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A View from Canada

A vote is the beginning of political participation, not the end.

Jonathan Sterne

This is my first election outside the United States. My partner and I voted last week and now we get to settle down on Tuesday to watch the event with a bunch of Canadian friends. It is weird to think that American politics has all the qualities of a spectator sport up here. One friend jokingly talks about it openly that way. He says he watches American politics instead of sports.

Canadians can't vote, but their lives will be affected by the outcome of the election. So they are more than armchair quarterbacks watching Americans throw around their political footballs. Yet, so much of American politics operates on exactly the same consumer model as professional sports. The parties offer you shiny new (or slightly used) candidates are you are supposed to choose. Indeed, the boundaries between politics and other kinds of celebrity become less and less relevant in the press as non-sequiturs like “character” take up vast portions of column space and screen time. Much of the political blogosphere seems eerily similar to the kinds of commentary I read each week on the football websites when deciding which player to start on my fantasy team. In both, there's a lot of speculation about performance, and in both the audience is expected to "participate" by making a largely vicarious choice.

Voting is incredibly important this time around, to be sure. Bush must go. But voting can never be the apex of political activity, nor even a synecdoche for other political action. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether all the official celebration of voting by the American political establishment actually deters other kinds of participation and thereby continues to concentrate power in the hands of party leaders, who, like the Democratic Leadership Council, have largely focused on matters of election strategy instead of issue-based platform-building.

Voting is about making a choice, but so much of the rest of politics is about making choices for others possible. So by all means vote on election day. But let that be the beginning of your political activity, and not the end. There is a spectator sport dimension to politics, and for people outside the U.S., that is often as far as their involvement can go. For Americans, however, the spectacle should never be enough to satisfy the will and obligation to political involvement.

Copyright © Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.