“You Are Powerful,” Says the Pseudocracy

How politically powerful is an individual citizen in the U.S. (or anywhere)?  Potentially good answers, which you may re-rank:

1. None.

2. Very little.

3. Depends on who the individual is.

4. A lot.

5. Enormous amount–the backbone (scapula?) of a democracy!

Legends about the American democracy involve “the citizen,” one person/one vote, “the people have spoken,” and so on. Propaganda, Ellul tells us, operates by appealing to the masses while seeming to appeal directly to an individual at the same time.  He also tells us that, partly because of technology, all states practice propaganda. Watching a cable pundit-show, for example, a citizen sitting in a couch may feel as if s/he is spoken to, directly, may get emotionally charged, politically enraged, invited into the inner circle. –But is just on the couch and politically impotent, in (another) reality.

Questions to advance and muddle the discussion: What is the proper description of the U.S. politically, if not “a democracy”?  “Republic”? “Oligarchy”? “Empire”?  Some combination of two or more? Obviously, on this scale, the alleged power of “the individual” varies greatly.

In any event or muddle, pseudocracy, the rule of falsehoods, depends upon citizens’ believing in their own influence, agency, and power–correct?  And not individuals like Sheldon Adelman (just one example), who may single-handedly influence, say, a primary-season with a lot of money: he kept Newt Gingrich going for a while.  Sheldon Adelman was the band, and Newt was the front-man, singing the hits. “Here’s one from the 1990s, folks, on Contract With America album. A little something we like to call ‘Ballad of the Tax and Spend Liberal.'”

The more an “ordinary” citizen feels empowered by politically rhetorical appeals, the easier time of it a politician’s operation or a Party will have in securing the person’s vote, extracting donations, and perhaps moving the person to abandon the couch and canvas a district.

Attitudes toward this circumstance vary (wow, what an assertion).  Many citizens have little idea what the pseudocracy is up to. They’re busy with other things. Some citizens are hyper-engaged.  A student in one of my classes the other day called such people “slacktivists.”  He said, “You know, they re-post some link on Facebook and think they’re involved in the struggle.”  Some citizens don’t vote, some refuse to vote, some vote occasionally. Some “get involved” concretely: canvassing, holding up signs, working in a political office, etc.

And then there’s the paradox of the individual vote or contribution.  If Bob Example did not give 25 dollars to Obama’s last campaign, how would Bob have affected the election?  Not at all.  But at some point between Bob Example and 10 million Examples, the withholding of 25 dollars might change the election-result–correct? We have also seen the aspiring candidate who’s campaign runs out of money.  He or she announces “the suspension” of the campaign. What was the tipping-point when too many Examples stopped giving?

Citizen, what is one to do with one’s illusory, if paradoxically real, power in the pseudocracy? Let us conclude with another list of possibilities, which you may re-rank, and to which you may add:

1. Nothing. Be detached. Practice figurative if not literal Buddhism. Go to the garden. Meditate. Play chess. Do pushups.

2. Something. Lend a hand in one local election/iniative/protest every 7.5 years.

3. Stay informed! A good citizen is an informed citizen, I was told in 4th grade.  Jacques Ellul suggests that an informed citizen is a likely target for propaganda because, every-hungry for “information,” the informed citizen will ingest many falsehoods and not emit them.

4. Stay informed but stay cynical.  Oh, yeah, I’ve read all about the issue of fracking, but fracking will be. The ways of these people are strange!  The more informed I get, the more bitter I can become. I like bitter!

5. Stay “up” on the issues, vote regularly, give some dough to campaigns. Right down the middle of the 18the fairway at Pseudocracy Beach Golf Resort.

6. Just stay rabid, baby. FOX or MSNBC every night. Drudge or Maher. Message boards. Facebook. Online. Member of a micro-group who agrees with you and keeps your adrenaline and dopamine flowing. Hater of the opposition.  Purger of impurists.Giver of money til it (the giving, not the money) hurts, as the telethoners used to say.

7. Get inside a campaign.

8. Throw a shoe at a political celebrity.

9.. Run for office.

So, there are 9 of many relationships you might cultivate with the Pseudocracy, which pretends to be so-into you.

Coda: Few groups are more likely to include pseudocracy-seduced individuals than academia, partly because of the “informed citizen,” Ellulian paradox, partly because most academics habitually act as if they have the answers (and thus will make stuff up), partly because they associate their (inflated sense of) status with power, and partly because they live vicariously through some real or imagined “struggle.”  A noted campus conservative may feel he is part of a larger counter-act on those pesky academic liberals. An academic feminist may imagine he is part of that struggle for rights out there.  A sociologist may feel she is at the barricades, preserving free speech, or liberating the working class. Reality? (Or another reality.) –The academivist is holding office hours and posting something on a campus listserv about a recent squabble on a small campus of which a micro-percentage of people have heard. C’est la pseudo-gare.

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