Civic and Political Engagement: A Majority in Atrophy

The process of political communication in the United States of America fosters political division and garners two types of responses from the public, the conventional response and the unconventional response. This process divides people into two hegemonic groups of American political ideologies, with outliers along the political spectrum existing on both sides. I am claiming that the division of our citizenry into two political groups is the product of political communication and is the antithesis of participatory democracy, transparency, inclusion and justice. The eradication of the processes of political communications, which divide, through the unconventional political response, is the duty of a free people and a democratic society. The identification of oppressive mechanisms and control are at the core, a beginning of the process of creating a democratic society.

A Process of Political Socialization

Political communication is the tool used by the powerful; politics is power. Political capital is the ability of a group to influence the distribution of resources within a social unit, setting the agenda for how resources are available and who is eligible to receive them (Flora & Flora, 2004). Thought and consensus are a resource; political communication is the exercise of political capital upon the cognition and cogitation of people within a social unit. A social unit includes a nation, a state, a municipality, a family, an individual. The mass media becomes the launch pad for the distribution of thought and consensus. The mass media are the private, corporate organizations for profit that utilize the media to make money. These groups sell time and space to accumulate profits from other groups interested in utilizing the media to accumulate profits of their own. These groups or individuals attempt to accumulate customers and associations to fulfill a demand, let us call this process of commercial relationships simply, media advertizing. The cyclical relationship between both parties, those who own the media and those who want to profit from it without owning it, construct the cognition and cogitation understood by the public at large. In other words, the media and those who collude with it, influence our knowledge, our perceptions and our thoughts. This process is perhaps well intended when the public is informed of local food prices via the media. However, when the public receives information relevant to the ethical use of political capital, be it the distribution of military troops or the distribution of tax dollars. In any case, which an ideological or emotional appeal serves the politically powerful with the consent of the governed via mass media, this consent is the antithesis of democracy and civic engagement (Chomsky, 1989). 

How people respond to Political Communication

Today our nation is divided along partisan lines like never before (The Pew Research, 2012). My claim is that this political division results from the allocation of consent, cognition and cogitation among consumers of mass media. To understand this process fully, we must recognize the economic system that maintains this order, capitalism. In a competitive economy, which produces concentrations of wealth and power, monopolizing services and supply is a profitable advantage. Theoretical differences however, do exist between the weakest individual and group of individuals to the most powerful individual and group of individuals. These differences can be identified in the appeals made by those rich with political capital those who seek our consent. As media has evolved, the utility afforded the politically powerful has grown. As the politically powerful become more dependent on the media to obfuscate knowledge, manipulate and appeal for our consent, the value of the media has increased. This is Identifiable in the growth of campaign finance expenses and monetary accumulation required to achieve our consent, or in the most conventional case, our vote. The 2012 general election cost more than five billion dollars, following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling; this spending is under the banner of “free speech” (Goodman & Moynihan, 2012).

To further our understanding of this process, we must identify our electoral system. A winner takes all, first past the post competition, which naturally thrives in our capitalist economy. The furthering of political conformity upon individuals, based on a handful of political ideological differences that surround us; surrounding us as numerously as the advertized consumer fad surrounds us, via the mass media. This forces citizens into two political ideological molds, dividing the nation along trifling political issues. The dictatorship of capital maintains ruling class domination over the presently divided citizen subjects of the United States (Adamovsky, 2008).  The surrounding miniscule political ideological differences perpetuate the present course of our American political duopoly. The continuance of our two party system limits change and slows progress. The two party system is maintained by the wealthy ruling class who own the media, and determine those who they will collude with (Adamovsky, 2008). Hedging their bets along the way the ruling class finances both parties while broadcasting and printing the events of the established pseudo political competition to fan the flames of partisanship among the citizenry (Adamovsky, 2008). A divided citizenry whom the ruling class would rather refer to as customers, clients, or employees; any definition other than citizen equal under the law, our political process and political communication under the dictatorship of capital protects the ruling class (Adamovsky, 2008). Just as the capitalist limits competition of her cornered market place, so too is the state of our political market place limited. Spoon-feed political ideology, spin and manipulation pepper the popular cultural consumer landscape of mass media. All of which cheapen the engagement of American citizens.

Responses to political communication include the conventional and unconventional. The differences between conventional politics and unconventional politics are the difference between participating within the political arena or outside the political arena (Kriesi, 2008; Rimmerman, 2011). Some of the most common examples of conventional politics are voting, participating in a political meeting, obtaining political knowledge from the mass media or joining a political party. Unconventional politics is typically more radical and includes actions such as demonstrations and protests. There has been an increasing role in unconventional politics due to the rise in media outlets, blogging, and the ability for activists to be knowledgeable about events at the click of the mouse (Kriesi, 2008). Both responses are an attempt to make change. Focusing on the relationship between political communication and the unconventional response to it, let us introduce Activism.

Activism is an avenue of civic engagement. The level of political motivation exhibited by an individual or group determines the opportunity for activism. Activism is action that goes beyond conventional politics, typically being more energetic, passionate, innovative, and committed. In systems of representative government, conventional politics includes election campaigning, voting, passing laws, and lobbying politicians. Action outside of these arenas includes neighborhood organizing, protest marches, and sit-ins. The boundary between activism and conventional politics is fuzzy and depends upon the circumstances (Martin, 2007). The rise of the unconventional response began in the 1960s and continues today. However, social circumstances fuel or extinguish the likelihood of an unconventional response from the public majority. Nevertheless, minority classes, and minority groups of society remain unconventionally politically engaged in response to political communication. In the 1960s, just as in anytime when people have changed the nature of citizenship, whether during the fight for women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, or worker rights, a social trigger ignites the unconventional response to political communication. In the 1960s, that trigger was the United States extended participation in the war in Vietnam. Since then, cross sections of the population remain unconventionally engaged. This engagement is a symptom of a minority of the population. Triggers remain mostly the same today, while the tactics to execute a successful unconventional response is evolving. The unconventional response causes thousands to rally in the streets outside of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions every four years. It is what drove people to Zuccotti Park outside The New York Stock Exchange in protest. The unconventional response motivates action, coordination and the deliberate exercise of individuals’ constitutional rights in mass. The conventional response is the majority choice. Successfully divided along ideological lines, the majority considers convention the growth of democratic deliberation and their contribution to it. What causes this dichotomy? How do some people and groups emerge unconventionally and others do not?

A Theory of Engagement

Awareness of alternatives and the audacity to pursue them emboldens the character of the minority of unconventional respondents to political communication. The realization of despotism, the concentration of political powers into the hands of a few oligarchs, in the case of the United States, into the hands of the two political parties, organized by the dictatorship of capital; motivates the unconventional response. Furthering awareness of our social superstructure, associated with a Marxist critique of capitalism, characterized as the structure of a society including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state (Marx & Engels, 2005). In our critique of political communication, we focus on the growth of the superstructure, which we can call the media partnerships that further the goals of our present oligarchic two party duopoly and the flow of capital, the material economy, commercial relationships and privatization. The relationship between private media outlets and the two party oligarchs is insanely profitable. All of which, if unrecognized, perpetuates the conventional response. A response that is anything but participatory, nor rooted in notions of participatory democracy.

Participatory democracy is dependent on social capital. Robert Putnam defines social capital as the features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit (Putnam, 1995). The forces that coordinate cooperation for mutual benefit, unit people against the oligarchs and the manipulative structures that promotes conventional responses among the populace. Division from one another, as Robert Putnam would tell us is endemic of our lives today, and is a tool utilized by the despotic oligarchs of our two party political system and a product of consumerism. From social connections and mutual benefit grows participatory democracy; characterized as participation that develops the individual and the individual’s realization of citizenship (Rimmerman, 2011).  Democratic participation is the belief that through participation citizens can make decisions that affect their quality of life (Putnam, 1995). Deliberation is at the core of the participatory democratic tradition, “to deliberate means to weigh carefully both the consequences of various options for action and the views of others” (Rimmerman, 2011). “Without being capable of giving common direction to government, people are capable of being little more than consumers of government services” (Rimmerman, 2011). It is clear to see that without democratic participation, without social connections that form the basis of deliberation; if we limit ourselves to conventional responses to political communication, we render ourselves mere subjects, clients, or customers of governments. Continuing down this path, we can find ourselves equally powerless over the guidance of the social superstructure, which perpetuates our convention and complacency. All of which furthers the forming of relationships not based on mutual benefit but rather commercial relations, not meant to foster deliberation. These are the barriers to civic and political participation; these are some causes of apathy.

Apathy is an Alliance with Despots

For a citizen to remain a subject, a client, a customer, is for this non-person to align with despotic leaders who seek our manufactured consent. The causes of apathy are not simple. The result of our advanced superstructure is division into two hegemonic groups along seemingly opposed political ideology, which produce a majority of the popular consent. This is achieved as narrowly different choices masquerade as the outcomes of deliberated participation. Two narrowly different cultural hegemonies emerge out of superstructure dominance. The term Cultural Hegemony describes “the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of the society, the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores of society so that their ruling class view becomes the worldview. A view that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm, as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class” (Bullock, 1999). This is the popular participation in party politics, when individuals identify as democrat or republican.

Picking a Side

These days our participation is artificially manufactured to the lowest common denominator. We are made apathetic by our work, our purchasing power, our insecurities (exploited by commerce), our wants, our perceived social mobility and desired quality of commercial life. A forty-hour workweek taxes our time and our senses. Selling our labor for purchasing power, for our wants, and to climb a social ladder, further divides us in competition rather than connecting us in community. The erosion of social ties, dwindling participation in civic clubs and increasingly more time spent in private spaces disconnects us from one another and our community (Putnam, 1995). This disconnection and our priorities are a product of the superstructure. The continued work of activists against injustice, against the powerful and their forced social structures is a product of the human spirit unwilling to accept lies, falsehoods and domination. While multitudes of people participate in activism, greater still multitudes discredit those who act. The wider culture discourages the unconventional response. To engage in alternative pursuits and lifestyles is to amputate ourselves from the culture that demands our misguided allegiance. Lines are being drawn in the sand; the increasing power potential of information control furthers wider social political conformity and simultaneously polarizes outliers along the political spectrum. Information control is crucial in the maintenance of a subject/client society. The cultural political majority is less tolerant of political differences amid increasing polarization.

Throughout history, even today in modern education we learn that the hard way is the best way. Christianity, the dominate religion of the west, celebrates the self-sacrifice of the difficult task accomplished. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”. Albert Camus wrote, “The only way to deal with an un-free world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Mathew 7: 13-14 says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. Much like the acceptance of the ruling class view, perpetuated by the superstructure, manifested in the nationwide conventional response to political communication is that of entering through the broad gate. Doing this is protecting evil. Living so free, choosing the narrow path, is to amputate yourself from the popular political culture and fight to defeat the domination it holds over your fellow citizens. This path leads to life. To be politically engaged is to fight against forces that would rather we only passively participated. Forces that would rather we drown ourselves in material wants and greed, and seek to satisfy ourselves alone. It is the duty of a just society of free people to overcome this advancing immorality of egoism and social estrangement. The unconventional response to political communication is, to those who chose to acknowledge it, is the exercise of our duty to one another.

Conclusion

The politically powerful and the partnerships they make that facilitate their messaging, branding, convolution, manipulation and obfuscation of facts, benefit from the conventional political respondents. Convention legitimizes the political duopoly, turns the gears of capital and fuels our political apathy (Adamovsky, 2008). However, it does not have to be this way. The wheels of commerce and capital have given us our greatest technological achievements, although, some of these outcomes have disconnected us from one another (Putnam, 1995). Our disconnection has separated our concerns for one another. The public commons has been replaced with the private workplace, the public roadway has been replaced with the private car (Safdie & Kohn, 1997); the public discourse has been manufactured by the ruling class through the superstructure that forces cultural hegemony, manufacturing our conventional response (Adamovsky, 2008). However, it does not have to be this way. We can reconnect, re-humanize, and invigorate justice and social ties. All of which are requisites of a participatory democracy. We can overcome this hegemonic culture by turning off the TV, throw out our newspapers and the news web sites and blogs, and we can talk to our neighbors. Celebrating not our commercial relationships, but the establishment of bottom up democratic communities, the maintenance of the commons, and the de-privatization of our human needs, needs we can provide for one another in solidarity. Furthermore, to facilitate the education of the unconventional response, we must reinvigorate critical thinking, education that does not teach the tenants of cultural hegemony, rather tolerance for its opposite. Political reform must come as well. The manipulative partnerships that maintain the dominance of the ruling class, in this dictatorship of capital must be eroded; the rule of law must be reestablished to return the power to the people. Financial relationships that benefit a few, while forcing, or exploiting the labor, time and value of multitudes of people in our wage system must be reformed to establish workplace democracy. These changes eliminate the barriers to civic participation, and mechanism that protect capital from the people. A democratic society cannot exist without these reforms, and indeed one such society does not yet exist.


References

Adamovsky, Ezequiel. Anti-Capitalism. Seven Stories Press, New York, NY, 2008.

Bullock, Alan; Trombley, Stephen, Editors (1999), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought Third Edition, pp. 387–88.

Chomsky, Noam. Necessary Illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Societies. Pantheon, 1989.

Flora, Cornelia, B. & Flora, Jan, L. Rural Communities: Legacy and Change. Second Edition; West View Press, Boulder, Co, 2004.

Goodman, Amy & Moynihan, Denis. The Silenced Majority: Stories of Uprisings, Occupations, Resistance, and Hope. Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2012.

Kriesi, Hanspeter. 2008. Political Mobilization, Political Participation and the Power of the Vote. West European Politics 31(1/2):147-168.

Martin, Brian. Activism, social and political. Sage, 2007. Online. Accessed April 9, 2013. http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/07Anderson.html

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto and other writings. Barns and Noble Classic, 2005.

Putnam, D. Robert. Bowling Alone: Americas Declining Social Capital. Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pp. 65-78.

Rimmerman, Craig, A. The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism and Service. Fourth Edition; West View Press, Boulder, Co, 2011.

Safdie, Moshe & Kohn, Wendy. The City after the Automobile. A New Republic Book, 1997.

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