Martin Luther King once talked about how a black person in the south was unable to vote, while one in the north had nothing to vote for. 50 years later, the south as become the north too. The two capitalist parties have gamed and subverted the electoral process to exclude real opposition and to make it meaningless, except for bestowing legitimacy upon their stooges. So why and when to elections still matter for the left, and when not?
Two years ago, I wrote a piece called “How to Waste Your Vote in 2012” in which I said:
Your vote really is your voice, and in the modern era, every government on earth claims to rule with the consent of the people. This bestows upon the vote a unique kind of legal and symbolic power. The gap, however, between this legal, this symbolic power of the vote and any real ability to change things for the better is a vast one. The authorities rightly fear the people's voice, and so have contrived law and custom to ensure that we are seldom heard and almost never heeded.
They would never dream of allowing us to vote on the price of gas, food, housing, credit or college tuition. But they don't mind at all letting us choose between corporate-funded Republicans and corporate-funded Democrats. The powers that rule our economy, our media and our politics won't let us vote on whether to bring the troops home from 140 countries and the seven seas, or whether to continue spending more on weapons of death and destruction than the other 95% of humanity combined. But they will let us choose between an ignorant, crazy or racist Republican who promises to give banksters, polluters and corporate criminals a free pass, and a sane, smart, level-headed free market liberal Democrat who does exactly the same thing, no matter what he promised.
The authorities won't let us vote on whether the broadcast spectrum should be privatized, whether we should have the right to start and join unions, whether to create millions of good-paying green jobs. They won't allow voters to decide whether corporations deserve more rights than flesh and blood people, or whether the president should be able to kidnap, torture, imprison and murder people without trials or even charges. But they will let us choose between a white guy and a black guy. As long as it's their white guy, and their black one as well.
All that is still true, and much, much more. The terrain of electoral politics is nothing like a level playing field. It's more like a briar patch, inside a labyrinth, built over a minefield.
Democrats and Republicans Have Created Ballot Access Hurdles
In states like Georgia where I live, third party candidates face incredible obstacles to even getting a candidate on the ballot. A Green congressional candidate for example, has to get 20-25,000 signatures on a nominating petition to appear on the ballot, and a statewide candidate needs more than 60,000, distributed in a complicated formula among several score counties, while Republicans and Democrats simply pay a nominal fee. These are laws passed on the state level by Democrats and Republicans working together.
Access to Media is Limited by Private Owners of Print, Broadcast, Cable Networks.
Cable networks are laid and maintained beneath public streets and roads, with massive public subsidies and gobs of corporate welfare, but privately owned by a handful of greedy corporations. Broadcast spectrum wasn't invented by any clever engineer working for a corporation, it's a property of the physical universe, like sunlight. But the same handful of greedy telecoms own that too, along with most of the print newspapers.
The private owners of these public resources have decreed that the only candidates and causes who can afford campaign commercials are those bankrolled by wealthy individuals and greedy corporations, often with legally anonymous cash. With no interest in an informed public, the billionaires who own print, cable and broadcast outlets have been firing reporters and spending less every year on journalism for several decades. Reporters refuse to cover third party candidates in partisan elections, lest their careers end prematurely. In nominally “nonpartisan” races like mayor in most medium and large cities, the owners of media all but refuse to cover the existence of candidacies not endorsed by local elites.
Legal Obstacles to Registration and the Vote.
Since 1992, when I was one of three field organizers in an Illinois voter registration drive that signed up 133,000 in the 4 months preceding the November election, rules in many jurisdictions across the country have been tweaked to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. Florida is one of several states that made clerical and procedural errors on the part of registration organizers into felony vote fraud, thus causing outfits like the League of Women Voters to stop doing registration drives.
More recently many states have adopted voter ID laws specifically crafted to lower the number of eligible voters among the populations they'd rather not see at the polls, and felony disenfranchisement has always been a potent tool for declaring hundreds of thousands outside the electorate.
Without a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, registration and eligibility and how candidates are placed on the ballot and the votes counted are in the hands of 2,000 counties and hundreds of cities, each with the authority to make its own rules.
And There's Black Box Voting, Caging, and Official Manipulation of Turnouts and Results
And if you do organize a grassroots campaign, register your voters, perform a canvass that counts and identifies them before election day, and chase them out to those effectively, the last 25 years have seen the advent of unaccountable, faith-based computerized voting systems without paper trails which make the outright falsification of election results trivially easy.
So Why Bother?
So why bother with a an electoral process that's compromised from top to bottom, a maze full of dead ends, trap doors, toll booths, and rules that change at the whim of your well-entrenched opponents?
The answer is that a politics of transformation has to transform people and their understandings. It has to bring people together to understand that what neoliberalism, what capitalism want us to see as individual problems, like the inability of families to secure decent incomes, jobs, education, health care or housing, like the ruin inflicted by savage policing and the prison state, like the availability of more funds for war but none to make life better for ordinary people, that all these are collective problems with collective solutions, solutions that we must begin to construct from the bottom up.
Electoral campaigns are seasons in which people expect to be engaged on what problems really are collective ones, and how these will be addressed. Democrats and Republicans want desperately for the left to stay the hell out of those public conversations, and no, the terms “left” and “right” are neither meaningless nor obsolete, and no, Democrats are certainly NOT on the left, though they sometimes pretend to be.
Campaigns are Times to Raise the Questions Neither Dems Nor Repubs Can Answer
Repubs and Dems need to exclude Green and left parties from the public conversation in campaign seasons because they fear the questions we, our campaigns and candidates ask, questions for which they have no answers.
Why are stadiums and gentrification the only models for urban economic development? Why are we closing thousands of public schools and privatizing public education?
Why are we paying water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?
Why does the failed 40 years war on drugs still continue, and why can't we roll back the prison state that eats the heart of our families and communities?
Why can't we join unions, raise wages, shorten the work week, and run corporations from the bottom up instead of the top down?
Why can't we stop climate change by getting off fossil fuels?
Why can't we deliver health care, not just health insurance for everybody?
Why isn't college tuition and day care free, and why can't everybody who wants a job get one?
Why are US troops in 140 countries and why do we spend more on arms and war than the other 95% of humanity put together?
Campaigns and elections are our chance to bring these and similar questions which the two capitalist parties are utterly unable to answer before audiences. This is vitally important because the neoliberal order under which we live trains people not to even think such things, or if they do, to censor themselves.
Campaigns and elections ONLY make a difference when we use them to raise the questions that capitalism will not and cannot answer, but which absolutely must be asked for people to begin to think outside the matrix, to visualize the world that we have to build.
Can Electoral Campaigns Morph into Social Movements
The short answer is no. We have to avoid and actively argue against the delusion that electoral campaigns build social movements. They don't. I used to believe that under some circumstances they could. But I've seen twenty or more campaigns close up, in many of which some or the key participants hoped to morph into permanent bottom-up organizations capable of running themselves and holding candidates accountable. For reasons that require a book chapter to explain, it almost never works. I think I've seen it happen, sort of, once in my entire political life.
Electoral campaigns have been the graveyard of social movements, not once, but many, many times.
Wisconsin's state capital was on the verge of a general strike over the machinations of the state's governor and legislators, but instead they were directed into an electoral campaign to recall the governor and defeat a handful of state senators, in which huge sums of money were raised, countless volunteer hours expended, organizers deployed, and they lost, leaving few or no new permanent organized formations behind not beholden to the folks that sent them down the electoral road in the first place.
What if just a fraction of the money spent on Wisconsin's futile recall effort had gone to pay organizers' salaries and support for two years, and for ten or twenty photocopiers, with two year service agreements, available to grassroots organizations across the state? The movement in Wisconsin would be a lot broader, deeper, more diverse and more established. After electoral campaigns, win or lose, everyone pretty much goes home.
When Campaigns are a Good Idea, When They're Not.
At the very least, your social movements should already be well constituted and in conscious motion before and outside of electoral politics before you enter into a campaign, or else the campaign will swallow them. The campaigns and candidates have to persistently pose the kinds of questions Democrats and Republicans dare not ask, let alone answer. Crucially they must raise up candidates from their own ranks who are loyal enough to the organization and its principles to resist the institutional pull of elected office and the elevated status our political tradition accords even to candidates for office. When you get a candidate on the ballot, that person becomes your spokesperson. If she is NOT with the program, won't ask the questions that challenge capitalism, you've been a party to your own carjacking.
If you can do all those things, AND run a competent campaign, which is no small chore, it's worth it. If you can't, it's not. Supporting Democrats and so-called “fusion” efforts are never worthwhile. Your volunteers ultimately become theirs, or disillusioned, and your efforts lend unearned credibility to the same old folks, who really need your new bottom-up enthusiasm every two years a lot more than you need them.
Campaigns that don't ask the questions Repubs and Democrats shy away from aren't worth mounting and their candidates not worth voting for. If you're only demanding what the consultants say might actually get through the legislature in this or the next session, you're not demanding enough, and if you do get it, your establishment allies will get the credit, not you. But if you demand five times above and beyond what they're willing to give, asking the questions they dare not, any victory you win is yours.
Only fools dream that the establishment will allow us to vote them out of power. That will never happen. But until they're willing to break down our doors, put bags over our heads and frog march us off to solitary somewhere our obligation is to make the most of open work with all the tools available. Completely eschewing campaigns and elections makes no sense.