The Myth of Democracy

The past five years seem at first blush to be the Age of Democracy — well, at least in every sector of our society except the federal ballot box, where shenanigans and chicanery continue to infect our putatively free and fair elections. We the People decide who and what succeeds, and what doesn’t. Our popular culture is now open to voting. The next pop star. The next morning news anchor. The next film director. What was once the provenance of self-appointed connoisseurs and arbiters of taste has been ransacked by the great uneducated masses: us. 

Or so it seems.

Although we would like to kid ourselves into believing we — the consumers, the people who comprise the vast American marketplace — have the power to anoint the chosen ones, our potency is an illusion. The folks who control popular culture, from the movie studio heads who cynically “give the people what they want” (read: “sequels based on comic books”) to the public radio disc jockeys who “educate” their listeners (read: “play what the big record companies ask them to play”) are as despotic as ever. They only look friendlier (and less autocratic) because of you-vote-for-your-favorite ploy — and it’s a ratings-winner to boot!

In bygone days, respondents were paid to fill out surveys. Now we do the market research for free, telegraphing our preferences to the music and movie purveyors, who aren’t nearly as interested in all the impassioned hand-wringing over who’s a more worthy Idol than which young thing will be guaranteed several million pre-sold fans. Even the seemingly pure world of jazz radio is infected with cliques and cabals that serve to protect incumbent artists and exclude new ones. Everybody has his territory staked out, and nothing so subversive as a popular vote is going to jeopardize that franchise.

One notes with melancholy the debased dreck that fills our airwaves and theaters, our bookshelves and Blockbusters. But before the death knell is rung for Western Civilization, look to the White House, where the product of another election presently sits, directing (and squandering) lives as ruthlessly as the head of a record company. The Age of Democracy is neither the end nor the beginning of egalitarian culture. It’s a reiteration. It’s business as usual.

Every song you hear on the radio, every movie at the multiplex, every volume at Barnes & Noble, every clarion-voiced hopeful on a TV talent show — everything has been deemed fit for consumption by someone more knowing, more powerful, more cynical, than you. Sure, one can publish his own book or press his own record, or film his own movie. And one can even offer it for sale through various Internet outlets. But without the imprimatur of The Establishment — the same one that cherishes your vote — that creation will die a slow and anonymous death.

Nonetheless, the phone lines remain open. Go ahead; call. Let your voice be heard, and then forgotten. But remember to leave your money on the floor.

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