Friday, October 19, 2012

The Voting Myth and Changing Culture

by Ben Howard

Last night I was lucky enough to be part of a conversation about politics and the church. Though you would imagine a conversation like this quickly turning to cliches like "What issue is most important to Christians?" or "Who should Christians vote for?" I was pleasantly surprised that this isn't where our discussion went.

Instead, we talked about how the church and government interact, how they should interact and how they can interact going forward. During the conversation two of my friends, Allison and Katherine, helped me realize something that, while obvious when you consider it, had never crossed my mind. In a society based on democratic ideals culture is more important than the nation-state because culture dictates what the nation-state can or can't do.

In traditional political philosophy, the nation-state is held up as a beacon of progress. It's the innovation that transcends tribal and nationalistic identity in order to form a legal state that functions on behalf of all the people no matter what their background. It's one of the central tent-poles in the myth of modern progress. It allows us to look at history and trace a straight line from tribal peoples to ethnic nations to formally organized states. "Look," the narrative says, "we're getting better. We're more organized and more civilized."

Just behind the rise of the nation-state we saw the rise of democratic principles. In the 16th and 17th centuries the world saw the introduction or at least the acceleration of rights language and other concepts which would serve as the basis for the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. However, over the course of a few hundred years the combination of these two has led to an interesting situation.

Aristotle argues that democracy is the lowest form of government because it will eventually become another form of mob rule, however within the structure of the nation-state that mob rule has taken on the form of cultural acceptance. Before I continue with this argument let me short-circuit one of the criticisms, namely that people participate in the national government via voting.

If you ever open a political science textbook one of things you'll read about is the role of parties in a democratic political system. Early on in this discourse on political parties you WILL read the following sentence, "Political parties exist to win elections." That is why the exist. Not to govern, or to follow the will of the people, but to win elections.

This leads to the interesting situation we find ourselves in regarding electoral politics. Your voice and your concerns only count if you're in one of two camps A) You live in an important electoral state and B) You have enough money to make someone pay attention. For instance, why do candidates never discuss the problem of urban decay and failing inner-city schools on the campaign trail? Well, that isn't the most important issue of undecided voters in Ohio, Missouri, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado. 

Or, ask why we spend so much money subsidizing corn (thus leading to high fructose corn syrup and corn being in pretty much everything) or trying to make ethanol a bigger part of our fuel supply even though scientific studies find questionable value in it? Could it have something to do with Iowa being the first primary state? The first hurdle on the way to the White House? If you're say, a socially conscious liberal-leaning pacifist in Nashville, Tennessee who is concerned about military spending, homelessness and drug abuse, no one is listening. (For more information on this subject, check out Nate Silver's new book, The Signal and the Noise)

When it comes to governance though, the story is very different than what happens during the election. When it comes to governance, the government is no longer limited by the voice of the electorate, it is limited by the voice of culture, best exemplified in various forms of media (including for instance Twitter and Facebook).

No government will send its armies to war if the culture of its people opposes such an action. Not only would it not have the support and authority to do so, it also wouldn't be the first response. Why? Because the government is made up of people who also participate in the larger culture. 

Even more, culture has become increasingly cross-national. The culture of the United States is becoming increasingly blended with other cultures, not synonymous by any means, but they are bleeding into each other. For instance, the conversation over national healthcare is a perfect example of this conflict between cross-national culture and the United States government.

The argument I want to make here is that we have too often used voting as a cop out for national and political change. People ask how they can change things and the answer they're given is that they can vote and assert their rights. But what happens if no one cares about your vote and what is asserting your rights means little more than getting the best for you and you alone? Voting is easy. It's the lazy way to affect change. It's trickle-down politics.

The more difficult questions concern how we engage and shape culture. How do we participate in the problems that we see in the world and how can we alter our participation to 1) eliminate suffering and 2) promote prosperity and healing? If we have a problem with economic systems that promote homelessness and the abdication of our responsibility to the poor, we don't just vote for the person who says corporations are bad. We have to ask ourselves what we do to perpetuate that system. We have to ask ourselves how we would build alternate systems and then, we have to try and establish those systems. We have to try and build culture.

Maybe we change the way governments respond, but that really isn't the point. Governments are reactive not proactive and the problems of the world need more than reactionary call and response.

I'm convinced that the church is called to be an alternative culture. One that no longer functions along the lines of the group-think that affects the majority of our traditional culture. The church is called to deconstruct this cultural tradition formed unintentionally formed by years of action and reaction and replace it with something new, something intentional.

Like Martin Luther said in one of his less invective-laced moments, "The Church is not reformed, but always reforming." The church must always be in the process of deconstruction and reconstruction in search of the culture of the kingdom and awaiting the return of the only true authority. We await the return of the King.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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