Do Elections Guarantee Freedom?

That’s a rhetorical question, right?

Actually, it’s the title of the most recently posted article of mine from the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily.

Even though elections did not guarantee freedom in the past, we can be confident they will do so this year because [redacted by FBI web editor]

DO ELECTIONS GUARANTEE FREEDOM?     Freedom Daily, November 2007

by James Bovard

Elections are sometimes portrayed as practically giving people automatic “remote control” on the government. Elections kindly provide a chance for people to pre-program the government for the following years. The government will be based on the popular will, regardless of the ignorance of the populace or the duplicity of the government.

President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1965 that “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” But the fact that voting rights helped undermine Jim Crow restrictions on blacks did not prevent the government from ladling new restrictions and burdens on all citizens. During the election campaign the prior year, Johnson had promised, “We are not about to send American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles away to do what Asian boys ought to be doing to protect themselves.” The fact that parents could vote for or against Johnson did nothing to stop him from betraying his promise and sending their sons to die.

In his 1989 farewell address, President Ronald Reagan asserted,  ““We the People” tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. “We the people” are the driver — the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. ”

But the American people did not choose to “drive” into Beirut and get hundreds of Marines blown up, choose to run up the largest budget deficits in American history, provide thousands of anti-tank weapons to Ayatollah Khomeni, or have a slew of top political appointees either lie or get caught in conflicts of interest or other abuses of power or ethical quandaries between 1981 and 1988.

On the eve of his 1992 election debacle, President George H.W. Bush told a Texas audience,  “And tomorrow, you participate in a ritual, a sacred ritual of stewardship…. With your vote, you are going to help shape the future of this, the most blessed, special nation that man has ever known and God has helped create. And so, look at your vote — especially the young people — look at your vote as an act of power, a statement of principle.”

Yet few of the people who voted the following day were making a statement of principle in favor of permitting the president to deploy troops (or additional troops) abroad on his whim (as Clinton did in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere), permitting the government to waive the Posse Comitatus Act and use military equipment against American civilians (as happened at Waco), or permitting the government to vastly increase its surveillance of the American people. Yet voting in the 1992 election was still “a statement of principle,” regardless of how much the winner scorned the voters’ principles.

Two days after his 2004 reelection victory, President George W. Bush declared, “When you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view … and the people made it clear what they wanted. ”

But did voters on November 2,, 2004  “consent” to the destruction of Fallujah in the following weeks? Did they consent to the nomination of a Homeland Security czar who was openly hostile to any criticism of politicians? Did Bush’s National Rifle Association supporters consent to his nominating a man for attorney general who advocated far more federal restrictions on gun ownership? Did voters consent to the illegal wiretapping of the chief of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, as the Bush administration sought to discredit and remove an impediment to a U.S. war on Iran? If Bush had made “ending tyranny everywhere via preemptive U.S. military attacks” the theme for his fall 2004 campaign, he very likely would have lost the election. Instead, he downplayed this notion — until his second inaugural address.

The only way to suppose voters consented to such government actions is to assume they granted Bush boundless power to use as he sees fit. But this is the type of consent given by people who forfeit their rights and accept a court-appointed guardian to run their lives.

Absolution through election

Politicians routinely invoke elections as absolutions. Shortly before his second inauguration, a journalist asked Bush, “Why hasn’t anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments” on Iraq? Bush replied,

Well, we had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I’m grateful.
An election victory expunges all abuses from the official record. Unfortunately, the more ignorant and negligent the citizens, the easier it becomes for winners to invoke their election victories to shroud their abuses.

In the aftermath of the November 2004 election, the refrain from both politicians and editorial pages was that the result of the voting showed the “will of the people.” But was it the will of the people to have to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry, or between Al Gore and Bush, or between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole? (Third-party candidates provided good protest votes but could not block career politicians from office.)

That is like saying that it was the will of the Bulgarian consumer in communist times to choose between an unreliable, ramshackle Trabant from East Germany and an unreliable ramshackle Skoda car from Czechoslovakia. Many American voters felt as frustrated by their choice of presidential candidates as did Eastern Bloc car shoppers in the 1980s. The fact that voters expressed a preference for Bush or Kerry proves nothing about either candidate’s being the will of the individual voter.

King Louis XIV of France declared, “Kings are absolute lords and naturally enjoy the full and free disposal of all the possessions of their subjects.” The only way that the 2004 election could exonerate all of Bush’s first-term actions is if voting levers are naturally vested with absolute power over everything. Voting levers cannot legitimize violations of rights unless voters and election winners have the right Louis XIV claimed for kings to use and abuse everything in the nation.

Electing our despot

The average American voter had no recourse on November 2, 2004, to make the federal government obey the Constitution or keep the peace. But this was the same situation the voters faced on November 7, 2000, November 5, 1996, and November 3, 1992. Instead, each voter was merely asked to personally consecrate the continued violations of the highest law of the land by whoever won. The current system of government is structured so that voters effectively have to vest near-absolute power in someone. This is simply how the rulers and the establishment have fixed the game. Any choice that would deny nearly boundless power to the rulers is kept out of the sunlight by the powers that be.

Bush’s reelection symbolized that the Constitution is now far less of a restraint on presidential powers. The torture scandal, the power to nullify all rights by using the enemy combatant label, and other gross abuses of power were not major issues in the 2004 presidential campaign. Thus, the first-term abuses became the starting line for the second-term abuses. Bush’s reelection made clear that a president’s proclaimed goals could exonerate his methods — thus largely obliterating many of the safeguards built in by the Framers of the Constitution. But elections based on the winner’s receiving unlimited power are based on far different principles than are elections in which winners remain subservient to the Constitution and the law. This is the difference between voting for a master and voting for a chief law-enforcement officer. America is far closer today to what the Framers dreaded — “slavery by constitutional forms.”

The more power that voting levers confer, the more unreliable elections become as a mode of governance. Instead of being antibiotics for the body politic, elections become simply another quack cure.

French historian Marc Bloch noted that, during the Middle Ages, “the notion arose that freedom was lost when free choice could not be exercised at least once in a lifetime.” The only freedom many people sought was to pick whose “man” they would become. Medieval times included elaborate ceremonies in which the fealty was consecrated. With current elections, people are permitted to choose whose pawns they will be. Voting is becoming more like a medieval act of fealty — with voters bowing down their heads and promising obedience to whoever is proclaimed the winner.

What if being permitted to choose a master once every four years is the primary “freedom” left? Are citizens merely choosing whose vassal they will be? Many citizens today behave like slaves who spent their time wishing for a good master, rather than scouting up information on runaway routes.

America was born as a republic — with limited-government powers, carefully crafted checks and balances, and distinct roles for the people, for legislators, for judges, and for the executive branch. Many Americans these days are content with “democracy” — regardless of how much of the strength and safeguards of the original Constitution have been lost.

“Representative government” is a phrase far less prone to induce mass delusions than is democracy. “Democracy” sounds like automatic pilot — that the government will serve the people simply because that is part of the mission statement. In contrast, the term “representative government” sounds more hit and miss. There is no transcendence in the term “representative government” — nothing to make people believe that government bureaus magically fulfill the rhetoric of presidential speech writers. Representatives are merely representatives, not incarnations of the General Will or the voice of God. Instead, they are usually simply people who preferred the pursuit of power to other ways of making a buck. Even when representative government works tolerably well, it is difficult to inspire the representatives to do much more than hustle for their own reelection.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy [2006] as well as The Bush Betrayal [2004], Lost Rights [1994] and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003)


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16 Responses to Do Elections Guarantee Freedom?

  1. Dirk W. Sabin February 20, 2008 at 10:58 am #

    The growth of a gigantic Federal Bureaucracy doing the bidding of the Unitary Executive insures that elections are no longer “guarantees of freedom”. The personalities of the Executives will continue to change but the Bureaucracy sustains and it is this huge unelected institution that has replaced the Separation of Powers and turned Federalism into the consumptive and destructive thing it is. Entropy is the only force that effects it and the manifold mistakes and vast wasted sums of money spent by the bureaucracy show that power is never static and that most power is self-defeating.

    The only thing our vote, our participation in the continuing perversion…… guarantees is that the Republic will recede further into the rear view mirror with each election cycle.

    Life remains busy on a corpse for some time after the last breath was exhaled.

    We do not elect a President, we rotate the Executive of a Vast Bureaucracy that is a greater hazard than any terrorist threat can ever be.

  2. Adam S. February 20, 2008 at 1:52 pm #

    I believe that elections any more are less than a bother or irrelevance. They are nauseating. The election never ends. I can’t have one day without endless speculation on who the future nominee will be. Mallard Fillmore satirized this years ago with a cartoon. A woman gives birth to a girl. The doctor weighs her and says, “A girl, 7 lbs., 9 oz. By the way, she’s going to be the Republican nominee in 2048”
    Jonathan Rauch destroyed whatever illusions about politics I had. His book “Washington’s End” showed the inevitable sloth of bureaucracy. I say let the government collapse under its own weight. Then we can get on with our lives.

  3. Tom Blanton February 20, 2008 at 9:37 pm #

    I keep having this dream where I am working a precinct this November with a big sign saying “Why Bother?” and passing out pamphlets encouraging people to go home and wallow in their own excrement.

  4. Marc February 20, 2008 at 9:50 pm #

    Now that the executive branch has assumed vast new arbitrary powers, presidential elections are even more of a joke than ever. It’s like exercising one’s right to choose either Caligula or Commodus once every four years.

  5. Mace Price February 21, 2008 at 1:50 am #

    “…It is not the people who vote that count so much in an election; but moreover those who count the votes.”

    —Josef Stalin

  6. Paul McMahon February 21, 2008 at 10:46 am #

    Good points all. Apart from the winner’s freedom to do as he pleases once the election is over, the notion a 51% majority of voters (not citizens) constitutes a “mandate” for anything is absurd in the extreme. And yet that is the conclusion winning candidates draw (at least publicly) with respect to EVERY element of their platform. Nonsense.

    I noted that upon Castro’s resignation this week, Bush’s comments were something to the effect of “now democracy can take hold in Cuba” as if the problem with Castro was that he was not democratically elected. I guess that means the regimes of Chavez, Lula, Kirchner, Putin, etc, etc are legitimate because the autocrat in question came to power in an election?

    Ed Crane has the right idea on this. At an individual level, the act of voting only serves to endorse the false legitimacy these scoundrals assume.

  7. Dirk W. Sabin February 21, 2008 at 11:35 am #

    A bigshot Tycoon (name escapes me at present) who once worked in the Nixon Administration has formed a Political Action-Philanthropic Organization and he hired the director of the GAO I believe (about the only Federal Office that has held Bushleaguensis I’s feet to the fire) to head it. When asked if he was going to spend some of his efforts on “education”, He characterized the public as
    “Inert”. Would that they were indeed “inert” and could not therefore keep sending tax revenue to the Black Hole on the Potomac. It would be nice to se two simple figures published:
    1. The total amount of money spent annually and
    2. The total number of people employed in State, Local and Federal Government.

    We’ve taken it as an article of faith that this Bureaucracy is needed in a modern society and so all we get is tepid efforts at reform. In Garet Garrett’s “Peoples Pottage”, he details the FDR Administrations methodical plan to create a huge Federal slush fund by abandoning the Gold Standard, confiscating Gold and then inflating the price of gold . His treasury Secretary Morganthau wrote in his diary about the bedside chats he and FDR had for a period when they were arbitrarily setting the price of gold. One morning, the President blithely decreed that the increase would be 21 cents because it is “a lucky number, three times seven”. FDR fancied himself to be an architect too. Good thing he only built a cottage at Hyde Park.

    All these folks have the best of intentions usually, some more than others of course but the bottom line is that the base line for all activities starts from the precept that government is a force of good a means to advancing society. We once had at least a vocal wing that disputed this idea effectively but with the GOP lost down a power-jag rathole scabbed over by social conservatism, we have big government “liberals” and big government “conservatives” all engaged in setting policy and growing govrnment reach on little more than the idea that “21 is a lucky number because it is 3 times 7”.
    At this juncture, I’d trust chicken entrails more….a lot more.

  8. Joe February 21, 2008 at 8:14 pm #

    Jim, I’m curious as to whether you believe that “limited-government powers, carefully crafted checks and balances, and distinct roles for the people, for legislators, for judges, and for the executive branch” is an attainable goal (no timeframe). How do you explain abuses from the early days, like the Alien and Sedition Acts?

  9. Jim February 21, 2008 at 10:47 pm #

    Joe, I think we could achieve a government that was much less perilous than the one we have.

    I have never been a fan of the first Adams presidency – him and his Federalists were damn rascals.

  10. Jim February 21, 2008 at 10:50 pm #

    Dirk, but if people start relying on chicken entrails, the government will start regulating entrail reading.

    I think it was Peter Peterson who hired away the head of GAO. Funny story in the papers a few days ago about how he benefited big time from a tax break… It was unclear whether his tax break was consistent with his philosophy…

  11. Ryan February 22, 2008 at 2:56 am #


    I have to quibble with you on this one minor point:

    “Are citizens merely choosing whose vassal they will be?”

    On this I believe it is less a case of whose vassal we will be, but more of which vassal we rubber stamp as “our new leader”.

    I’ve observed over the years that the quality of the candidates, like those of the “debates”, has declined in a noticable way. Other than Ron Paul, the rest of these clowns strike me as mere figureheads for other people working behind the scenes.

    Other than this, a fine article.
    Tom Blanton,

    That dream you have is my nightmare realized. I not only get to work the polls this November, but also in July. This after working them last February and seeing a dismal return that leaves me to believe the election process is being violated.

    Your disgust is mine as well, for I almost think the election is over for all pratical purposes.

  12. Dirk W. Sabin February 22, 2008 at 10:40 am #

    I suppose if a certain esteemed and Midas-like Investment Banking House can land a windfall through shorting the sub-prime financial instruments that have tanked a goodly portion of the nation’s wealth, why shouldn’t Mr. Peterson get
    his tax break?

    It seems to have been amply demonstrated that an increasing percentage of modern life bears little, if any relationship to reality. The average Mexican
    Soap Opera has a higher degree of authenticity than most this yuppie consumerist blightage.

    I doubt the individuals involved are any better or worse than they have ever been , it’s just the vaunted social construct that has been erected should make any sane and distracted observer seriously alarmed.

    I spent a couple weeks with the native muleteers and fisherman in a remote Pacific Coastvillage in Jalisco, Mexico along with a weekend up in the mountains @ a Spanish Colonial Hacienda lit by kerosene lamps and the first day back in the States was comprised of waiting out the storm in the debauched airports whilst listening to
    the breathless ejaculations spewing from the
    television and I have to tell you that after 14 days
    out of this practical joke, one begins to lose one’s
    blithe acceptance of it. We really do appear to have a political system and social construct we deserve.
    85% artificial flavoring and colors.

  13. Jean February 22, 2008 at 8:26 pm #

    Jim, I wonder after all those years that Lysander Spooner was right. I just saw that the Mises Institute has released a book about him. I enjoying reading him very much.
    As far as elections go, well basically those who think that elections will change anything really haven’t been paying attention. I haven’t voted since 2002, and if Ron Paul isn’t on the ballot for President, I will stay home again.

    And finally, in your opinion, would the Articles of Confederation have been better than the Constitution? My reading says yes, and by leaps and bounds. Just curios about your opinion.

  14. Jim February 22, 2008 at 11:16 pm #

    Jean, I think the Articles of Confederation would have avoided much of the carnage of subsequent decades.

    On the other hand, I don’t know how much of the blame the original Constititution deserves. Once the spirit of Abolition took hold of the North – and the spirit of Slavery Forever and Stretched Further swept much of the South – it may have been only a question of time until all hell broke loose.

    I still think it would have been far preferable that, instead of having a national civil war, South Carolina and Massachusetts could have duked it out. Those states were among the most extreme on both sides – with enough noxious notions to deluge the continent.


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