Don’t Mourn, Organize…and Vote
Presidential elections are important. They are really important. If George Bush hadn’t been president, the US would not have bombed Iraq, ISIS would not exist. And yet around presidential election time, people get wrapped up in the elections in ways that are not helpful for building a just and sustainable society.
There is a lot we can do to impact the political world we live in. But during election time it is easy to get confused about what kinds of actions have what kinds of impacts. We can make a difference when we organize in ways that change the balance of power. We can make a difference when we support a good candidate who runs and who has a chance of winning. We can make a difference when we encourage candidates whose statements shift the terms of a public conversation. We can make a difference when we work over the period of many years to overturn Citizens United. We can make a difference when we organize alternative strategies for capturing power through elections. And at the moment when we vote, we can make a difference, too, but only in very specific and limited ways.
Moralism and Elections
I hear a lot of what feels like moralism associated with this presidential election. I hear people talking as if it would taint them as person to vote for someone they didn’t like, because they would be participating in a corrupt system. But of course we participate in corrupt systems every day. Every day when you use your credit card you participate. Every day when you drive your car participate. Every day when you buy food that was made using underpaid farm labor you do that. We are embedded in social processes that we didn’t invent, and many of them are destroying the planet and killing people. That is our reality. Rather that fantasizing that we can be pure by not participating in systems we object to, we need to be smart about when, where, and how we act to make what kind of difference.
The Democratic Party will not be reformed if it loses this election because progressives decide to not vote for Clinton. That party has shown an amazing ability to shoot itself in the foot by taking progressive votes for granted. It has been dominated for a very long time by forces sympathetic to big business and Wall Street. Without deep changes, right now it can only pander to us so much before betraying its owners. It also engages in petty forms of analysis to decide who its voters are. It allowed Al Gore’s election to be given to George Bush. Enough African-American voters were turned away in Florida to have tipped the election. But the Democratic Party was afraid of losing some of its white racist voters by being seen as doing too much for African-Americans. You will not change the Democratic Party by not voting for its candidate.
The Green Party contributes to this moralistic rather than strategic approach to elections. It jumps on the bandwagon of the hype and easy access to attention that surrounds presidential elections by running candidates that have no chance of winning. It has rarely done the slow hard work of contesting small winnable elections and generating credibility to build as a party. Its approach feeds a sense of purity among those who want to register their opposition to the corrupt two party system, but who have no realistic plans for how to change the situation.
A Strategic approach to Elections
Much more promising is the Working Families Party, mostly based in New York. They run candidates when they think they can win. They pressure the democrats to get concessions when they can. They were instrumental in getting Bill De Blasio elected as the mayor of New York City.
Bernie’s campaign didn’t make the mistake of engaging in moralistic politics. Bernie was clear that he was raising the issues and participating in the dialogue, and would serve if elected, and would step aside of he wasn’t. He didn’t offer people the option of a vote that felt pure but made our circumstances worse.
The Sanders campaign accomplished a tremendous amount by putting progressive issues into the spotlight that a presidential election offers, and giving legitimacy to those positons. Bernie’s push for a $15 minimum wage raised that demand to a level of support that had previously seemed impossible. But Bernie could not have made that demand without the prior work of thousands of activists, like people who work at McDonalds’ and the brave workers at New York’s Hot And Crusty Bakery, who despite their immigration status, in 2012, fought a pitched battle and won the right to unionize.
If Bernie had won, it would have been amazing. And it now looks like if Bernie had thrown down really hard in the beginning and if he had better organizations, he might have won, despite the extreme hostility from the Democratic Party, and the power of money in elections. That is an amazing statement about the possibilities of making significant change even from within our very broken electoral system.
Don’t Mourn Organize and Vote
There is something about the disappointment I am hearing from Bernie supporters that makes me very uncomfortable. Bernie was very clear that his candidacy was part of a much broader struggle to change our political system. Even if he had won he would have been able to make very little practical headway on law and policy with a Republican congress.
People’ sense that they need to not vote for Clinton because she is a right–winger is an overestimation of the kinds of a difference we can make in this election at this point. It would be amazing if by putting a mark on a piece of paper the world of Wall Street domination over our political system would end. But such a possibility is an extremely rare occurrence. Generally the way to get problems like the power of Wall Street to go way is through long hard organizing over a period of years. Sometimes, as with Occupy Wall Street, or with the Sanders campaign, that movement is helped along by actions that disrupt the dominant pro-business narratives.
But generally political change is slow, and it takes work. Most of what changes the equations is the on the ground organizing rather that what happens in the electoral sphere.
So now please hold your nose, and if you are in a swing state vote for the hawkish candidate supported by Wall Street, so that a neo-fascist racist doesn’t become our president. That small act will in some cases make a difference. If enough progressives vote for Clinton, they could tip the election. If you aren’t in a swing sate, what you do doesn’t matter a whole lot. I think I am going to vote for Clinton even though I live in California, which she will surely win. I will do that because I want to repudiate the neo-fascist racism that Trump represents. It is a grain of sand on a pile of manure. That small act of mine is not nearly as important the organizing I am doing all year long.
Then on November 9th hopefully everyone will go back to work on shifting the balance of power to ensure that President Clinton is not able to cut welfare, give away the shop to Wall Street, start another war etc. And hopefully some of us will work to transform the electoral system in ways that make better outcomes more likely in the future.
Cynthia Kaufman is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, where she also teaches community organizing and philosophy. She is the author of the forthcoming Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, 2nd Ed