The Meaning of Elections

This election season has already been strange enough and the world as glimpsed through the dim curtain of November 2 (2010) looks as though it could be stranger still.  I’ve noticed lately a tendency of columnists to quote The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.  The poem has a number of notable lines but this seems to be the favorite:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold .

I’m speaking here particularly of the national elections, of course.  In that context, the rest of the first stanza is worth contemplating:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The second most popular line is this:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

These quotations from Yeats express the feeling that many of us have – that the future may hold a major upset of the equilibrium that we have lived with for decades, in which very different views of government and its relationship to the citizens of this country have managed to coexist and even function after a fashion.

I’m a passionate believer in elections as central to the very notion of democracy and you will have often heard me call for “a vote of the people”.  But I have been examining our electoral system, both in Ann Arbor and at the state and national levels, and I’ve come to the following conclusions:

1. Elections are the principal and most important way for citizens to express their views on where our society should go.

2. It didn’t work.

3. The reasons are structural, based in both the mechanics of elections and political tactics.

My mother used to express disgust over the choices offered to the voting public.  “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them.”  (She was speaking of Nixon and JFK.)  The current frustration being expressed nationally is similar.  It isn’t that the candidates do not differ in significant ways.  It is that none of them seem to be able to offer what the voting public really wants.   Hence the anger and frustration over what seems to be the failed promise of Obama’s “si, se puede” campaign.  We thought we were really going to make a change and what we seem to have gotten is a more civil, more intelligent, and less belligerent continuation of the Bush administration. (Support for big banks. No public option for health care. War in Afghanistan. No certification of China’s currency manipulation. Continue executive power innovations connected to War on Terror.  Increase offshore oil drilling and start up nuclear power again. ) Maybe there was a quarter’s worth of difference, anyway.

The voters’ decisions in the ballot box are based partly on the personality and attractiveness of the candidates (remember that Bush was thought to be a better guy to go out with for a beer?), partly on the stated issues positions, but most of all on a mental vision, a nonverbal, nonrational projection of the candidate’s likelihood to take us into a better future.  This is rarely achieved.

Once the candidate is elected, his true agenda comes into play. “Winning is the only thing.”  It was thought that since Bush’s 2000 election was so clouded, he would have to govern moderately, but he immediately swung far to the right. Despite Obama’s glorious apotheosis through his inauguration, he immediately hired many of the old Clinton guard and embarked on a timid temporizing course that left many of his enthusiastic supporters in the dust.

What does all this have to do with Ann Arbor?  Simply that a majoritarian victory at the ballot box, even at the local level, is not a true expression of the “will of the people”.  This is and has been one of the most chaotic election seasons in Ann Arbor that I can remember.  There is a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction on all sides.   As I’ve written before, there is a group on council  (the Council Party) who consider their election to be an endorsement of any policy they choose to adopt, even though there may not be a consensus in favor of the policy.  How will this affect the current elections?  We’ll see if “things fall apart”.  Watch out for slouching rough beasts.

UPDATE:  This article on civic republicanism (definitely small r) is prophetic in many ways.  Note that it was written before the 2006 election in which Democrats began to recapture the majority.  Yet it actually forecasts the situation we have today, with the “failure of vision” that seems to be presaging a serious electoral failure.

Explore posts in the same categories: politics

2 Comments on “The Meaning of Elections”


  1. Wow. Up the number of competitive conservative candidates in state races a bit and throw in a bunch of new republican choices in local and county races and what happens? The AA Establishment is thrown for a loop!

    If you find 2010 a bit upsetting, just wait in 2012…..

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Hi, welcome back. Yes, things are in flux. We’ll see where it goes. FYI, many Democrats consider themselves republican (lower case), and I think many Republicans also favor democratic (lower case) values. Language and labels are confusing.


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