I’ve used this example before—that elections in the U.S. are like a very complicated audition. Complicated audition in the sense that it’s like the popular shows where people get on and perform, like “American Idol.” In these situations, secondarily you’re trying to get the approval of the audience, but primarily you’re trying to get the approval of the panel of judges. Even in terms of getting to perform, getting your chance to be out there before the audience—and in terms of how the audience is influenced—you have to get the approval of the judges. Now, part of getting the approval of the judges is showing that you can move the audience in a certain way—but in a fundamental sense it comes back to the judges. It’s the same thing in elections.
In these elections, under this system, the “audition” (in other words, participation in primary elections to determine who the final candidates will be) is geared primarily to the panel of judges—to where the big money is to finance a campaign, to where the people are who control the media and other major institutions—you have to win their approval, above all. But part of auditioning for them is to convince them that you can influence the “audience” (the public) in a way they want it influenced. That is a big part of the way you audition, of what this audition is really for—not for “the public” but for the “panel of judges”—for those people who are in a position to decide whether they will (or will not) get major finances funneled into your campaign, and will (or will not) cast your “audition” (your efforts as a candidate) in a favorable light in the mass media, and so on.
The “deciders,” in fundamental and ultimate terms, are not “the American People,” as they like to pretend, but that small part of “the American people” which dominates the economy and therefore the politics, the media and in general the means of molding public opinion, and every other sphere of social life: the capitalist-imperialist ruling class and its political and literary representatives.
How does this “panel of judges” decide whether your audition is any good—or, on the other hand, when to bring out the Simon Cowell type to tell you: “You stink, get the hell out of here!” [audience laughter] This is based on their calculation of their strategic interests and how what you’re doing, and what you stand for, a) will (or will not) serve those interests directly; and b) will (or will not) serve them, so to speak, indirectly—by influencing the populace in the way they want it influenced. That’s what makes the audition complicated. You’re not just auditioning for them, to see if they like “the key that you sing in,” but this is also, in a real sense, about whether or not they think you can influence the audience, the electorate (“the American people”) in the way they want to influence it.
Both things are part of the audition—but it’s all on the terms of the dynamics of this system. And what happens if you get outside of the dynamics of this system? For example, if you start saying: “It’s ridiculous that we spend so much on the military when people are so hungry in the world—we should cut the military budget in half and use that money to feed the people in the world—I was just listening to Bono the other day, and he convinced me.” [audience laughter] Well, you could run that out, but you’re not going to be a serious candidate for any significant elective office in the U.S., and certainly not for president, if you’re saying that. Why? For all the reasons I was discussing earlier: because that does not conform to the underlying dynamics of this system, and to the superstructural expressions—politically and militarily and geo‑strategically—of those underlying dynamics. You would be totally out of line with the way things actually work, to put it in simple terms, and you would get nowhere. Maybe you’d get an article in The Nation, or something [audience laughter], but you will get nowhere in terms of actually getting close to exercising any power or any significant influence on the direction of government and society in an overall sense. Because you’re “wack”—or you’re “out of whack”—you’re out of line with what the actual dynamics are and how that expresses itself in terms of the political and geo‑strategic needs of the people who are the dominant, ruling class within this system of capitalist-imperialist production relations—those who control this system and who fashion and use elections to function as a key part of the political structures to reinforce that system.
They have found this, up to this point at least, to be a convenient and actually a brilliant device as they have developed it—to do this in the form of elections. It serves their interests all the better, at least up to this point, to rule through a political system that involves “popular elections”—but popular elections in which and through which they exercise fundamental and ultimate control. That is what is really going on, and not something else. And that is why programs that may conform to what a lot of people would like, but are not in the interests of the ruling class, will get nowhere under this system. For example, if you took a poll and you asked people to indicate, up or down, how they felt about what I just articulated about cutting the military budget in half and using the half that was cut to end world hunger—probably a majority of people who identify as “Democrats” would be strongly in favor. But that has nothing to do with what the Democratic Party will adopt.
Why? That’s a question that people should be challenged to seriously engage. Why that discrepancy, what does that flow out of, what does that reflect, what does that tell us?