Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Consequences of Consent

Back in a previous lifetime, the fall of every election year I taught a course on election techniques. A book I enjoyed using was Benjamin Ginsberg's The Consequences of Consent. It, like the author, was definitely for contrarians for its essential argument was that elections held down democracy and its threading into our daily lives. Ginsberg, the author of several counterintuitive, against the grain books like this, believes that national, state, and community leaders were able to buy off demands for more participation in our workplaces, government, and other institutions by extending the right to vote and then requiring all demands be put through the legislative and executive processes. To those who might catch on that being allowed to vote was a means of limiting rather than increasing your say in your own say, accusations of being "undemocratic" could then be made, especially if an occasional victory that didn't really shake things up too badly were permitted. And if the dissenters tried to point the problem out and mobilize opposition, they were hit with "if you didn't vote, you don't have the right to complain," which, with "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" and "everybody get together, try to love one another right now," ranks as a default cliche for witless nonthinkers everywhere, as Ginsberg and years of elections in the Soviet Union make clear.

I'm not raising Ginsberg's earlier work just to get it renewed attention (not just to), but to show its current relevance to a point I made in an earlier post about the importance of anchors in winning policy and political battles. This isn't really a major point of his, but he supports it well in his discussions of how raucous, often violent citizen demands for rights including suffrage, including not just the aftermath of the Civil War but also women's rights, Martin Luther King, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Robert Moses, and the protests of 18-year-olds during Vietnam, forced policymakers to offer the vote as a means of cooptation, of buying them off and quieting them down. In other words, without the social disruption and the (often realized) potential for violence, demands for the vote by themselves would have been the outer pole of the debate and could be (and were) labeled the "extremist" position. But with the more "angry" forms of "voice" being used, calls for the right to vote became more moderate positions and the callers more acceptable partners for negotiation. Now, for those who wanted more democracy in their lives, this was not a good thing, but for those fighting for suffrage, it was a god-send and real progress in voting rights occurred. [Students of 20th century Irish history will recognize this as the strategy and outcome the British ended up reverting to when Michael Collins and his campaign against British rule proved so effective. Ironically, Collins ended up being a "moderate" . . . and assassinated by reps of the now-isolated anchor position.]

Steve Soto recognized in the 2004 election that a "truth squad" following an anchor strategy in the election could raise the holy hell needed against Rove and his AWOL puppet, allowing Kerry and his official spokespeople to retain the high, "reasonable" ground. Like most of his good ideas, the Dem consultants and their candidate puppets (and, yes, that is the current relationship, as Kos and Armstrong have shown for all history) ignored the possibilities and are now confined to bitching out of power about those ignorant bloggers. But, it is clearly time that the potential uses and utility of setting anchors, within which real change can be proposed and which will allow the users to start pulling the center back where it can serve all Americans again, be recognized and implemented. That means we stop setting our anchors where the center used to be and we encourage the broad range of strategies and policies, backed by convincing stories of the American Legacy, necessary to broaden our political imaginations and possibilities again, even the "extremes." We need those "extremes." We need better "extremes." We need to understand the role of anchors and anger in bringing beneficial changes to this country. Ginsberg is still writing these thought-provoking pieces. He'd be a very good place for us all to start.