Recently, comedian Russell Brand gave an interview with Jeremy Paxman of BBC's NewsNight which earned him the respect of many liberal-minded individuals. In 10 minutes he summed up many of the largest problems with politics today, from the disproportionate influence of money on elections to global warming, and even to the wealth gap.
But regardless of how articulate his summation was, and regardless of how much I enjoy his comedy, Brand is not a part of the solution; in fact it's quite the opposite. During the interview, which has appeared in my Facebook feed more times than I'd like to acknowledge, the comedian proudly proclaimed that he does not vote or know anything about politics. The system, Brand says, is broken beyond repair.
And he is not alone in this belief. His message found support across the Atlantic among a large number of liberal Americans who abstain from participation because they feel their votes do not matter, or they want to make a statement. But these non-participants need to realize three things:
1) American politics work in cycles known as realignments. Roughly once a generation, the parties trade control of the frame through which the people view the issues. These cycles only happen when the public feels that one (or both of the parties) is not addressing the most important issue(s) of the time. When this happens, either a new party will rise up to take a stance on said issue(s), or one of the existing parties will modify its platform, thus winning over the public. That party will have free reign, and the other party will disappear until it too modifies its platform. By, the first party will have most likely lost touch with the American people, and the pendulum will swing the other way.
Realignment cycles matter more than affiliation of individual administrations because whoever controls the frame, dictates policy. This is why President Eisenhower, the first Republican since the New Deal Realignment, expanded welfare, and President Clinton, the first Democrat since the Reagan Realignment, signed Gramm-Leach-Bliley, deregulating the banks. In order to understand American politics, this detail is crucial, and yet it is so overlooked, many, like Brand, believe the whole system is broken; that both parties are the same in spite of having different platforms.
2) Most of America identifies as moderate or conservative (depending on the year). Liberals make up the smallest demographic in the U.S., though social liberalism is growing, and economic conservatism is declining. Both parties' number one goal is to get elected, and in order to accomplish that, they must win votes; this is another reason they often appear so similar. Liberal non-participants do not help their case, either. According to the Pew Research Center, liberals are far less likely to vote than conservatives and moderates.
But what is perhaps the most important thing for disenchanted liberals to remember?
3) Change is slow. And it's slow by design. The Framers understood if change were to happen quickly it would lead to laws based on emotion and whim which could harm the very democratic foundations of our country. Another downside to hasty change is that anything that can be done, can be undone just as easily.
Our Constitution creates roadblocks to speedy lawmaking; we have three competing branches of government. Consider this: How hard is it to get 2 people to agree? How about 3? Now imagine getting a majority of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 60 Senators (filibuster proof majority), the president, and maybe the Supreme Court, for argument's sake, to agree. That is a whole heck of a lot of debating and time.
Liberals complaining about the state of politics should take a lesson from conservatives about getting involved. In the 1950's, President Eisenhower warned that attacking the safety net was political suicide. However, today, the Republicans are doing that and more. They've been relatively successful at weakening regulations on business, protections for workers, and campaign finance laws, while simultaneously cutting social programs and taxes for the wealthy. They've even pulled the center to the right. But the important thing to remember is that if they can do all that in 60 years, we can undo it, and then some.
Martin Luther King Jr. actively encouraged voting as the means to make real changes, though he understood that he might never see those changes. It is so easy to dismiss politics as this unchangeable mess, but it takes real work to research and understand the issues; and even more work to make a difference -- people like Brand are merely escapists.
This blog has been modified since its original publication.