Elections as Ideology

"I feel-I feel it is necessary to move an agenda that I told the American people I would move. Something refreshing about coming off an election, even more refreshing since we all got some sleep last night, but there's-you go out and you make your case, and you tell the people this is what I intend to do… Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style."
-George W. Bush [1]

"Would it not be easier …for the government To dissolve the people And elect another?"
-Bertolt Brecht, "The Solution" [2]

- by Asad Haider

A Radical Analysis of the Election

The elections are over, and it is time to move on to the many pressing issues humanity faces these days; but it is always important that we learn from our setbacks and mistakes. I attended a "town hall meeting" of local liberals and was utterly astounded by their unwillingness to accept the impotence of electoral politics and the Democratic party. There was much self-congratulation for fruitless voter registration drives, and plans were made for electing Democrats in the next elections. Unmentioned were issues of central importance like the occupation of Iraq, "moral values" and job loss, much less the issues that do not receive attention in the mainstream media. As I listened to this shallow and useless chatter it occurred to me that the election had had one major effect: it had destroyed any hope of actually talking about politics. The drama of the election, the tension between Democrats and Republicans, had pushed issues of genuine importance aside.

The liberal might look at this state of affairs and lament that the system isn't working. The radical, however, would say that the system is working very well; that the system of electoral politics is designed to suppress real political discourse. The critique of ideology advanced within the Marxist tradition is one useful tool to understand the way in which elections reinforce the status quo.[3] The reasons for John Kerry's loss are complex; but one major reason is the inability of American liberals and even sectors of the left to see outside of the ideology of elections.


The United States is fundamentally a class society. A small minority of the population controls not only most of the wealth in the US, but most of the wealth of the world. People who work and produce all the wealth, a majority of the population, are forced to sell their labor to those who own the factories and resources in exchange for a wage. On average, this wage is 1/185th of the CEO's salary.[4]

This puts the capitalist in quite a spot; most people, if asked, would prefer not to spend all their time working so that a CEO can buy another yacht. In fact, some people might feel entitled to reap the benefits of their labor and have their turn with the yacht, too. They are prevented from doing so because the yacht-owner can always call the police, who will protect private property and enforce the law. This will always work because the laws are written by politicians who are not only funded by corporate lobbyists, but who often have yachts of their own to look after. The police, the law and, in fact, the state itself are tools used by the elite class to keep the working class in its place.

Accompanying the state is the claim that without police and laws we will have nothing but chaos. This claim is not so much false as misleading; it appears to be reasonable while obscuring the class interests which are behind the operation of the state. This is what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described as ideology. Marx and Engels depicted ideology as a camera obscura which inverts the realities of class society, so that "men and their circumstances appear upside-down."[5]

Though this goes a long way toward explaining why police spend more time breaking up strikes than stock-market scams, it doesn't explain why so many people who have never been bothered by the police still put up with class exploitation. Furthermore, it seems to grossly oversimplify matters; surely a police officer removing a kitten from a tree is not acting out some nefarious bourgeois plot against the feline proletariat. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci tried to overcome these problems by introducing the concept of "hegemony." Gramsci argued that "no social order could sustain itself over the long run primarily on a foundation of organized state power… on the contrary the inclination of a ruling class to rely upon repression and violence was a sign of weakness rather than strength. What contributed to real political durability was the scope of popular support or ideological consent."[6]

Rather than using force to make workers submit to degrading jobs, corporations can call their wage-slaves "associates" or give them prizes for selling the most french fries. Further, a ruling class can train the future workforce in seemingly benign social institutions; schools, for example, teach us to be competitive, to submit to authority, to stifle our creativity, to put up with boring and pointless labor.[7] Gramsci argued that these subtle modes of control created a cultural and ideological hegemony which "encompassed the whole range of values, attitudes, beliefs, cultural norms, legal precepts, etc., that to one degree or another permeated civil society, that solidified the class structure and the multiple forms of domination that pass through it."[8]

So hegemony is executed not just in the government and the workplace, but also in schools, churches, families, the media, etc. The French Marxist Louis Althusser described these institutions as "Ideological State Apparatuses," as opposed to "Repressive State Apparatuses" which operate by force and coercion. Althusser went on to explain the unconscious and emotional reasons that ideology holds such a great psychological sway. He argued that ideology presents a system of "signs and social practices" which binds the individual to the social structure and provides a sense of "coherent purpose and identity."[9] Through ideology the ceaselessly exploited laborer becomes the Proud American, or the Moral Christian, or any of a litany of symbolic identities which give the individual an illusory sense of agency.

The Ideological Role of Elections

The liberal orthodoxy on elections claims that people who don't vote (40% of the population in 2004) are either ignorant or stupid, and that it is necessary to educate them so that the working class will turn out in droves to vote for its interests. This is a delusion which obscures something vitally important: people do not fail to vote because they are ignorant, but because they understand something usually unacknowledged by mainstream liberals, namely that it is impossible to vote for the interests of the working class.

It should now be self-evident that both the Republican and Democratic parties represent the interests of the capitalist class in every imaginable way: their funding comes almost exclusively from corporations and they themselves are members of the wealthy elite. There are differences, to be sure, which are not insignificant, but it is important to first tackle some major questions: Why have two corporate parties dominated electoral politics for most of this century? Why do liberals have so much trouble keeping up in electoral politics? How has a system which works against the interests of nearly everyone subject to it stayed in place for so long?

These dilemmas come into sharper focus if we realize that many left-liberals and intellectuals are still under the sway of election ideology, even more so than "ordinary" Americans, and that it is necessary to abandon our view of elections as simply a political tool. It is possible that elections be used as a means of representation in a democratic system, but means of representation and democratic systems are not relevant to American capitalism. An election in American society is not a political tool but an Ideological State Apparatus; I would like to examine the ideological role of elections at three different levels elaborated above:

(1) Elections as an Illusion or Inversion

In American mythology politics is reduced to elections, but the assumption that elections are political to begin with is an illusion. Though we are not presented with any forms of political participation other than voting, and are encouraged to do so by people across the political spectrum, elections actually prevent politics from taking place at all. During every election issues of any significance are either pushed aside or discussed within a spectrum too narrow to be meaningful. Instead, there is a television circus which focuses on the personalities and personal histories of each candidate. Most people interested in politics become caught up in this frenzy, and the possibility of working for real change is not even seen as an option. Ultimately, elections are the main obstacle to politics in the US; an apolitical (or anti-political) illusion.

(2) Elections as Hegemonic Institutions

Elections also generate hegemony by obtaining our consent in a system which prevents our participation. As Noam Chomsky puts it, in modern democracy "the general public are considered 'ignorant and meddlesome outsiders' who should be mere 'spectators of action,' not participants (Walter Lippmann); their role is only periodic choice among the 'responsible men.'" This periodic choice plays a crucial role in "manufacturing the consent" of the masses.[10] Much is being made of the "mandate" that Bush now has; it has been obtained not because a mere 20% of the population voted for Bush, but because 60% of the population has consented to an electoral system which facilitates the rule of bureaucrats who represent the corporate class and have a monopoly on political-decision making. Voting is not a "decision" at the level of policy but a mechanism which makes our submission consensual.

(3) Elections as Ideological Practices

Elections give us a sense of political agency. The young and energetic Democrats were truly convinced that by registering new voters they would change the world. They didn't even elect Kerry, much less change the world, but by viewing the election as a political space, by attaching importance to their votes and working to encourage people to vote, they were able to feel a sense of activity, coherence and identity. Our inability to affect real change with the existing system and our complete exclusion from political decision-making are forgotten; by casting our votes we can become Active and Responsible Citizens. When our political identity is based on voting, it is impossible to look beyond elections as a means of political change, for doing so would be to abandon our sense of control and subjectivity.

Beyond Election Ideology

It is true that this analysis is convoluted and will not be directly relevant for another four years; however, it is an attempt to highlight some important lessons we can learn from the 2004 election. Understanding the ideological role of not just elections, but of the whole complex political machinery presented in the mass media, is a step towards formulating a program of real and radical politics. The liberals accepted election ideology and lost an election to perhaps the most fanatical and incompetent president American history has yet endured. However, the American people, who still stay at home in droves on election day, have not swallowed it. Oddly, this apathy is a sign of hope; it shows that not even the most elaborate ideological system in history has been able to fully capture the public mind. Today, transcending the ideology of elections is a necessary precondition for reaching out to the apathetic electorate and creating genuine political space. It is necessary to generate a counter-hegemonic movement in the United States which tears human consciousness from the strangling grip of an oppressive order and builds a participatory and cooperative culture and politics.[11] The stakes could not be higher.

Asad Haider is a student and activist in State College, PA. He can be reached at kingoffunk@hotmail.com. Notes:

[1] "President Holds Press Conference", The White House, 4 November 2004.

[2] John Willett and Ralph Manheim, eds., Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956, (New York: Methuen Inc., 1976), p. 440.

[3] A very complete discussion of ideology can be found in Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction, (London: Verso, 1991), but this is by no means the only theory to be kept in the activist's toolbox. A serious anarchist/libertarian analysis of elections, which emphasizes how an elected bureaucracy prevents political participation, is much needed; see Mikhail Bakunin, "Representative Systems Based on Fiction" in G. P. Maximoff, ed., The Political Philosophy of Mikhail Bakunin, (New York: The Free Press, 1953), p. 217-225.

[4] See the Economic Policy Institute for data, .

[5] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), p. 154.

[6] Carl Boggs, The Two Revolutions: Gramsci and the Dilemmas of Western Marxism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1984), p 159; see Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (New York: International Publishers, 1971), particularly "The Modern Prince".

[7] An excellent such study of testing can be found in Bertell Ollman, "Why So Many Exams? A Marxist Response," Z Magazine, October 2002,

[8] Boggs, op cit., p. 160.

[9] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 148-149. See Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, (New York: Monthly Review, 2001),

[10] Noam Chomsky, "Voter Registration and Abstention", Z Magazine, February 2001, . See Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

[11] I do not outline concrete proposals here because such decisions must be made within the democratic space of a movement in struggle; but I am very much inspired by the visions presented in the Life After Capitalism conference during the third World Social Forum, available here: http://www.zmag.org/lacsite.htm.

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