Why I Don’t Vote for People I Don’t Know
How Scale Destroyed Democracy
The Sayings of Abu Francis
I say, it’s much easier to paint the bars blue or red than to get out of prison.
I have little interest in big elections, but I am a huge fan of small ones. I was amazed to learn that three candidates associated with the Casa Maria Catholic Worker – Roxy Valenzuela, Cesar Aguirre and Brian Flagg – were elected to the South Tucson City Council in August. South Tucson is a one-square-mile enclave across the I-10 and I-19 freeways from Santa Cruz River Park. About 5,600 people live inside its borders; 84 percent are Hispanic and about half below the poverty line.
Casa Maria Catholic Worker runs a soup kitchen on East 25th Street every morning of the year (except Thanksgiving and Christmas). Alarmed by the growing housing crisis – including gentrification, rising rents and homelessness – the three Catholic Workers decided to run for city council, hoping to tackle Arizona laws preventing municipalities from enacting rent control.
I wish them well, although legalizing rent control is a Himalayan battle. The 2020 California ballot measure to allow municipalities to pursue rent control was soundly defeated after real estate interests spent $83.5 million (twice what supporters spent) to argue that the measure would make housing more expensive. Lower rents would lead to lower profits and discourage developers from building at all, the argument went.
Imagine if the $124 million spent on this single ballot initiative had actually been used for affordable housing!
My young faith in the ability of government to solve social problems took a beating during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Along with 3,000 other students, I interned for Congress in Washington, D.C. – assisting the press secretary for my hometown representative and studying firsthand cash, clout and other decision-making forces.
I learned that politicians use the word “constituency” to mean those who fill their campaign coffers. I watched the Pentagon appropriate new technology for possible weapons development. Political parties looked like, as George Washington predicted in 1796, “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Democracy in the United States has failed for a number of reasons, but one fundamental flaw rarely talked about is scale. Big Government has become another large, centralized system right up there with the other Biggies – Big Business, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Box. These large, centralized systems created the problems we now face and certainly aren’t the ones we should look to for solutions.
I can’t say in what year it happened, but scale killed democracy. We went from a country where voters were familiar with the names on their ballots to one where most of the candidates were absolute strangers. People could no longer cast votes based on firsthand knowledge of candidate’s character and skills. They would cast votes based on secondhand information: the endorsements of political parties or other centralized groups.
Large newspapers and other mass communications brought the rise of mass marketing. Things got so big you had to rely on mass media to make decisions. Mass marketing requires money, and in 1971, Congress began regulating how money could be raised and spent in the pursuit of selling candidates to the American public.
Once money became the dominating factor in elections, democracy died. Access to the ballot and elected officials were limited to those with the money. The member of Congress for whom I worked back in the day regularly checked in with his constituents – the privileged few who donated faithfully to his campaign. It didn’t matter how many letters he got from people back home in the district. Only correspondence that included a check really mattered in terms of policy decisions.
The kind of democracy guys like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued about by candlelight in the 1770s is long gone because of scale. (Remember, the United States started with fewer than 4 million people in 11 states. The first Congress, convened in 1789, featured a House of Representatives with 59 members.) The only place democracy really works is where you can run a campaign without money. Anything else is just oligarchy, really.
That’s why I only vote for people I know – and maybe a friend of a friend.
Maybe democracy can work in a place like South Tucson. We’ll see how our brothers and sister fare once they’re sworn in as city councilors. Hopefully they can help the tiny town become a self-reliant producer of food and water. Unfortunately, mass marketing lures our eyes away from the small places where we could really have impact to the large systems that manipulate us and keep us spectators.
Maybe we need to move beyond democracy. Dorothy Day often used the term “anarchism” – literally, “without a chief.” On a small scale, why can’t a community come together for consensus instead of majority rule. Some Catholic Workers prefer “personalism.” As Dorothy wrote: “Peter Maurin came to me with Kropotkin in one pocket and St. Francis in the other!”
I say, democracy is what you do on Election Day, personalism is what you’re busy doing the other 364 days of the year. Government isn’t going to bring us the change we hope for – we will have to be the change!
What say you?