In the Western liberal conviction, the best litmus test for the presence of democracy—that is, for whether people are empowered—is elections; often enough the two are just equated. This abstraction of the voting exercise from other social and political factors is unfortunate and, at bottom, puzzling: For it should be obvious that, (a) in the absence of certain conditions, elections do not mean very much: Even slaves could elect their masters, or the illiterate “select” by random punching of buttons. More plausibly, it is possible that an electorate is so busy, or preoccupied, or ignorant, that it cannot appreciate it’s options, or what is at stake between them—or to have such poor options that nothing much is at stake. In representative democracy, there may be lacking a real and clear mechanism for translating a candidate’s pre-election positions into action in office.
Further, it is almost true to say that (b) to the extent that the conditions which lend meaning to an election are met, the elections themselves become superfluous. That is, an electorate must already be substantially empowered for elections to be (further) empowering. In the case of electing political representatives—which all but exhaust elections in Western democracies—the point is especially clear: Because actually making decisions, practicing real self-determination, is needed to understand how anyone else could do it on your behalf, much less who could do it best. Conversely, if the electorate is not already substantially empowered politically, the ballot is unlikely to make it so: Intuitively, a system will not permit serious changes to itself by electoral means unless some extra-electoral force compels this. Slaves will never be able to vote for their freedom unless they are powerful enough to force such a thing through—in which case they are well on their way to freedom with or without the vote. There is no reason why the same relationship (between the vote and extraneous factors) should not hold for less extreme cases.
Why “Free Choice” Cannot be the Mark of An Empowered Society
The strangeness of the electoral standard goes deeper. Consider: An electing body by definition has choices, but does not “choose its choices” ad infinitum; that is, at some point it is forced to choose from among a set of choices which itself it has not chosen. This set is, as it were, imposed upon it. But, recalling the liberal ethos, if it would be dreadful to have any one of the choices in the set simply imposed “undemocratically” upon an electorate, it should be almost as dreadful, it seems, that the whole set be imposed in the first place. In this way, every choice swims about in a sea of impositions; impositions are precisely what make the choice possible. And most other phenomena is much further removed from any human choice: On a consistent liberal view, clearly “bad” things like earthquakes and fatigue become all the worse for being unchosen; and even clearly “good” things like sunshine become regrettable for being unchosen—just as liberals lament an even very good and benign, but unelected, national leader. If “choosing” is to remain the touchstone of an empowered society, not only do elections become self-defeating but life in its inescapable, irremediable “givenness,” fraught with new regrets at every turn.
To answer that the only impositions which count are those that come from people, versus bare circumstances, is not only arbitrary—like saying you can only be wet when someone throws water on you—but also overlooks the degree to which people also “make” the political system which facilitates or frustrates certain electoral options from emerging to table, and could change it if they wished. The confusion is removed (only) if we assess the degree to which a populace is empowered in the same way we really assess “givens” like sunshine and earthquakes: We ask whether the choices it faces, and makes, are in fact empowering ones—apart from the fact they are chosen—and whether the impositions it (inevitably) undergoes are in fact empowering, apart from the fact they are not chosen.
[Part II to follow.]