Neoliberal Political Enfranchisement and the Market of Values: A Rough Sketch

Americans continually express a general feeling of powerlessness in opinion polling regarding the course of national politics.[1] More, the nation’s wealthy citizens now wield an inordinate influence by co-opting politicians as mouthpieces for their interests.[2] That is, individuals and firms possessing huge resources and the super-PACs (political action committees) that serve them can command attention in the political arena by focusing the attention of politicians and voters on issues that concern them.[3] Put differently, votes are not enough because elites also play a very large role in shaping public discourse. That fact results in citizens perceiving themselves as powerless with their concerns pushed to the periphery.[4] Both resource-rich firms and individuals and elected leaders benefit from this arrangement—wealthy individuals and interests control popular discourse, and public leaders gain influence and advantages in campaigning for elections.[5] These facts raise a difficult issue: how is the average citizen to influence the political agenda?

I argue that citizens can become politically enfranchised when equipped with an understanding of how the country’s dominant public philosophy of neoliberalism[6] views their role and how the political system functions. I believe voters can influence political discourse by actively participating in what I call the market of values that has been created by neoliberal politics. I call attention to the ability of citizens to affect the voices of wealthy interests by strategically attacking wedge issues linked to them which, I argue, increases the value of each individual’s vote by affecting the costs associated with voter-politician interactions. Below I provide a rough sketch of a theory of political enfranchisement in a neoliberal context, by highlighting an avenue through which citizens can, in principle, influence the trajectory of the nation’s political discourse.

Pursuing Neoliberal Political Enfranchisement

Neoliberalism’s emphasis on individual consumption and tilt toward voice-through-money governance works to redefine the democratic citizen into a citizen-consumer.[7] To the extent this is so, it follows that one possible avenue for political enfranchisement appears in where citizen-consumers spend their money. Since corporate and Wealth interests in the form of super-PACs dominate political discourse, and those same advocacy groups survive based on the capital their benefactors provide, making it more costly for such interests to advocate in the political arena should also affect the survival of the political action committees attached to them. In this sense, to attack (and redress) the role of capital and Wealth interests in advocacy will help to reshape political discourse.

If one is convinced, as I am, that American politics is influenced disproportionately by wealth and corporate interests[8] via now largely unregulated campaign contributions,[9] one direct way to influence political discourse may occur via citizen boycotts of corporations and interests that contribute to super-PACs. Everyday resistance by individual actors[10] in the form of refusal to buy a company’s products when these firms activities are antithetical to his or her political interests may increase the economic cost for the wealthy or corporations to press their policy claims publicly.

The first targets for citizen-consumer boycotts should be those interests that press wedge issues in the public square. A wedge issue is, “an issue that is likely to cause division between the members of a group.”[11] Political elites often use these concerns to divert attention from deeper issues of policy and economics.[12] The intent of boycotting firms and interests that donate to super-PACs advocating wedge issues is to push discussions of other matters that those groups have often relegated to the periphery by controlling political discourse to the fore. To the extent that money “talks,” how citizens spend their funds can affect the character and contours of political discourse and represent a form of citizen enfranchisement.

This strategy does not guarantee the victory of any political party. Ceasing to patronize an establishment does not imply the citizen-consumer must support another to be politically enfranchised. The aim instead is to make rich interests and individuals think twice before engaging in misleading and divisive political advocacy by imposing real costs if they do.

By boycotting interests that employ wedge issues in their advocacy, the value of individual votes is increased. In this sense, votes represent a sort of currency in a market in which values are traded for political power. By “voting” every day with their money, citizens can increase the cost of doing business for politicians by demanding that they address higher value issues for an opportunity to attain political power.

Conclusion

Although a full discussion of this approach is beyond the scope of this essay, I can note a few of its advantages and weaknesses. First, everyday resistance of this sort needs no coordination; it prevents leader co-optation efforts; does not require funding beyond what citizens already possess; and takes both the current political environment and the dominance of neoliberalism as salient shaping conditions. It is predicated on individual choice-making and requires no organizational infrastructure. However, this strategy does demand that super-PAC donor funding streams be transparent, and remain so.[13] Additionally, for it to be maximally effective, the national government should push to centralize data about who donates to whom and make that information publicly transparent so citizens are able to stay abreast of the changing political climate. A lack of information is this strategy’s Achilles’ heel. Further, it only addresses wedge issues and not other matters. However, through information, and an engaged populace, this type of political enfranchisement has the potential to diminish the disproportionate power of firms and the wealthy now possessing it and give it back to voters, although how much power citizens can acquire in this way remains uncertain.

[1] Hall, W. (2014, October 20). Politico Poll: 64% Believe America Is ‘Out of Control’ – Breitbart. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/10/20/politico-poll-64-believe-america-is-out-of-control/

[2] Vogel, K. (2015, January 11). Blue billionaires on top. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/blue-billionaires-on-top-114151.html

[3] Haddon, H., & Epstein R. (1/26/2015) Christie joins Republicans’ crowded fight for donors. The Wall Street Journal pp.A1+

[4] Diamond, J. (2015, January 6). CNN Poll: New Congress? Americans not feeling change – CNN.com. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/06/politics/poll-americans-congress-no-change/

[5] Vogel, K., & Parti, T. (2015, January 28). Koch donors give Marco Rubio early nod. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/koch-donors-marco-rubio-2016-114673.html?hp=t1_r

[6] Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism (pp.2-3). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Ibid, pp.23, 42, 57,70

[8] Ibid, p.48

[9] Vogel, K. (2011, August 9). Both sides now in dash for anonymous cash – Kenneth P. Vogel. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60731.html

[10] Scott, J. (1985). Weapons of the weak everyday forms of peasant resistance (p. 242). New Haven: Yale University Press.

[11] wedge issue. (n.d.) Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003). Retrieved January 28 2015 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/wedge+issue

[12]Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism(pp.49, 51, 82-5). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] Vogel, K. (2011, August 9). Both sides now in dash for anonymous cash – Kenneth P. Vogel. Retrieved January 28, 2015, from http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60731.html

Alex bio pic (2)Alex Stubberfield is currently a master’s student in both philosophy and public and international affairs. His interest and research in philosophy has been in the moral and dimensions of that field, mostly in consequentialism and normative democratic theory. His companion interests in public and international affairs include international relations, nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations, capacity building, and development. He hopes to continue his education at Virginia Tech in either the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought) or Planning, Governance and Globalization PhD program next fall.

 

 

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