Henry A. Giroux | Beyond the Dead End of American Electoral Politics: Rethinking the Crisis of Politics

Wednesday, 31 October 2012 09:16 By Henry A Giroux, Truthout | Op-Ed
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Child watches father vote (Photo: Erik Lesser / The New York Times)(Photo: Erik Lesser / The New York Times)

As Hurricane Sandy swept through the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, there was and is much concern in the mainstream press about how it will affect the upcoming presidential elections. The implication being that a natural disaster may undermine the electoral process and distort what for many is the most significant expression of democracy in American politics. Unfortunately, the problems facing the upcoming election speak less to the effects of a natural disaster than to a serious political crisis. The equation of the electoral process with the highest measure of democracy rests on two mistaken assumptions.

The first assumption is that these elections actually provide a real set of choices for the American public. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the choice is between Mitt Romney who is the titular head of a Republican party that is now largely controlled by a range of extremists. This cast of rouges includes ultra-conservative advocates of market fundamentalism and extreme religious zealots along with a mix of right-wing billionaires - all of whom are intent on destroying any vestige of the welfare state while quashing gay rights, attacking women’s rights, and suppressing voter registration turnout. On the other hand, Barack Obama is a conservative centrist who has repeatedly compromised his liberal policies on domestic issues while legitimating a range of foreign and domestic policies that have shredded civil liberties, expanded the permanent warfare state and increased the domestic reach of the punitive surveillance state.

The second assumption that undermines the electoral process and the coming election as the highest expression of American democracy is that the process is now entirely controlled and corrupted by the power of big money. As Eliot Weinberger recently wrote in the London Review of Books, “Obama and Romney are each spending about a billion dollars to get elected—four times what Bush and Gore spent in 2000. When one adds the unregulated PACs and Congressional and gubernatorial races, the cost of this year’s election is around $6 billion."[1]

Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other leading academics and thinkers at The Public Intellectual Project on Truthout.

Under such circumstances, politics dissolves into pathology as those who are able to dominate politics and policy-making do so largely because of their disproportionate control of the nation's income and wealth and the benefits they gain from the systemic reproduction of an iniquitous social order. In other words, electoral politics is rigged and any notion of politics that is willing to invest in such ritualistic pageantry adds to the current dysfunctional nature of American society while reinforcing a profound failure of political imagination.

Elections in the United States are now characterized by the politics of a moral coma and corrupted by the pathological lies used to justify the rule of big money. John Le Carre's charge against the Bush administration that “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness,"[2] echoing the last days of the Weimar Republic, is more relevant today than it was in when he made the statement in 2003. Matters of justice, truth, responsibility and freedom have been hijacked by a savage mode of capitalism that is as ruthless as it is criminal. Manufactured idiocy reins in the dominant media and has ceded its credibility to the eithos of celebrity culture and the entertainment state.

Fox News is the American version of Pravda and the liberal media appears delusional given its flight from any vestige of critical analysis. The issue is no longer how to work within the current electoral system, but how to dismantle it and construct a new political landscape and vision of democracy in which people can recognize themselves, a vision that connects with and speaks to the American public's desires, dreams and hopes. The American public needs a new conversation about democracy, equality and the redistribution of wealth and power. And we need to explore how such a discourse can offer the conditions for critical visions, modes of governance and policy making.

In this instance, the debate on electoral politics is only one part of a much-needed conversation of what a democracy looks like and what it takes to make it more than a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Some would argue that criticizing the electoral process as symptomatic of a new version of authoritarianism is a flight from political participation. Actually, engaging the electoral process as if it were the gold standard of democracy is a flight from any substantive understanding of the reality and promise of a real democracy.


[1] Eliot Weinberger, “The Republic of Entertainment,” London Review of Books (October 29, 2012).

[2] John le Carre, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad," Common Dreams (January 15, 2003).

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Henry A Giroux

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include:  On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), and The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). Giroux is also a member of Truthout's Board of Directors. His web site is Truthout readers receive a 30% discount by clicking the link and inserting the Code: TOGIR (please note that this code is cap-sensitive) on the following books: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, March 2013; The Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Politics in an Age of Disposability, April 2012; Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror, August 2010; Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy, April 2010; and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, June 2007.

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