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Skinner Box Elections and the Political Slot Machine: Why Young People Won't Play in 2012

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The last time I voted was in a little steel box in a Brooklyn elementary school in 2008. "So this is what democracy looks like," I thought. "A little steel box with some levers."

I felt like a caged rat clicking a metal switch, waiting for a pellet of food to be disbursed from somewhere on democratic high. A Skinner Box and a voting booth bear remarkable resemblance to each other. Not just in appearance, but also in effect. Both carry with them an illusion of autonomy created by engaging user input, and as long as both provide a little incentive from time-to-time, all parties keep coming back for more!

Slot machines in Vegas are known to create a similar effect. And as long as you keep pulling that lever, the house goes right on getting paid. If President Obama has taught young people anything, it's that elections, like slot machines, are always in essence a gamble. Just because you win once or twice doesn't mean you break even in the long run, and just because 'our guy' is in office doesn't mean the house isn't going to get paid.

And now, having learned this, with our eyes and ears a little more open, the campaign promises start to sound like the hustle of an old Coney Island carnie working over an easy mark. "Hey, better luck next time, buddy! Take another shot? One more time for the lady?"

But it's not just Obama we see as peddling this shady carnival. This whole damn system, elections and all, seems but a crapshoot to us at some crime boss' casino. And the house being the 1% have 'Knuckles' and 'Dozer' employed, and they always collect for their bosses, even if they themselves are the 99%.

That's why likely you won't see us young people in next year's general election.

Now don't panic. I'm sure even if he doesn't get the youth vote, Obama will have no problem dispatching all comers from the current field of Republican challengers. So now, really, is the time for people on the left to be asking themselves the critical questions -- the ones that underpin the larger political dilemmas of our day. Does voting satisfy your thirst for democracy, or do you, like me, feel like a rat in a cage? Are these Skinner Box elections going to stop this ship from sinking, or are they simply a way to keep us rats from running to solid ground?

Certainly we have long been comfortable making some very serious critiques of our system. Oftentimes, our rhetoric can even take on a doomsday feel. "If we don't do something now, it'll be too late. Pretty soon we'll go beyond the point of no return." I've heard this plenty of times about issues ranging from the economy, to the environment to developments within the state, especially regarding its relationship with big business. At some point, we must acknowledge the fact, that if there do exist points of no return as we have postulated, perhaps we've already crossed a few. Perhaps voting's too little too late.

Included at the core of the Occupy Wall Street movement's appeal to young people is a belief that America's electoral system is broken beyond repair. We don't even see a reason for winning, anymore: not after three years of Obama. We know this government to be a plutocracy, and the plutocrats who run it, both elected and unelected, do not serve the 99%. We have no interest in Skinner Box voting or political slot machines on loan from the state!

The Occupy movement is not just a protest. It's a roadmap that leads from the election booth to the public square. It challenges the conventional wisdom of the ballot, and instead points to something more democratic and collaborative. It has the audacity to say that it matters less who you vote for and more who is underwriting the entire power structure (the 1%). That power structure is what's being challenged by this movement, not just the men and women who run it.

We've nearly all heard Einstein's definition of insanity as trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Young people in this country aren't crazy, and for better or for worse, have learned that voting for change in elections doesn't create the change we need. We want to create a new, shared power in this country; one which can undermine the buying power of the 1%. While we've yet to see if the Occupy movement is the birth of that modern, shared power, it at very least hails its coming as somewhere on the horizon.

Even if winter rolls in and freezes our movement out of the streets, the current gains of Occupy at this point are thoroughly consolidated. A basis for horizontal organizing and individually autonomous movements now exists within the population here that didn't seem present even a year ago. That, in and of itself, gives us great hope and energy looking to the future and contemplating new ways of challenging the fortified power of the 1%. While many are still looking to Congress and the president to fight on our behalf, the concept of the General Assembly is suddenly taking root.

Many critics of the movement have found fault with the General Assemblies for not having placed specific or plentiful enough demands on the government. Some have argued that if like the Tea Party, the Occupation movement would work simply to elect our members to office, we could take control of the system and manifest a vision of power that could better serve the 99%.

Our answer is simply a restatement of our goal. We don't aim to take over the Congress and effectively become the 1%. Our vision of power is to replace it ... with a Directly Democratic General Assembly ... coming to a public space near you.

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