Lost in the Sandwich Shop: Electoral Politics and the Myth of Free Choice

Yesterday, I came across an essay that goes by the exciting title “‘Positive Attitude’ Bullshit: On the dangers of ‘radical self-love.'” It’s an excellent piece, and worth reading in full, but the part that struck me most was a section in which the author discusses, in a way that’s tangential to the main thrust of her argument, the idea of choice:

Too many choices are not the issue for a huge majority of the political underclass; a lack of choice is exactly the problem. Whether it be lack of choice when it comes to quality of education, or lack of access to higher education because you were not born into wealth and privilege, or lack of choice when it comes to nutritious food or warm dry housing because wages are often too low in this country, too often, too much choice is not an issue for the growing majority of the 99 percent; restricted choice is.

This is true, of course. But it also gets at something that’s peculiar to American capitalism (the writer of the essay I’m quoting is, I believe, from New Zealand). Apart from being an (excellent) Devo album, “freedom of choice” is a mantra of the American marketplace, an extension of the very American veneration of “freedom” itself. As with any other use of the word freedom, freedom of choice isn’t exactly what it claims to be. A slew of choices can be just as much a means of oppression as no choice at all — or, perhaps more accurately, the two are one and the same, because when it comes to things that really matter, we don’t really have much of a choice at all.

The American right has long been adept at exploiting the rhetoric of freedom as a means to get the electorate to put aside its own interests. Take, for instance, healthcare. Ultimately, everyone who isn’t part of the 1% wants the same thing: to make sure they don’t have to pay a fortune to see a doctor or fill a prescription if they need to do so, and that they won’t be financially ruined if they end up in some sort of accident (or, god forbid, contracting a chronic illness) that undermines their ability to make a living.

Instead, if you’re lucky enough to have a job that provides health insurance, you’re presented with a barrage of options as to what sort of coverage you want: gold, silver, or bronze? What sort of deductible are you prepared to pay? Which co-payment schedule? Are you willing to bet that you won’t get hit by a car this year? It’s up to you! If you’re like the majority of people, the whole thing is overwhelming — and as often as not, the bewildering array of choices leads to situations where people are denied insurance coverage because something they thought they were covered for actually got excluded somewhere in the small print, or because they forgot to tick a certain box on the 14th page of one of the policy documents.

The whole sorry situation is presented to you, of course, as a manifestation of the free market at its best: why should you have to pay for anyone else’s coverage? Choose the level of coverage that suits you! (And if you’re lucky, maybe you won’t end up like this poor, deluded soul.) American capitalism is like a sandwich shop: a sandwich, any way you want it! It’s the American way! You can have whatever you want! Rye or wheat? Swiss, American, or pepper jack? Turkey or beef? Mustard? Mayonnaise? It’s up to you to choose! Happily, if the entire sandwich shop experience gives you low-level panic attacks, you can opt out of all these choices and just slip next door for a slice of pizza or a salad. But in politics, and in many other fields, you never really get to do that. All you ever get offered is a sandwich, with a bewildering array of accoutrements. But at the end of the day, it’s two pieces of bread with some stuff in the middle.

The same rigmarole is repeated throughout the American consumer experience. You get a choice of umpteen brands of toothpaste, but it’s all toothpaste. You can choose a shirt from Zara or H&M or Gap, but they’re all manufactured in some ghastly sweatshop in Bangladesh. You can go to McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King or KFC, but whatever you choose, you’re still eating the carcass of some unfortunate animal that’s never seen daylight and has been pumped full of hormones so that it spends as little time alive as possible. And so on.

When it comes to the things that really matter, like the governance of the country… not so much. The way the electoral college works, along with the rampant gerrymandering of districts throughout the country, means that your vote — your choice — counts for very little. And even if it did, the options you get are… well, right wing and more right wing. American politics has skewed so far to the right that the idea of a candidate like Bernie Sanders ever being able to challenge effectively for the White House is a pipe dream. In 2016, you’ll vote for Hillary or Jeb, most likely, and that means you’ll vote for a fiscally conservative “liberal” or a fiscally conservative “conservative.”

That’s not how it’s presented to you, obviously. President Obama is routinely denounced by the extreme right as some sort of socialist, which is hilarious if you actually have any idea what socialism is. Certainly, the Obama administration has been more left-leaning than its predecessor (because if it were any more right-leaning, it would fall off the planet entirely), but even Obamacare — unfailingly characterized as some sort of socialist plot by the right — only goes some way toward providing a level of government-backed healthcare that’s unquestioned in literally every single other developed country on the face of the planet.

Beyond this, though, how different has the Obama administration been from the Bush Jr. regime? Guantanamo Bay is still open. “Free market” economic policy remains unquestioned. For all that bipartisanship is a dirty word in Washington, there’s plenty of bipartisan consensus — just not on the issues that ever come up when it’s election time. Instead, elections are fought over superficial branding that ultimately does as little to distinguish the two main parties as the fact that the members of one generally wear red ties while the others favor blue.

Look at the issues that dominate politics these days: gay marriage! The so-called “war on religion“! And, as ever, abortion! This is not to suggest that LGBT and reproductive rights aren’t issues that urgently need addressing, but they’re also issues that capitalism is happy for us to discuss insofar as they have no effect on capitalism. An exclusive focus on them (or whatever electoral bogeyman politicians can dream up — immigration is another one, to the ongoing detriment of some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet) allows the debate to shift from fundamental structural and economic issues.

Do we get to vote on the way the country is run? No. Do our votes matter a whit to the people who are very likely going to define the future of the whole damn planet? No. Not while the two parties are indistinguishable on those issues. Instead, we fight over whatever issues on which the two parties can emphasize their differences, while remaining largely identical on more fundamental matters of economic, social, and foreign policy. These debates are the Swiss-or-American of politics; you get to choose, sure, but either way you’re getting a sandwich. If you want a salad, you’re out of luck. And if you perhaps want to question the entire food-industrial complex that underpins your sandwich, you get laughed out of the room.

And so it is that the American people has spent the last month celebrating/bemoaning (delete as appropriate) the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, while the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a multinational trade agreement that presumably has huge importance to this country’s economy, and I say presumably because no one’s seen what’s in the damn thing — goes by with barely a whisper. Can we choose to see what’s in an agreement that might very well have a material impact on our lives? Nope. In this case, you’re getting the damn sandwich whether you like it or not.