-wing ideologues have argued recently that Congress ought to sit for only six months a year. They are backed by business, notably the insurance industry, which has fought for years to preserve state regulations, as opposed to control from Washington.

A recent investigation by the watchdog group Center for Public Integrity shows that the conservative model is in place and chugging away. All but 10 state legislatures are run by representatives who get together just a few times a year and take salaries of about $18,000. To right-wingers, these are the citizen politicians who put their shoulders to the wheel to help their fellow citizens. Government is a hobby.

Not quite. Since most states don’t take government very seriously, numerous legislators represent the business and professional interests they supposedly regulate. The Center’s study concludes with some amazing statistics: one in five members sit on committees charged with regulating their professional and business interests. About 18 percent have financial ties to businesses or other groups that lobby state government. A quarter get income from a government agency, with some receiving salaries from agencies they helped fund as legislators.

In certain states the legislatures are veritable appendages of business. In North Carolina, for example, of 148 legislators in 1998, the Center reported that about two-thirds sat on committees that directly affected their private income. One such legislator is House minority leader N. Leo Daughtry, who practices law, owns a fertilizer company, has stock in Carolina Power & Light, and is part owner of two tobacco warehouses. Daughtry sits on the judiciary, environmental, public utilities, and tobacco-settlement committees. Says his PR man: “Leo makes every effort to do the right thing in every instance.”

Bush Buzz

Biggest scoop of the campaign is The Realist‘s publication of a Bush consultant’s “secret” report on Dubya’s dark side. In one incident, a drunken Dubya allegedly dive-bombed an East Texas tower while piloting a Coast Guard plane. Recounting the incident, the consultant opines: “One or two stories like this do us no damage. If, however, the public fixes in its mind an image of W as a fall-down puking drunk, that isn’t exactly great. If this does come out, I suggest we admit everything, but explain it all took place when he was ‘under the age of 25.'”

Additional reporting: Kate Cortesi

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 18, 2000

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