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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

November 3rd, 2010

The 2010 Election: Was Voting Enough?

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

It’s not easy to find a distinctive photograph on election day in the US.

election official's hands hold voting stickers

This certainly would seem to qualify, but it is one of three very similar images that I found in a few minutes of looking through the slide shows at several major papers.  Each of the three was close cropped to feature a hand or hands, voting stickers, and nothing else.  I think this is the best of the set, and the best image overall, but the bar was pretty low.  The ritual event seems to bring out the conventional in all of us: red, white, and blue clothing, lines of people at the polling places, a few contrasts between the official paraphernalia and local culture, early morning voters or rows of candidates’ signs, representative examples of The Common People voting and finally of the suits themselves: candidates voting, winners raising their arms in victory, losers standing bravely before their tearful supporters.

And what would you expect?  it is precisely the ritualized character of the event that is so important: democracies may have bitterly contested electoral campaigns, but the transfer of power is supposed to be peaceful, orderly, routine, and–although in one sense momentous–entirely unsurprising.  This is not to be a drama of succession among the nobility, not a story of cabals, intrigue, and violence, no tense transition from one ethnic group to another.  The public art in this case reflects the polity’s lack of recourse to anything but its most ordinary version of itself.  The aesthetic dullness is a sign of democracy’s strength.

Even so, the images may be doing more than reporting the conventional features of election day.  The photograph above, for example, seems to be a poignant celebration of the root belief that democracy is the government of all the people.  The rough-hewn hands and skin color channel a great deal of American history, not least the 14th Amendment, while their pose is almost religious, as if praying or holding a communion vessel.  Or, if they are the hands of a working man, the stickers could almost be seen as food, perhaps that given out at breadlines in the depression of the 1930s.  (I mention the date as we now have to be a bit more specific than was necessary a few years ago.)  Thus, the image beautifully celebrates democracy itself, as if the vote is both substance and sacrament of the common life.

That’s the good news.  I think we also need to consider how the image may be inadvertently pathetic.  This image of citizenship shows us a truncated citizen, just as it has reduced civic participation to the sheer act of voting.  What’s wrong with that?  On a day that celebrates civic unity after the divisiveness of the campaign, nothing.  As a symbol of what the country really needs, however, it’s not enough.  This country needs not only elections but good decisions, and not only winners but leaders, and not only control of the House or the Senate but also consensus on behalf of serious policies to address real problems.

To get that, much more is needed than merely voting.  If all that is asked of citizens is that they vote, their citizenship can be reduced to something like the sticker itself: a cheap display of temporary virtue that really doesn’t change anything.  If all that is asked of elected officials is that they mouth platitudes while consolidating power and obstructing effective government, you don’t even need to vote.  So, before you take that sticker next time, ask yourself, what are you doing, really, on election day?

Photograph by Luke Sharrett/New York Times.

4 Responses to ' The 2010 Election: Was Voting Enough? '

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  1. Codi said,

    on November 16th, 2010 at 11:25 am

    This picture caught my attention because of what seemed to be simple. I appreciated the Election Day coverage from a mutual point of view, compared to mainstream media predicting and portraying coverage from red and blue aspects. To my surprise, the commentary describing the picture, was much different from my first impression and was definitely an interesting point of view that I feel many people neglect in media representation. It was discussed throughout the commentary, culture representation of ‘civic participation’, and the power or lack of, following such actions. The depiction of the hands was extremely symbolic and was a very interesting aspect as well. Personally I appreciated the reference to the common man, and the hard working individual. I appreciated the notation in regards to the participation of citizens and the end result of an effective government or defective government, depending on how one is to perceive it.

  2. Sam A. said,

    on November 17th, 2010 at 11:57 am

    What caught my eye was the fact that whoever is being photographed is faceless. Are we really just faceless numbers in line to vote for someone who will ultimately make decisions for us? Don’t our faces matter? Don’t our individual values, attributes, and challenges matter to those whom we vote for?

    I am not a citizen of the US. Not by choice, the process just takes longer than anyone would like. Therefore, I cannot vote. Even though I pay taxes, contribute to society, and pledge allegiance to THIS country, my voice is not recognized. I always thought my frustrations were somewhat isolated to me and my immigrant peers. Apparently not. The author’s statements make me think that I am not alone in feeling powerless in this democracy. I presume that this is the attitude of many, not few. I’m not sure if it’s more comforting to know that I’m not alone in my thoughts, or more disturbing to know that I am not alone in my thoughts.

  3. Anthony said,

    on November 17th, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    To me like in the picture it really depicts Americans as still weak battered and worn by all the promises made, and all their shortcomings from the last election. Don’t get me wrong I do believe in Obama and that he can produce change, but with so much backlog from the previous administration its hard to even scratch the surface to produce anything substantial. For me like most Americans we are all in a state of fear and loathing, we are scared of what is to happen to our socioeconomic safety, our healthcare, and our military foreign affairs and loath to vote for those whom we have to pick from. For me watching the Jerry Brown vs. Meg Whitman campaign with their constant back and forth tirade had me, like probably most California voters, skeptical of whom to vote for or if I should even vote at all.

    That brings me to the other depiction of the photo. For me the vote has and for the most part still is in the hands of the elderly. While the author of the post addressed the fact that the hands could be racially ambiguous, and speaks to a time in our nations history that parallels are own, it didn’t address that the fact that those hands pretty much are the majority of American voters who actually go to the polls and vote.

    We Americans need to know what we are voting for, and can’t let fear sway our decisions from making an education choice. As for the youth vote, apart from young radical republicans pushing the tea party movement, the mostly moderate or young democrats need to stay active in government because the issues that we face can’t be decided upon a generation well beyond their understanding or empathy.

  4. Tyler said,

    on November 17th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    This image, while appearing simple at first, brings on many thouhts and ideas. When first coming across it, I see just a pair of hands holding “I voted” stickers, and I thought “So what?” But as I said, it brings on deeper thoughts. We cannot see the persons face and I have to agree with Sam on the fact that we are being presented as faceless voters. Are we just faceless numbers standing in line to vote? The simplicity of it almost says that yes, we standed in line to vote, but thats all we can do.. Our opinions dont really matter, and arent really going to be thought of when decisions are being made. The other thing that comes to mind is that while the voter is faceless, it can be considered somewhat of a good thing, because it almost says, voters dont have to be limited only to old people, it can be anyone…

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