10/05/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

The Presidential Debate Was Good Theater, But...

Let me say up front, that I am not a registered Libertarian. I am also not a Democrat, Republican, Green, Socialist, or member of any other political party. I am just a simple person who believes that far too much is made of the American political process. And, I feel that I should express an opinion that others have expressed to me, which I happen to share, that average citizens who invest their time in the American two-party political system might be better off working with direct service organizations in their own communities.

It is my expectation that I will receive a record number of comments (for me) completely disagreeing with my ideas. By and large, many highly vocal people tend to believe in and participate in major elections. However, the fact that voter turnout overall continues to decline, should suggest that I am not alone in seeing the process as meaningless and little more than "form without function." And, while some people occasionally may wonder if their vote counts, many of us wonder if the process, as it currently exists, is even relevant to our circumstances anymore.

I have lived on this planet for 52 years, and for many of those years I voted in all state and federal elections. I told myself that it was my responsibility to exert my political will on the process. As a younger person, I was much to the left of the Democratic party, but not a true Socialist. I saw the process as one of "The People" asserting their interests in face of challenges from an "entrenched overstructure." To say I was naive would be an understatement. To say I was wrong, however, would also be an overstatement.

Over the years, I have viewed the results of elections through the lens of those most invested in them. I would frequently defer to analyses of "experts" who most often were delivering postmortem rationales for why my favored candidates and initiatives (being from California) failed to achieve victory. I saw relatively few dramatic victories, and lived to see many of the greatest individuals and policies overturned after relatively little time. I saw idiotic laws like California's Proposition 13 passed into law, and have seen the hideous consequences that law, and laws like it, devastating the lives of millions of people.

If the American political system truly is a "marketplace of ideas," it is one increasingly dominated by fewer and fewer vendors. Aside from the enormous insult of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which had the net effect of equating money with "free speech," there has been a continual erosion of fairness and equality in the pursuit of policy and power. Some estimates suggest that the winning presidential candidate's campaign may end up spending as much as $1.6 billion. There are less than 400 million people living in the United States. Even if we foolishly assumed that even one tenth of those people made donations to political campaigns, that would still be only around 30-40 million donors. Most studies suggest less than a single percent of people make any functional donations to political campaigns, so where is most of that $1.6 billion coming from?

Well, if it is not being collected via lots and lots of small donations (contrary to what some have said), which most data suggests is not happening, then it must be coming from a relatively small number of entities. We now know that wealthy individual donors, Super PACs, political action committees, and other special interest groups are providing the largest number of dollars to political campaigns. And, in spite of what the most zealous populists might want us to believe, it is not realistic to believe that the masses can be relied on to counter that kind of monetary influence. In most cases, though admittedly not all, the side in an election that spends the most money tends to end up with the results they want.

Again, there are no arguments that can be made that negate this reality. The process appears to be corrupt and broken. Citizens United simply codified a system of purchase of policy and power that many of us, especially the numerous and diverse groups of poor people, have recognized for years. For example, within our American political process, it is not subsidies to oil producers that are continually cut. It is frequently programs that used to be known as "assistance," now erroneously referred to as "entitlements," that are most often cut. Those who do not see any personal benefit to paying taxes to help those in need frequently also have lots of money to invest in political outcomes. Does anyone honestly believe that the numerous groups of poor have the resources to change this reality?

So, as many of us that see events like the presidential debate discussed in a context of "genuine change," we naturally scoff. Aside from programs like FDR's "New Deal," President Johnson's "Great Society," and Nixon's creation of formal environmental protection & the "War on Poverty," all of which have either been seriously weakened or completely reversed over time, little arises from presidential actions that have benefited the numerous groups of poor in a sustained fashion. For example, with its lack of cost protections, and segmented implementation over years, we have yet to see how "Obamacare" will fare in terms of sustained effectiveness.

In our various experiences, much of what has worked best to benefit us has come more from people within our own communities, and from people who were able to change the day to day behaviors of individuals, groups, businesses, and organizations, through education, direct community intervention, and personal example. Those people and groups that have been the most influential in creating sustained progress and positive change, have often found themselves not only at odds with private citizens and groups, but with the government as well.

There is really a sound argument that can be made that government really has never led any meaningful social or economic paradigm shifts -- they have often reluctantly followed the lead of people and groups so passionate and dedicated to creating sustainable change that it became more painful to resist the change than concede to it. And, in spite of all the jingoistic and idealistic propaganda employed by people and groups in all areas of the political universe, there is no solid argument that can be made that proves that political change works better than simple encouraged evolution of personal convictions and conventions.

It was not law that helped changed the face of the South in the Civil Rights Movement, and though I'm certain that many will disagree, I believe that it was the passion and conviction of the most ardent advocates for equality that helped change the minds of enough individuals to make a paradigm shift. That struggle is ongoing in the form of fighting for LGBT rights, and equality of access to opportunity. But, there are many more people in the South now who know that intelligence, morality, ethics, and basic humanity are not a function of skin color. No law can convey that. That is owed to changes of personal spirituality and deep conviction.

So, as we move toward another presidential election, I would ask that people keep in mind where the real power lies. Even if your personally chosen candidate is not elected, or your particular initiative is not approved, you still have the personal power to move forward your ideas and beliefs. In spite of what the pundits, analysts, activists, reporters, and others might tell you, the American political system is only a small part of our lives in this nation. I would not tell anyone not to vote, but I would urge an understanding of the limitations of what is accomplished with that vote. And, always recall that YOU have the power to feed the hungry person in front of you, help to build homes for the homeless in your community, avoid unhealthy foods, and to tell your sons and daughters to find careers that do not involve going abroad to participate in wars you do not support. The power is yours, and THAT is not actually up for debate, it is established fact.

Peace and compassion to you.