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This is the final piece on elections consulting as an overly instrumentalized technology. I briefly (yes very briefly indeed!) explained in the previous two posts how I came to this issue and what I think is fascinating, yet alarming, about it. I ended my last post with Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “if elections really mattered, they’d make it illegal”, suggesting that elections consulting is a technology that makes sure that, among other things, important things are not discussed and thrown out of the mainstream discourse. Let me elaborate on this point.

My point, finally, is that election consulting or campaign management is part of a larger elections machine, which is run by experts such as campaign managers, but also, less visibly by media people, and also, not surprisingly by the people (voters) who participate in this system. Sınmazdemir is right on point in his recent intervention: election consulting, or campaign management technology cannot work without people’s active participation. In this sense, we are part of a larger system (of power). But that doesn’t mean that some people’s words are not more important than others. They are. In this sense, for instance there is a class of people, pundits, managers, etc. who are out there making money out of this endeavor. This is their market, so to speak and they have the power to run, influence, shape, or shake the market they are working in. Similarly, they have a power to set the agenda. By claiming the power to represent what people think (and by claiming that they are doing this as neutral experts) these people in fact contribute to the shaping of the very preferences they argue they are representing. The medium, so to speak, constitutes the message.

They have specific tools to do their craft. In this last primary season, for instance, they relied heavily on polling, electronic representation of the primary results. These tools, if we follow Foucault, are not just neutral tools but they do participate in the making of the power they are used in. In this sense we are faced with a fully computerized system presenting itself as cutting edge, exact and predictable. Statistics is similarly devised to further strengthen the scientificty, or scientific appeal, of the election coverage. (ABC is now ready to predict XXX as the winner of this primary, please log on to www.abcnews.com to learn about how we predict the outcome.) The whole system revolves around prediction yet an informed prediction, appearing very scientific. Calculability, and prediction appear to be the essential selling points of the system. 

Most importantly, there is no where outside of this system. There is no place to evaluate whether this system is a successful representation of the reality out there. (That place does not exist for anything, anyway).  But we can see that this is a closed system where evaluation of the system is also being done by the people who earn their living from this system. So eventually, even though there may be problems with individual campaigns, the system works well. Not to mention, of course, that this system is closely related to the dominant two party system of the country. It makes sure that debates are framed according to the logic of that system. It makes sure to downplay the importance of radical politics, makes sure to picture Ralph Nader as a grumpy old man who stole the election from Gore, etc.

The comparison between Turkey and Sebahat Tuncel’s visit was important because it showed  that election consulting machine, or basically elections machine in the United States, cannot work elsewhere if this market, or this machine is not set up as it is set up here in the US. Of course there are great many differences between nations and the first rule of comparative politics is that nothing works the same in another country. But that’s exactly the interesting thing about elections consulting people going global. Normally, they are not supposed to be masters of politics in other countries, but I assume thanks to technology, globalization and the exporting of everything American to the rest of the world, now the idea that American style elections consulting can work in other parts of the globe is being exported elsewhere. So we can say that the campaign consulting people contribute to the creation of the individual subjects and politics they are supposed to find. They are, in other words, institutional entrepreneurs who not only find the demand, but create the demand. Certainly, this is a much more complex process but we see the beginnings of process of homogenization of the language in which politics is being talked about. We will see how far this new trend will continue, but it is apparent that one of the many influences that create such homogenization is the elections consulting people.

Lastly, following Foucault, I can say that this is a system of power with no real sovereign.  Sınmazdemir is right again: none of this is a conspiracy. I’m not suggesting that, “they” are running everything. They, the ones at the commanding heights of this system, are part of the machine, too. But they are more equal, so to speak and their discourses more authoritative. But, in response to Sınmazdemir’s point, I still think that there is a “they” out there. Not in the technological sense, these pundits, journalists, etc. are not the “real power” and yes we are all in this system and we all participate in the creation of this visual democracy. But I think due to reading too much rational choice, Sınmazdemir seems to have forgotten all those great things he mentioned he had read before. 

At the very least, we know that elections have lost their meaning in the post 1980 period. (Even Fareed Zakaria, himself one of those from the “pundit class” wrote about these things –Democracy without Democrats, etc.). Except for maybe a couple of places such as Venezuela, or Bolivia, elections do not mean much anymore. In Turkey for instance the governing party got an overwhelming support from the poor and lower middle class. Yet it is the party that is following, most ruthlessly, the neoliberal agenda that further impoverished the already poor segments of the population. In the United States, it is claimed that a majority of the population is against the war and Obama started his campaign with a promise to end the war in Iraq. But recently it is becoming all too clear that his withdrawal from Iraq would not mean much because he plans to expand the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (http://www.alternet.org/story/91645/) This is yet another story in which elections do not seem to change things and things are going back to things as usual.

The point is, and I will finish with this, elections become about appearances, flagpins, etc. more than anything else. Unimportant issues, little problems… Scandals, juicy stories about politicians sell, and while they are sold by the election people that I was talking about, “real” issues are not discussed. Now you can say of course that what is real is what is manufactured by those people in the media, etc. So if there is no outside to this system, then there is no criticism of what’s being discussed on media because it is the reality. I disagree. The fact that this system does not have clear sovereigns does not mean that it is beyond criticism, and if social science is about anything, it is about changing something (next to understanding of course). Even the recent mortgage crisis is discussed in a very distant way as if it does not touch people’s lives and this is a problem, a big problem. I’m not even talking about the lack of any deliberate discussion on the problems with this whole economic system and how it drains life out of people. There is no language even for important things. Now this is the wonderfully elusive but very explanatory and strong notion of “ideology”. And election consultants as well as the elections industry (maybe this is the name) contribute to the construction of this ideological hegemony systematically.  

 

 

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Who are “they”?

Just to make this whole blogging thing juicier and also to kick off the lively debate that this blog is supposed to generate, I want to ask my co-blogger Turem and also Erbal a set of deliberately nasty questions about the Emma Goldman quote that he puts at the end of his previous entry: “If voting could change anything, they would make it illegal.” Yes, my initial reaction to this quote was the same as it would have been maybe five-six years ago; I did appreciate it; I did share the intuition that Goldman was suggesting; I said, this is exactly true; things never quite change via elections; they usually don’t lead to any substantial changes in policies. But….

Yes, I have a long but…Because after a brief period of intellectual satisfaction that those of you who have read the classics of social sciences and philosophy would know very well -the “aha!” moment of discovery which happens each time you experience a beautiful correspondence between your prior understanding of something and the written text in front of you that presumably clarifies that issue for you and gives you a sense of enlightenment-, the skeptic side of mine started bugging my sense of intellectual comfort.

Let me start by elaborating on the “they”. As a social science Ph.D., I can’t help but ask who these “they” are; where their power comes from to make things illegal and what the things are that they make illegal which we would prefer to be legal. Yes, I used to have a huge confidence in the presence of “Power” (as you notice, with a capital P) in shaping all kinds of human relations; but as of now, I am more suspicious about this quite cynical stance that all these nitty gritty details of politics and any political institutional innovation such as elections are nothing more than a fake construct that at the end would not lead to any changes as long as it would be harmful to those who hold the strings of power in a society.

First, I am suspicious because it  seems to me that the “they” does not have a “we” that stands in opposition to it; i.e. if there is a change we long for and if it does not happen, then we should also look for our own share in the maintenance of the status quo. I am not trying to give a lecture on individual morality but my point is that the notion of the agent “they” -which is supposedly doing the work of maintaining the status quo benefiting the powerful here- is somewhere out there independent and outside of “us” whoever “we” are sounds quite tenuous to me. I do have the prior belief here that each and everyone of us has his/her share in the maintenance of the status quo in various ways; and I do believe that a creative, independent move of opposition would immediately receive attention and induce some changes immediately. If this is not happening, then it is probably not because of “they” but because of us. Obama would be an obvious example here; at least so far…

Second, also empirically, I am not so sure if the elections are as irrelevant as this quotation implies. There is a substantial body of evidence that tells us that suffrage extensions have brought about significant changes in social spending and income distribution meaning that elections have mattered at least in the recent history of political modernization.

And, thirdly, -and I guess this is one of the critical issues related not only to this particular quote but also to the whole discussion of the politics of expertise we started last week- it seems to me that the question of the proper understanding of democracy in today’s complex world is the underlying theme here. As Schumpeter claimed more than 60 years ago in his “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, I share his intuition that “the average citizen expands less disciplined effort on mastering a problem than he expends on a game of bridge.” So, it is becoming increasingly true in today’s world that elections are not opportunities where citizens choose the policies that they wish to be implemented but rather, they only choose the politicians who they think should make the decisions of policy. And, then it requires only one more step to move from here to the world of elections experts, campaign advisors that tell you what to say, wear and when to cry during an election campaign. I am not sure if all these things happen because “they” want it to be so or this happens because of some structural causes or causes that follow from the logic of the ways in which modern societies function. Here, the first thing that comes to my mind is the immense amount of division of labour that so much of the modern advances in all kinds of fields depend on. I can not imagine a world where this would not be the case and given this inevitability, I don’t see how and why the idea of the politics of expertise can be rejected in toto. Which brings me to my bottom line -Oh my God, I am getting too much Americanized, bottom line?- that is, one needs to think about the proper boundaries of the politics of expertise; one needs to think of ways of “taming” it, so to speak, as it has been the case with all kinds of human innovations over the course of human history, technological or institutional.

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Couple months ago, on February 29th 2008 to be exact, Sebahat Tuncel, a Kurdish deputy from the Democratic Society Party of Turkey, delivered a speech entitled “the Condition of Struggle for Democratic Rights and Liberties in Turkey” at the City University of New York. Ms. Tuncel  is one of the active names of the Democratic Society Party and its efforts to bring about a just and peaceful settlement to the Kurdish issue of Turkey and the war between Turkish army and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK as it is known with the Turkish acronym).

I was present in the well attended talk and so was my fellow blogger Sınmazdemir. After the talk, I remember exchanging with him my disappointment about the speech. My disappointment, which was shared by my neighbor blogger, was twofold: on the one hand, the big ideals that were voiced (and naturally applauded by almost all the people- including myself of course) by Tuncel seemed to be only that, grand ideals –such as peace, solidarity, women’s rights, protection of the planet, etc. How we could get to those ideals was not problematized by her (at least in the speech). This, I/we took to be the continuation of old style of politics in a new era. Turkey lived with what is now called “the grand narratives”, projects of changing the society, etc. in the pre 1980 era, and part of Tuncel’s speech seemed to take its inspiration and energy from such a rhetoric of politics. The second disappointment, on the other hand, was that her speech seemed a bit messy (and disorganized, shall I say). We could not exactly understand what the point of her giving a speech at CUNY was. Who was her target audience? Why was she giving that speech at all? What would the speech do for her party and political cause? Probably the speech was part of a larger political tour of the United States, she had programs such as visiting deputies in the Congress here in the United States and telling them about their plans as a party. I do not know what she talked with those people of course, but I had a feeling that if she talked as she talked to us that night, it would be strange, because her points did not flow from what she said. She had to be assisted by a translator and indeed this complicated things quite a bit.

Granted, of course, she cannot say “everything” because of potential legal issues she would face in Turkey for saying those things. You cannot, for instance, argue for the separation of the Kurdish region from Turkey or even talk about a possible federative system. But is it not election /campaign consulting that would help you with just that: to design your speeches and other actions so that you avoid landmines but still get your message across…  These landmines sometimes could be legal issues, and sometimes they are potential problems with parts of the electorate. Of course the two are categorically different, just like the political process in Turkey and the US is different. But if there is such a thing as expert election or campaign consulting, you would expect them to help you with all the problems on the way, including legal issues.    

This point about election consultants take me to the main issue here: Looking back, I realize how much of my perspective has been shaped by the campaigning style I internalized here in the United States. I reconsider my “disappointments” and ask myself whether those disappointments arose because of being subjected to a massive coverage of the presidential primaries by the so called political pundits in the United States. The heavy campaigning days for the 2008 elections certainly left their mark on my thinking. I saw Hillary Clinton declaring her affection for the “gun lovers” of the United States, I saw her drink beer with lower income workers. I saw Barack Obama eat Philly Cheese stakes or carefully distinguish himself from his (former) pastor in nice words. All was designed by the election campaigns of course. All these actions and speeches had, in my mind, a target audience and they were carefully crafted to reach to those parts of the electorate without alienating different parts. Every move seemed pre planned by a team of brainstormers. In turn, political pundits, every day in their columns or on the weekends on TV programs such as Meet the Press discussed whether such campaign work actually works.

I’m not going to go into details, suffice it to say that there is a whole world of politics organized around the belief that political campaigning is an expertise and my approach to Sebahat Tuncel’s talk was shaped through my exposure to such campaigning here. Whether or not such political campaigning could succeed or not in the US context, I’m not going to go into here because the question of whether or not it could succeed is the wrong question indeed. Sebahat Tuncel’s visit and reactions it triggered in me indeed point to the right question. What kind of a system is this and how is it enabled? How does it work, so to speak and what are its conditions of existence? This system, it seems, is not yet rooted in the minds of the Turkish deputies and I would argue of many people in Turkey. So what kind of an animal are we looking at?

I will continue next week with these questions. To give a hint about my position however, I could cite Emma Goldman. This is a system which makes sure that stability and status quo wins and which makes sure that voting is in fact, utterly meaningless for the masses. After all, as Goldman said, “If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal”  

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