You wake up on election day, tingling with anticipation and excitement at the fact that you will be playing your part in determining the future of your country, state or council. You can hardly eat breakfast, overcome by a mixture of nervous excitement and the pressure of carrying the weight of the nation on your shoulders.
You race down to the polling booth, proud of the fact that living in a western democracy means you have both the opportunity and responsibility of influencing the world around you by casting your vote. You place the form in the ballot box, and return home, satisfied that your voice has been heard and you have made your contribution. Played your part in shaping the world into the kind of place you want to live in.
Some people may consider this account to be an accurate representation of what it means to live in a democracy, but I feel I can safely say that this is not generally the way most of us feel on election day.
In fact in nearly every conversation I have with people around election time, the subject matter is about as far as you could get from what I have just written. People talk about their distaste for politicians of all ideologies, their disgust at the PR spin that passes for party platforms, their annoyance at the disruption to their routine that is having to drag themselves to their local ballot box to vote.
Recent record numbers of informal votes in both federal and state elections suggests that people are no longer even pretending to believe in the power of their vote, a blank ballot form representing their protest against a system that very rarely threatens any real change or feeling of empowerment.
I must confess that I didn’t always feel this way. I registered to vote when I was still 17. A federal election was looming, and I wanted to make sure my vote was counted, spurred on both by the high school glorification of democracy and campaigns like GetUp!’s “Rock Enroll”, both well-intentioned attempts to drag teenagers out of the apathetic culture that surrounded us and threatened to suck us in like quicksand.
But my enthusiasm didn’t last too long. Election disappointments were to come, and in my electorate the reign of the National party, and local farmer bloke/family man John Anderson, seemed pretty unassailable. Both Anderson and Prime Minister John Howard presented themselves as true blue Aussie battlers, at the same time as they pushed through policy after policy shamelessly attacking the rights of the working class at the expense of the elite.
If I was ever going to be caught up in election fervour, 2007 was the year. John Howard had been the only PM I had ever known, epitomising the enemy of everything I believed in. Kevin Rudd swept through the political scene like a tornado in a “Kevin 07” t-shirt, promising a brand new era: change on asylum seeker, climate change and indigenous policy; an escape from the dark ages of Liberal rule.
Yet something about it failed to excite me. It was long before I would come to identify as an anarchist, and yet something deep inside of me knew that very little would change no matter who was elected Prime Minister. And as Kevin Rudd made another media appearance, in an apron on some inane breakfast tv show or speaking the language of the kids on commercial radio shows, you just knew that what you were watching was a PR campaign just like the ads it was inbetween – offering all kinds of promises, but never destined to fill the emptiness it exploited.
So while I’ve always sympathised with The Herd when they sing that they “danced from sheer relief”, on the night Kevin Rudd was elected and John Howard lost his seat, I couldn’t manage any more than a resigned shrug. I had only just turned 21, but I had already joined the ranks of the politically jaded.
Of course, five years (and another, far less inspiring election campaign) later that Labor government has left little more than a mess of embarrassing leadership disputes and broken promises. The Obama government in the US is a similar story. And as ever, there has been a steady flow of moral scandals; shady backroom dealings; power struggles; muckraking and other underhanded tactics; and the widely accepted feeling that politicians are in it for nothing other than themselves. Just the usual grease that keeps the machine lumbering on.
Which brings us back to election day, and the feeling of despair that most of us associate with it. That is if we manage anything more than disgruntled apathy. And can you blame anyone for being apathetic? I don’t even really blame anyone for holding reactionary right wing politics, though I may vehemently disagree with them. The truth is, that when we’re told that holding a set of political beliefs means supporting one of the political parties we have, it makes a lot of sense to want to reject them all, or at least pick a position on the radical fringe, disagreeing with as many of them as possible.
This is why I find elections to be at best a cruel facade, at worst a pathetic joke. Because the political narrative that we’re given isn’t one of autonomy and personal empowerment, it’s one of picking a side and leaving it up to these “experts” to decide everybody’s future. The constant media circus of the two political parties trashtalking each other like opposing sports teams (with similar reliance on worn out cliches) is necessary, because if we concentrate on the actual political differences they are pretty minimal – minor variations on an over-arching theme of corporate rule and neo-liberal economic growth.
When you look at it this way, election day starts to look like the least democratic day on the calendar. It’s the day when we are forced to acknowledge that our politicians have any right to the power that they claim, our vote giving up our individual power and ceding it to the politicians we will then spend the next three years despising. It’s the day when we admit how powerless we are.
Of course, I don’t actually believe we are powerless. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, let alone any of the other activisty type things I do. But we need to change our political narrative, change our idea of what democracy looks like. Surely there’s more to it than voting every few years for the politician we hate the least, more than the idea that civilian political influence amounts to writing a letter to your MP.
There’s another narrative that can be told – one of everyday people changing the world around them by extra-parliamentary means. Of direct action like strikes, blockades, community based alternatives. Of lives lived dedicated to living out the ideals you believe in. Of conditions improved, wars stopped, laws changed, and the power of the people winning out over the corporate and political elite.
This is where democracy starts to become an everyday lived reality and not just an abstract idea. Where we begin to feel the power that we as individuals and a community have to influence our own lives and the lives of others. And here we can separate this idea from just the realm of “politics”, because here politics means the interactions between people, and not just the world of MPs, economics and senate bills that has been made to seems so inaccessible to us all.
In the light of all this, my despair on election day (or any time I see a politician in the news really) remains, but my faith in democracy, the true power of the people, also stays alive. People occasionally ask me who I think they should vote for on election day, to which my reply is always this. Vote for whoever you want, I’m more interested in how me make our voice heard the other 364 days of the year.