Elections: What Are They Good For?

By David Swanson, Remarks at Left Forum

I think two opposing trends have been at work in U.S. history. One is that of allowing more people to vote. This is an ongoing struggle, of course, but in some significant sense we’ve allowed poor people and women and non-white people and young people to vote. The other trend, which has really developed more recently, is that we’ve made voting less and less meaningful. Of course it was never as meaningful as many people imagine. But we’ve legalized bribery, we’ve banished third parties and independents, we’ve gerrymandered most Congressional districts into meaningless general elections and left one party or the other to exercise great influence over any primary. Rarely does any incumbent lose, and rarely does a candidate without the most money win. Extremely rare is a winning candidate who lacks some major financial backing. Rarer still is a candidate who even promises to pursue majority positions on most major issues, or who convincingly commits to following the will of the public over the will of the party. Most Congress members are pawns in a government with two partisan voices, not the voices of 535 individual representatives and senators. Rare, as well, is any possibility in a close primary or general election of verifying the accuracy of a vote count.

There appears to many observers little, sometimes even nothing, to be gained by voting. A lack of decent education and news media, combined with negative campaign ads that make the whole process seem filthy are probably a turn off. Yet roughly 55% of voting age people in the U.S. continue to vote in presidential elections and roughly 35% in off-year elections. And those numbers would probably go up if we didn’t take people’s right to vote away when we convict them of crimes, if we didn’t deny citizenship to so many immigrants, or if we made voter registration automatic, stopped trying to intimidate people out of voting or forcing them to vote on second-class provisional ballots, made election day a holiday, etc.

We’ve also created a dominant media cartel that can — without any exaggeration — instruct large numbers of people whom to vote for — a situation that outrages some of us, but by definition is deemed acceptable by many others. Or, rather, it’s not deemed acceptable, but it’s either unnoticed or it’s viewed as a tragedy of the commons that cannot be countered by any individual alone. On the Kucinich 04 presidential campaign, he would win the most applause, but then people would say “I’d vote for him if he were serious,” because their televisions had told them he wasn’t one of the real, serious, viable choices, and either they believed that or they believed that everyone else believed it which left them powerless to single-handedly do anything about it.

Lesser evilism in elections appears a perfectly rational position: Only two candidates have a shot at winning, and one of them is less evil. End of story. The argument against lesser evilism is far more complex. First one can chip away at the impression that one of the candidates really is significantly less evil. Four years ago, people persuaded themselves that presidential candidate Obama was, for the first time in the history of electoral politics, going to become an elected official who performed better than his promises. Normally we’re lucky if someone tries to keep half their promises. This guy was going to be better than his promises. He was pretending to be worse than he was. Now, four years later, you’ll hear that what will make Obama a great president will be making him a lame duck, even though the history of lame-duck officials is one of less — not more — responsiveness to the public. These sorts of delusions should be set aside. In Obama we have a president who has largely continued, protected, and expanded upon the crimes and power grabs of his predecessor. And we have this with the peace and justice movement having been largely shut down, at least until recently, whereas with a President McCain it would almost certainly have been expanded. Today 20% of Republicans prefer Obama to their own candidates. And yet one could still make a plausible case that electing McCain would have been the more evil outcome. The logic of lesser evilism still appears to make voting for the less evil candidate the rational choice even if that candidate is likely to be just ever so slightly less evil.

But there is an alternative that can be imagined in which McCain was elected, a popular movement expanded accordingly, and that movement expanded further, expanded dramatically, growing in fact many times larger and more heavily funded than anything we’ve seen before. If we voted for Obama over McCain but that was all we did, just cast that vote. If we didn’t dump a billion dollars and countless volunteer hours into the effort to elect Obama, then the world on that January morning in 2009 could have seen, had we been able to make these choices instead, truly small-d democratic media outlets, think tanks, organizers, trainers, well-organized and mobilized grassroots groups, strike funds, bail funds, and an entire professional and volunteer apparatus dedicated to empowering ordinary people to build creative nonviolent pressure for the fundamental changes needed to protect our environment, end war, and establish a just society, regardless of what any political party might have to say.

Many voters, and many organizations, do not — of course — just vote. They pour endless resources of time and money into elections at the expense of issue-based activism. And they inject lesser-evil voting into their relationship to their government all through the year, every year, even the non-election years. A couple of years ago we saw labor unions that had favored single-payer healthcare for decades forbidding activists from mentioning single-payer on posters or in speeches at their rallies. A supposedly strategic decision had been made to successfully create a so-called Public Option by asking for just that and nothing more. My point is not the stupidity of that negotiating position in which you avoid asking for more than you hope to get. My point is rather that lesser-evilism inverts representative government even when there’s no election anytime soon. People make themselves the servants of their public servants. Organizations ask the government what they should rally their members to demand of the government. Pressuring elected officials from the Good Party is forbidden or heavily restricted as supposedly assisting the Bad Party. Wars are protested in Republican districts until Democrats take control, and then wars become acceptable, even desirable, or at least unmentionable. So, there is more to lesser evilism than whether and how one votes. Seen in this larger context, no longer are we talking about a rational calculation in a voting booth. We’re talking about a poisoning of the mind and a distortion of civic life that eliminates confrontations between the people and their government by convincing people that government is a football game and that the people’s job is to cheer for one of the teams. This predictably results in the two candidates at each future election both being more evil and both competing for a more evil and unaccountable office than either of the candidates had been at the previous election, even if the less evil candidate always wins.

If we had a culture that understood exactly how badly our government is treating us and what could be done about it, if we had effective general strikes and protests and independent media, if we blocked every foreclosure, if we refused to pay back every student loan, if we blocked the entrance to every coal burning plant and collected a carbon tax ourselves, if we all moved our money out of the monster banks, if we exercised eternal vigilance, if we took over the streets in the kind of numbers our televisions cheer for when it happens in a country whose government is not playing ball with Washington, if we had that kind of culture, then we could confidently say that having that culture was going to make far more difference than whether the president was Obama or Romney or Santorum or Gingrich. I think Emma Goldman had a point in saying that if voting changed anything they would ban it. I think Howard Zinn had a point in saying that it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the White House so much as who is doing the sitting in. The relentless ubiquitous question of how you can change the world if you refuse to engage in electoral politics strikes me as crazy. Women didn’t vote themselves the right to vote. Workers didn’t elect the eight hour day. India didn’t vote the British out. Martin Luther King Jr. is not usually dismissed as a stupid snot-nosed kid because he didn’t endorse candidates. The ease with which people erase from their minds all awareness of education, communication, mobilization, resistance, marches, posters, hunger strikes, boycotts, protests, petitions, political art, and the hundreds of nonviolent tools listed by Gene Sharp never fails to amaze me.

But here’s the catch. We don’t have an activist culture. We don’t have an educated populace. We don’t have the right to organize. We don’t have a decent communications system. We have a lot of promising moves in all the right directions, but we’re not there. If we could move a billion dollars from an election cycle to an activism cycle, that would sure help. If we could persuade the AFL-CIO, which has already endorsed Obama, to seek medical help for its premature electile dysfunction, that would help. But what if we can only move $10,000? What if we can only move a small amount of volunteer hours? What if we can get people to stop knocking on doors for Obama but can’t convince them to knock on doors for Occupy?

There’s another problem that perhaps comes first, the problem of what we would do if we didn’t have elections at all. The idea that we can do without elections may be as wrong as the idea that elections are all we have. Even in our corrupt shell of a democracy, elections do seem to matter. Back in 2006 to 2008, Republicans in Congress were secretly pressuring Bush to end the war in Iraq before they all got voted out of jobs. That was the result of a peace movement that didn’t completely censor itself for elections. Independent activism actually benefitted some apparently lesser evil candidates whether it meant to or not, and whether they appreciated it or not. But the threat of unelection benefitted the peace movement. And one can imagine a world in which that benefit would be greatly increased. Even in our corrupt corporatocracy if we all passionately held war to be the equivalent of cannibalism or infanticide or slavery, and we acted on that belief, war would end. But not if the possibility of voting people out were reduced from the single digit percentages it’s in now to actually zero. That threat of unelection is a valuable tool, and could be made much more valuable.

Of course when we’re not pouring our lives into electoral work, we’re beating ourselves up because 20% of the country still doesn’t agree with us on various issues. We’ve only got 80% of us wanting to restore the minimum wage. We must be bad framers of our messaging. Only 90% want higher auto fuel efficiency standards. Bad framers! Bad! Bad! Yet, in a functioning democracy or representative republic, having 80% on your side ought to be good enough once in a while. In fact, 51% ought to be enough most of the time. Our wars ought to end right now, our billionaires be taxed immediately, our educations be funded right away. And we could get much closer to that if we had free elections. The trick, of course, is that you can’t simply elect people in a broken system who will fix the system so that you can elect better people. You have to compel people who’ve already been elected to both fix the system and become better representatives. Or you have to go over their heads and fix the system whether they like it or not. That latter approach was the reason the drafters of the U.S. Constitution included two ways of amending it, one of which we’ve never tried. If two-thirds of the state legislatures call a convention, and if three-quarters of them approve the results, the Constitution is altered whether Congress or the President or the Supreme Court likes it or not.

Of course, the Constitution is routinely ignored. It’s not the words on paper alone that will make the difference. But a popular movement that could make the best of the words now on paper could also put down new words and should. Our system has fallen way behind. We need to amend the Constitution, not only to state the obvious, that human rights are for humans not corporations, that spending money is not protected free speech, etc., things that could be fixed by taking certain cases away from the Supreme Court or impeaching certain justices. We also have to amend the Constitution or draft a new one to clean out the corruption. Elections should be entirely publicly financed. Individuals should have the inalienable right to vote with automatic registration, and to vote on paper with the votes publicly counted at the polling place and election day a national holiday. During a designated campaign period of no longer than six months, free media time should be provided in equal measure to each candidate who has during the previous year gathered the supporting signatures of five percent of potential constituents. The same signatures should place the name on a ballot and include the candidate in all public debates. Gerrymandering should be ended. And of course a whole range of proposals should be considered, from getting rid of the filibuster to getting rid of the Senate to expanding the House to allowing proportional representation to establishing positive rights to instituting forms of direct democracy, citizens councils, public referenda, etc. We should certainly strip powers away from the presidency and the Supreme Court, including those lifetime appointments. We won’t have elections that come close to the significance that many now give them unless we get some of these basic reforms. And we won’t get them just by voting. If all we do is vote, or if most of what we do is electoral, we’ll go on having the so-called Most Important Election of Our Lifetime every two years, while continuing on a path to environmental, economic, and cultural destruction.

Power concedes nothing without a demand, said Frederick Douglas, and of course, no matter what CNN or NPR says, we have demands. Our demands should not be censored to please a candidate. But among our top demands should be the basic reforms that would make it possible to have good candidates.

But but but but but what do we dooooo? people ask. And they mean what do we do about elections. Well, first of all, we focus on the other 729 days in every two-year period. I wrote a book recently about the peace movement in the 1920s which actually got the nations of the world to sign and ratify a treaty in 1928 banning war. This ended the recognition of territorial gains seized through war. It prevented some wars. It created trials at the end of WWII that for the first time, and albeit as victors’ justice, tried people for the crime of war. And it advanced the stigmatization of war that has helped prevent rich countries from going to war with each other for the past 67 years. We still have the problem of rich countries making war on poor countries, of course. That peace movement in the 20s didn’t focus on elections or get behind a party. It moved the whole country and brought four parties along behind it, and senators feared they would be unelected if they did not ratify the treaty. The Occupy movement has begun a public organizing campaign and begun to change the national conversation about economic justice by pushing the whole country, not by signing on behind a candidate or a party.

Now, there’s no good reason that a movement could not lay out its demands and agree to support any candidate who backs those demands. Almost never does any large organization do that. The AFL-CIO would endorse a dead deer for president if it was a Democrat. It appears to be very difficult for any organization to stick to its principles and get close to the allure of power. Most organizations are probably better off simply pushing their agenda on their own even if a candidate comes along who agrees with it. But those candidates do come along. The trouble is that they are almost always in primaries against incumbents, or they are candidates from parties other than the Big Two. Rocky Anderson and Jill Stein are examples of good candidates. But promoting a good candidate who doesn’t have much of a chance in our rotten system seems to oppose both lesser evilism and the argument for moving the focus away from elections.

I think the right balance is something like this. To the extent that a candidate is really part of a popular movement and intent on building its capacity beyond the election, and to the extent (probably a lot less than we think) that the candidacy offers communicational and educational opportunities, we should promote that candidate. But the movement should come first. We should be for peace and justice, in alliance with candidates who are as well. We should not name ourselves for a candidate. We should allow candidates to support our movement.

Of course, we’ll be accused of spoiling everything. Nobody wants to be a spoiler. Nobody wants a racist bigot bombing poor dark-skinned people and selling us out to Wall Street when we could have an educated African-American doing the same thing. But there’s another way to spoil everything. And it sounds like this: “I wish you’d push for the Employee Free Choice Act, but I’ll shut up about it if you’d prefer.” “I do hope you’ll stop this mad murder spree in Afghanistan, but understand that I’m going to vote for you no matter what, and if speaking my mind on Afghanistan troubles you I’ll be glad to stop, especially if I get to come to a meeting at the White House.”

See, if you could just vote for the lesser evil candidate and leave it at that, if you could still threaten to vote against him or her throughout the year, if you could still leave the compromising to the officials and speak your opinions without hesitation, if you could still be a good citizen on those other 729 days, then there’d be nothing to complain about. But nobody, or almost nobody, does that.

If you want to get super duper rational about it, you won’t vote at all. No election is decided by one vote. But by voting and talking about voting, and wearing the “I voted!” sticker you persuade other people to vote and to vote the way you want them to, and they persuade others, and so on. You behave differently that day and every day because you voted. And if you vote for a truly good candidate, even a spoiler, you don’t do it for your own private purity and the world be damned. You do it because it alters for the better how you behave every day of the year. You become someone who will condemn lawless imprisonment and murder even when done by a Democrat. And becoming that person is more important than how you vote.

Now, I like to think that I’ve always been that person. I’ve never censored my activism. And I have voted lesser-evil. I voted for a third-party Congress member two years ago. I campaigned for Nader 12 years ago. But I voted for Obama four years ago. I didn’t campaign for him. I denounced him as being, indeed, evil — just less so. I advocated for increased activism, which you’d think would make sense even if, and especially if you’d elected less evil office holders. Shouldn’t you try to end war when you’ve elected someone you fantasize might do it, and not exclusively when you believe there’s no chance? But I’m now saying that I won’t vote for Obama again and will probably vote for Rocky Anderson. Why?

Essentially, because I want other people to do the same. I don’t want resources shifted to electoral work for third-party candidates. I want elections radically deemphasized. But I also want advocates for withdrawal from Afghanistan to be able to say “Do it now or we’ll vote against you.” I want advocates for serious steps to prevent an attack on Iran to be able to say “Eliminate all chance of an Israeli attack now or we’ll vote against you.” I want opponents of the Tar Sands pipeline to be able to say “Permanently reject it now, or we’ll vote against you.” I want the CWA to be able to say “Stop restricting our rights to organize or we will oppose you” — whether that means backing some other candidate or simply putting resources into something more useful than an election. I want to be able to say to President Obama “Allow the EPA to enact its clean air standards, veto any legislation that would extend the so-called Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, create no more corporate trade agreements, veto any legislation that further increases the military budget beyond the current level of $1.2 trillion or fails to reduce it by at least 10 percent per year, veto any legislation that would in any way reduce Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits, publicly instruct the Attorney General to enforce our laws against torture and warrentless search and seizure, or we will protest, we will mobilize, we will disrupt, we will resist, and we will vote against you.”

Imagine what might happen if we were able to say such things. Our numbers might be so small that we’re dismissed as useless, or worse as spoilers. But we face this same question in non-electoral activism all the time and often come down on the side of principled far-sighted pressure for radical change. We strive to block construction of nuclear plants or military bases rather than to have them built in a more convenient location. We push for single-payer instead of the public option. We demand an end to war rather than a redeployment to a different country. We insist on habeas corpus for everyone when the only proposal discussed in Congress is to restore it for U.S. citizens. We make these choices at the risk of not throwing our support behind lesser measures that have a greater chance. We do so because we believe the lesser measures are insufficient and that by doing so we may attract more people to do so with us. Of course, on policies there are compromises, and in winner-take-all elections it’s either this person or that person. But there aren’t always compromises on issues. Supporters of single-payer were told they were enemies of the Public Option. And there was no greater enemy of the misbegotten public option than itself and its supporters who were behaving like paid campaign staff for a president years away from an election. If they had so much as said “Strip states of the opportunity to implement single-payer and we will not vote for you,” and if they had then turned all of that energy toward California, we might now have 48 states struggling to catch up and join the civilized world, rather than just Vermont struggling to jump through hoops for Obama while Vermonters continue to lack healthcare. It makes a difference whether or not you can switch your lesser-evilism off. That switch appears to be broken in most people. So, I propose we switch it off permanently, pull the plug out of the wall, and bury the idea in the ground. Let’s stop thinking in terms of lesser evil and start thinking in terms of greater good.

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