The Cargo Cult and the Ballot Box

Featured image: members of John Frum cargo cult, Vanuatu

On February 2, 2020 we will focus our attention on Super Bowl LIV.  Fans will declare their loyalties through banners and bumper stickers. They will debate strategies and tactics. They will support their claims with polls and pundits.  After the smoke clears they will boast of their victory or argue about who to blame for their defeat.

On November 3, 2020 we will hold our 59th Presidential election.  Fans will declare their loyalties through banners and bumper stickers. They will debate strategies and tactics.  They will support their claims with polls and pundits.  After the smoke clears they will boast of their victory or argue about who to blame for their defeat.

Most Americans would say the Presidential election is the more important.  Our ability to vote for our leaders sets us apart from those poor unfortunates toiling under tyranny.  We have a duty to vote lest our country be wrecked by your choice of the Evil Globalists or the Bad Orange Man.  And yet amidst all the shouting one important point is often missed: your vote has approximately as much impact on the results as your lucky T-shirt has on the outcome of Super Bowl.

2019 will see nearly two billion people vote in fifty countries.  Once limited to the free men of Athens, today almost every nation has a ballot box. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union declared in 1994, “In any State the authority of the government can only derive from the will of the people as expressed in genuine, free and fair elections held at regular intervals on the basis of universal, equal and secret suffrage.” But this political gold standard is of comparatively recent vintage, originating in the aftermath of England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution and 1770s colonial disagreements.

Roman subjects threw incense before the emperor’s statue to show their loyalty — and, not coincidentally, to line Roman coffers with frankincense sales.  Today voting is the means by which rulers prove their legitimacy to other rulers.  Carefully selected ballots create a polite fiction of freedom for outside observers.  And if you can keep voters well-fed and pacified, you may even pull the wool over their eyes for a while.  Until they vote on something which goes against your plans.  Ask the Greeks about their efforts toward leaving the Eurozone.  Or Hungary about their 2016 referendum on resettling migrants.  Polite fiction invariably meets impolite reality.

During World War II the remote New Hebrides (today Vanuatu) became a stopping ground for Americans fighting on the Pacific Front.  Today many natives on the remote islands pray to John Frum, an American messiah who will one day come back bringing “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”  These “cargo cults” have been the subject of some anthropological study and a great deal more sniggering mockery.  Many who mock them regularly put  slips of paper in a box thinking it will bring “democracy” and “freedom.”

It would be easy enough to read this as a black-pilled call to nihilism or rebellion. There is certainly reason to be concerned as our culture loses faith in its idols.  All elections rest on the premise that participants will respect the outcome.  When a candidate refuses to do so we have a coup: when voters refuse to do we have an uprising.  So far the controversy over the 2016 election has lead only to a loud and ongoing tantrum.  It may prove the harbinger of worse should America’s polarization continue.

But the answer to our problem may lie not in abandoning democracy but in returning to it.  As Mark Cartwright describes Athenian democracy:

Under this system, all male citizens had equal political rights, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to participate directly in the political arena. Further, not only did citizens participate in a direct democracy whereby they themselves made the decisions by which they lived, but they also actively served in the institutions that governed them, and so they directly controlled all parts of the political process.

We spend a great deal of time arguing about national politics.  In the grand scheme of things our complaints about Washington are as effective as our screams that the referee must be blind.  Local political issues receive far less attention, yet can have far more impact on our daily lives.   Many who have read and reread the Muller Report couldn’t spot their city councilman in a lineup.  Many who speculate at length about Michelle Obama’s genitalia have no idea their town’s main employer is in talks with a vulture capitalist.  In 1970 feminist Carol Hanisch famously said “the personal is political.”  In the days to come I believe we will increasingly find that the local is political, and vice versa.

As empires crumble the services its citizens have come to rely on slowly evaporate.  Today 66.5% of all American bankruptcies are the result of medical issues: most of those who file were covered by health insurance.  15 year-old American students score lower in science than students in Estonia, Slovenia and Poland; lower in reading than students in Singapore, Russia and Finland; and lower in mathematics than Portuguese, Hungarian and Maltese students.  We can distract ourselves from our plight by screaming about things we cannot control.  Or we can work with our neighbors to preserve what we have.  In recognizing the ballot box as cargo cult we recognize the limits of our power.  In returning the ballot box to its rightful place we can both establish and reclaim our sovereignty.

 

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