“When you skip voting it’s not rebellion, it’s surrender.”
That was the apt Facebook meme doing the rounds last week after a brutal primary election where a pathetically low turnout led to a very good night for Republicans and the corporate interests they represent. Of course this was not at all unexpected as June primaries have always been lethargic affairs, but this one was even more embarrassing.
Indeed, with labor significantly depleted after losing a big mayoral special election and fractured local Democrats still reeling, the right saw an opportunity to go for the kill and they did, outspending the Democrats in nearly every race and burying the community of Barrio Logan under a mountain of corporate-funded bullshit. As Doug Porter accurately observed, it was a triumph of environmental racism and plutocracy, pure and simple.
Fittingly, the only local TV coverage of the election was KUSI’s special brand of Republican Pravda with reporters dishing out softball questions like, “Does this mean that San Diego has to have a business agenda going forward?” to the triumphant minders of our local oligarchy.
This was followed by another round of journalistic gems like, “How do you win when President Obama is so unpopular?” to the water-like Scott Peters who did his best to assure the audience that he voted against the President on many occasions. After this, he rope-a-doped the anchors for a while longer as they pummeled him with hostile questions about the release of Sgt. Bergdahl in Afghanistan, which drove me to escape to the cold comfort of another Padres loss until that unpleasant little sideshow was finished.
That marvelous exhibition of hegemonic San Diego political discourse was accompanied by nods to bland and meaningless bipartisanship by a good number of other local Democrats who did their best to echo the Faulconer line that there is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican pothole on the City Council.
Bottom line: if there were voters who didn’t turn out because they don’t think there is any real difference between the parties, some key San Diego Democratic leaders did little to dissuade them from that opinion in the wake of their primary Waterloo.
While it is true that Carol Kim lived to fight another day and some other good folks survived the bloodbath, the general theme on election night was spineless triangulation on the part of many local Dems. And it makes sense: if the Democratic base doesn’t show up, then the fight is over the Decline To State pool of voters situated between the partisan poles. Consequently, you’ll get the least objectionable programming from politicians of all stripes so as not to offend anyone with unpleasant facts or ideas that might upset them.
Thank God for the salvation of the open primary that has freed us from the tyranny of the parties and opened up a brave new world of civility, bold ideas, patriotic bi-partisanship, along with a great surge of renewed voter interest!
Now, one might reasonably point out, this is just one primary and the landscape will change significantly in November and dramatically in 2016. But the elephant in political back rooms at the local, statewide, and national levels is the pending Supreme Court decision on Harris v Quinn which could result in a nation-wide version of Right to Work for public sector unions and crush labor’s ability to play in politics. That would mean that the war chest of labor everywhere would never be replenished and rather than an aberrant off-year contest, this June’s affair might become the new normal.
More specifically, if the court sweepingly rules against labor, the Barrio Logan plan may well serve as a good example of what the future of American politics holds—progressive groups consistently fighting against-the-odds battles, and being dramatically outspent every time and then cast out into the political wilderness. And, while this will surely hurt the Democratic Party, Democrats won’t just go away–they’ll be transformed. With labor no longer available as a handy ATM, the current debate between progressive and corporate Democrats will quickly be replaced by a race of all Democrats to find new sources of money.
Hint: they won’t go to the Sierra Club.
In such a scenario we’ll be left with two wings of the business party, one reactionary and the other socially liberal, but both unlikely to ever do much to really challenge the status quo on economic and environmental issues.
The grim irony of this hypothetical near future is that just as rapidly changing demographics, rising inequality, and our ever-more-evident environmental crisis would seem to be giving progressives a more favorable playing field and righteous issues to stand on, the political deck could get stacked against them nevertheless.
But if that doesn’t happen and the Supreme Court rules more narrowly and the local Democratic base gets its act back together the question of voter turnout remains. Certainly here in San Diego this is still partly attributable to the toxic legacy of the Filner scandal and the subsequent fratricide that ensued in what was a very fragile, barely come-of-age progressive coalition in San Diego with no real bench to step up and save the day, but it is also part of something much bigger than that.
Voter turnout levels in San Diego were actually higher than even more pathetic numbers in other parts of the state and this is not an unfamiliar situation across the country.
So, it’s not just a San Diego thing, it’s an American thing. What strikes you when you talk to folks who aren’t political isn’t that they are so happy that they just can’t be bothered but that, as someone bluntly put it to me the other day, “It just doesn’t fucking matter.” So, many overworked and underpaid Americans have just given up on the whole exercise as somebody else’s game, not theirs.
A few weeks ago after the McCutcheon decision, I noted that that further entrenchment of the power of moneyed interests came in the wake of a study declaring the United States an oligarchy and while most people may not be aware of this study, they do have a sense that the deck is stacked against them and they are deeply suspicious of American institutions.
So when analysts dissect why fewer of us are turning out to vote, one answer might be that this is what plutocracy looks like—a system in which most ordinary folks no longer believe their government belongs to them.
So if we really want a politics that can address the great issues of our day, the challenge isn’t about messaging or repositioning, it’s about getting people to believe they can change the game if only they would play.
One way to do this here in San Diego would be for the City Council to ignore the narrow vision of the naysayers in all quarters and act boldly on the Earned Sick Days/Minimum Wage initiative this week. Raising those at the bottom up might just get more folks thinking that the system can still work for all of us, not just for those who think they own it.