What PSA's Can Teach Us About American Democracy
- Chad Faldt
How many of you saw the televised exhortations to vote? I'm not talking about the 'rock the vote' events, or other such crap, but a couple of particularly and unintentionally enlightening commercials. Every presidential election is accompanied by a fusillade of rhetoric expounding on the civic virtues and duties of voting. The newest commercials display a brilliant sense of irony. The message is, perhaps, only a cynical and candid acknowledgement of the substance, or lack thereof, of the electoral process.
I am speaking of the recent commercial which shows a growing crowd of pedestrians on a city corner staring at a piece of litter on the ground lamenting its presence and repeating 'somebody should do something about it'. As it begins to look like the helpless crowd is never going to 'do something about it', a brave stranger, strolling by, picks up the dirty tissue or food wrapper or whatever, and throws it into a nearby trashcan. Then the narrator intones, after letting us observe the exemplary behavior of the active stranger, that if we see something wrong, we shouldn't just talk about it, but do something, namely, vote.
The message of this commercial immediately struck me as this - voting in the presidential elections is comparable to picking up a dirty tissue. One would expect that the people who write public service announcements, or at least those who hire the writers who compose the ads, could come up with a more impressive analogy to urge citizens to turn out to the polls. But I think the insipid and stupid character of this advertisement provides an excellent reflection of the American presidential elections: they really do not involve voting as a participatory activity, but rather passive one, where people can at best only engage in largely meaningless, symbolic acts. The electoral system does not allow or encourage an actively involved populace, and cannot do so.
Citizens are assumed, indeed expected, to give a four-year mandate to one of the two members of the American ruling class, and then to return to their non-political activities. Their vote gives them no more rights, or obligations, nor is it meant to. Anyone who takes a progressive systematic or institutional approach to social issues knows that pollution and global warming are not so much the result of an infinite number of individual littering transgressions and subjective decisions, nor are the problems and crises of American society due to the failure of all eligible voters to turn out to the polls.
The substance of politics is reduced to meaninglessness: picking up a piece of trash or clearing away a single piece of vandalism. The liberal ideology of environmentalism, mentioned above, or the one promoted by Richard Nixon, as noted by Michael Parenti, is, 'we all contribute to pollution, we all litter….' This is an irrational way to view the world; it makes us appear to be in a state of somnambulism, i.e. sleepwalking, through history. If we fail to understand that our society, like all other societies, has a logic of its own, a systemic logic, then we fail to conceive of proper solutions. For a systemic problem requires a systemic answer.
In these asinine commercials, voting itself is almost perfect compared to a similar 'political' moment. The crowd simply leaves the scene after the singular piece of trash has been removed - what an excellent analogy with the voting process and political participation, and the ideology of democracy in America. What better verification of the radical critique of American electoral politics, the Democratic Party, and the political process of democracy in America: Voting for John Kerry is picking up a dirty tissue.
Chad Falt is a senior and History major at the University of Texas of Austin who interned with the International Action Center in NYC. He can be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org.