Elections in Desperate Times

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My Dream (Yours is Probably Different)

I don’t believe in representative democracy.

I believe in direct democracy. I believe in neighborhood power.

Your dream might be different, but if you are an activist you should definitely have one. Like the North Star, a dream can help orient you when deciding on current strategies and tactics.

In my ideal society people participate in local, human-scale institutions to make the decisions that affect their lives. Feelings of alienation are gone. There is no massive, distant government bureaucracy that thinks it knows what is best for all of us.

Less government? What? Am I a Republican or a libertarian? No, definitely not.

My problem with the “less government” people is they want that ideal world right now, without first creating the terrain where other necessary social changes can evolve. Let’s immediately abolish all government programs, they say, and let the free market run wild. But all that would do is allow corporations to become less accountable, make rich people richer, and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves.1

Process

The path to any ideal society must be a process. It could never happen as some kind of magical, instantaneous, political transformation (like electing a new president, for instance, or getting rid of an old one).

Because nothing will ever change until we change. We must transform the way we think about economic, political and social relationships. Government can’t help us do that. Real change involves gutting antiquated institutions and building new ones through organizing and direct action. That takes time.

Changing culture is a process. There are no shortcuts.

Elections

Electoral politics is clearly not the answer. Elections in the US are largely binary affairs when it comes to choosing candidates (please pick Tweedledee or Tweedledumb) or approving ballot initiatives (please vote yes or no). The system is carefully designed to keep all options well within the status quo guardrails.

Simply helping a bunch of Democrats get elected to Congress might, at best, get us a few minor reforms at the margins, not the authentic social transformation we ultimately desire.

Congre$$

For one thing, once in office, the members of Congress you worked so hard to get elected will probably ignore your wishes, unless you are wealthy or belong to business lobbying group.

In a 2014 study,2 Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page looked at how much influence various groups had on the US Congress. They found that while rich people and business organizations had a significant impact on policies adopted by Congress, the influence of ordinary citizens’ groups was approximately zero (except when their positions happened to coincide with one of the other two interest groups).

Why? The answer seems obvious. Money.

Members of Congress need massive amounts of cash to get re-elected, and unless you can provide them with plenty of it, no number of postcards, phone calls or rancorous town meetings will compel your representative to take your interests seriously.3

Desperate Times

With all that said, there may be important reasons to participate in campaigns for the upcoming midterm elections.

These are desperate times. Authoritarianism is on the rise. Nuclear war is suddenly a looming possibility.

We have to fight the battles in front of us with all the weapons at our disposal. To ignore the immediate danger in order to focus on some distant dream would be irresponsible. In this political environment, pragmatism must trump our idealism.

Because if we can’t organize, if we can’t protest, if our freedoms are curtailed, or if there is a major war, that perfect world we are working toward becomes ever more distant.

Distraction

So, at least for this cycle, when basic liberties and our very survival might be at stake, we should consider participating in the electoral process. No matter how elementary and frustrating the issues may seem, we need to bite the bullet and organize phone banks, registration drives, letter writing campaigns and speak up when we’re lucky enough to have a representative who consents to a town meeting. We need to vote, and encourage others to do the same.

Working within the system may get us a slightly more reasonable government in Washington, which could give us some breathing room. Then we can get back to the job of subverting the system as we work toward achieving our real dreams.

While elections can sometimes be used as a tactic, we shouldn’t fall into the electoral trap. We shouldn’t expect the congresspeople we help get elected to care about our dreams. Once in office, they’ll be back on the money-raising treadmill, doing the bidding of their big donors.

We can’t confuse the achievement of a Democratic Congress with our ultimate goal. Participating in electoral politics is a tactic, not a strategy. Look at the fight against Trump as just an unfortunate distraction.

Takeaways

  • Elections can sometimes bring superficial reforms, but they can’t create real change.
  • After the Big Blue Wave, what then? Business (interests) as usual.
  • Trump is not the enemy—the system is.
  • Fight the necessary battles in front of you, but don’t lose sight of your North Star.

 

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Footnotes

  1. That may be precisely the goal of some less government people. In other instances, it may be a case of wanting to remain consistent to an ideology, no matter the real-world consequences. Or perhaps some people are just misguided.
  2. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 564-581, accessed October 2, 2018, https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf.
  3. The Gilens/Page study only looked at influence on the federal government—not at the local level. Citizens’ groups may have more clout at the town, city or, in some cases, even state level because those elected officials are often less driven by the need for large quantities of cash.