And why the 'vote / don't vote' debate has been one of the greatest strategic disasters of our time.
By Tim Hjersted
Mar 1, 2016
Leftists have been told their entire lives that voting makes no difference, and while this ideology has been true so many times in the past (Hillary and Obama in 2008 was one such false choice), the danger of this ideology is that it blinds us when a true choice is actually offered.
I believe ideology is the only thing that could prevent a person from seeing how significant the difference is between Sanders and Hillary, and why Sanders represents a serious challenge to the establishment power structure that is worth fighting for.
Here are two articles that expand on this point:
If Sanders doesn't win the nomination, you will not see me posting that much about electoral politics anymore. It matters right now because I want an ally in the White House. This is our moment to make it happen - a once in a lifetime opportunity. If Hillary wins though, I will be endorsing the movement. She is not an ally. She will be an obstacle to change in much the same way Obama has.
It should go without saying that Bernie Sanders is far from perfect nor a silver bullet but he's one piece of the puzzle and he understands his role in the puzzle like no other candidate I've seen. He knows that a revolution depends on millions of people getting engaged in activism and activist movements and I can see in his heart how much he is fighting for us to win - that it really is about us rising up and him being there to have our back when we take to the streets. I can hear it in his voice when he's going hoarse from railing against the bullshit every single day with a passion and energy you'd expect from someone in their twenties.
But if Hillary is the nominee, I can see the value in voting defensively against the worst option (Trump or whoever is the Republican nominee). I don't consider not-voting to be a useful form of protest. Even Noam Chomsky, the most prolific anarchist of our time, believes a protest vote is worth the 30 minutes it takes on election day.
"There will be dire consequences to a GOP victory. What they are saying is, let’s destroy the world. Is that worth voting against? Yeah." - Noam Chomsky
"I don't say it's a charade. There are differences in the parties. I don't think they're great differences but they're real and small differences in a system of great power can have enormous consequences." - Noam Chomsky
The point Chomsky makes here is essential for the left and anarchists specifically to grasp if we're to make it out of the ideological trappings of our own making. We've condensed the lessons of the world's infinitely complex history into a soundbite conclusion that is so simple and so general that we have distorted our own view of history. "Voting doesn't make a difference," we tell ourselves and each other. Such a belief uses a brush so large and so general as to make the statement untrue. We need a frame on reality that has more room for nuance, and I think Chomsky's quote pretty much nails it.
The fact is, that age old bromide that we've been telling ourselves about how voting doesn't matter simply isn't true. Voting does make a difference and we can see those differences fairly clearly once we cast aside our old belief and look again with a fresh perspective.
The people who voted for George W Bush in high enough numbers in 2000 certainly made a difference on the historical fate of the world, as did the lack of votes against him that allowed for such a narrow win that was ultimately made by the Supreme Court.
When masses of the left stay home because they have been told their whole lives that voting doesn't make a real difference, that makes a difference.
I believe that when faced with a corrupt 2-party political system, the answer shouldn't be apathy, which is the greatest fruit that we've seen born from the 'voting doesn't make a difference' meme. The answer to a corrupt political system is to participate more, not less. Functionally, I believe 90% of that participation should be in activism, and 10% should go towards electoral politics, especially at the local level where we have far more agency and accountability to affect positive outcomes.
The election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the city-council of Seattle is one easy example of a victory that became possible when enough people decided that engaging in local politics was worth it. We wouldn't be able to talk about this victory if the people who got her elected had dismissed her campaign because of a belief that teaches us to reject electoral politics.
If you still believe participating in politics is pointless, I'd encourage you to check out this documentary about the democratic initiatives being developed in South America. It shows what is possible when you have a culture that encourages more participation, not less, when faced with an undemocratic society.
The "Don't Vote" Campaign Has Failed
While the point of the 'don't vote' campaign was objectively meant to encourage people to engage in direct action, all the anarchist campaigning in the world has not convinced the masses to become regular activists. Rather than stubbornly continuing to promote this campaign, and feeling exhausted and frustrated that some people continue to vote, it's time to access its success and recognize that the campaign has failed. "The don't waste your time voting" argument has resulted in greater political apathy, and has not translated to greater participation in activism. Those who participate in activism regularly or even electoral politics remain in the minority, despite seeing positive gains over the last decade. I believe this is in part because of the narratives which have told us incessantly how powerless we are and how little voting makes a difference while we have failed to forcefully advocate for the power of activism when we band together.
For every time a person says 'voting doesn't make a difference' they should be saying 'activism DOES make a difference' 10 more times. Instead what I mostly see is comments that only make the first argument.
Trying to convince people not to vote has been a massive strategic disaster for anarchists and other leftists promoting this point. We should have spent that time focusing almost exclusively on why people need to get more engaged in horizontal activism and why it makes a difference, while ignoring the debate about voting altogether by repeating endlessly that 'if you vote, don't just vote, get involved in activism.'
The vote/don't vote debate has become a trap that has sucked away vast amounts of our time and energy, getting people stuck in an endless circular discussion about whether it matters or not. Making 'not voting' cool, edgy, and appearing politically savvy among the youth has been one of the greatest ideological coups for the ruling class. Getting the left to view voting and participation in or against the system generally as something that 'naive sheeple' do is an ideological victory for empire bar none. The establishment would love for us to continue debating the relative powerlessnes of our vote till the end of our lives. It would love for us to continue to not particpate in the system while their people continue to run the show.
This is why I support the 'don't just vote, get involved in activism' campaign, which encourages voting while recognizing that we will gain the most political power by coupling our vote with sustained day-to-day activism and organization outside the political establishment, no matter who is in power.
Post-Script: I identify as a practical anarchist. Despite there being many anarchists who support strategic voting (like Noam Chomsky, not exactly a light-weight when it comes to anarchist thought), a number of the comments in response to this article on Facebook have questioned whether you can be a 'true anarchist' and still support voting as a tactic. For an in-depth response, check out these two articles, one of them I wrote previously on the topic.
My short answer is: Anarchism is an ideal. Voting is a tactic in a large tool box of tactics which anarchists can employ strategically to realize their aims over the long-term.
As another election season approaches, we are faced with the age old anarchist dilemma: To vote or not to vote.
I do not expect this article to answer this question once and...
The question about voting comes down to what conditions activists see as better soil for a growing revolution. I and many others would personally rather grow those seeds with Sanders in office over Donald Trump. The benefits are quite significant and numerous in our view. (He is the most left and the most libertarian of the available candidates and his election would ideally pave the way for greater shifts to the left in the coming years.)
Anarchist ideals don't exist in a vacuum. We have to face the real-world realities in the US, which is currently struggling deeply about whether it's going to take a hard right turn with a fascist Donald Trump, or a shift back to the left. I wish we weren't so behind on the progress scale, but before we can jump to the bottom left square we've got to get the US out of the top right. That's what progress looks like sadly right now. Considering how far we have to go from where we are to where we'd like to go, it makes sense to many anarchists and common sense people to either vote defensively (preventing more authoritarian leaders from getting into power) or voting strategically (supporting the least authoritarian option), which will help push the cultural zeitgeist farther to the left.
Noam Chomsky on US libertarianism and 'getting from here to there':
That kind of libertarianism, in my view, in the current world, is just a call for some of the worst kinds of tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny. Anarchism is quite different from that. It calls for an elimination to tyranny, all kinds of tyranny. Including the kind of tyranny that’s internal to private power concentrations. So why should we prefer it? Well I think because freedom is better than subordination. It’s better to be free than to be a slave. It's better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them. I mean, I don’t think you really need an argument for that. It seems like … transparent.
The thing you need an argument for, and should give an argument for, is, How can we best proceed in that direction? And there are lots of ways within the current society. One way, incidentally, is through use of the state, to the extent that it is democratically controlled. I mean in the long run, anarchists would like to see the state eliminated. But it exists, alongside of private power, and the state is, at least to a certain extent, under public influence and control — could be much more so. And it provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power. Rules for safety and health in the workplace for example. Or insuring that people have decent health care, let’s say. Many other things like that. They’re not going to come about through private power. Quite the contrary. But they can come about through the use of the state system under limited democratic control … to carry forward reformist measures. I think those are fine things to do. they should be looking forward to something much more, much beyond, — namely actual, much larger-scale democratization. And that’s possible to not only think about, but to work on. So one of the leading anarchist thinkers, Bakunin in the 19th cent, pointed out that it’s quite possible to build the institutions of a future society within the present one. And he was thinking about far more autocratic societies than ours. And that’s being done. So for example, worker- and community- controlled enterprises are germs of a future society within the present one. And those not only can be developed, but are being developed. There’s some important work on this by Gar Alperovitz who’s involved in the enterprise systems around the Cleveland area which are worker and community controlled. There’s a lot of theoretical discussion of how it might work out, from various sources. Some of the most worked out ideas are in what’s called the “parecon” — participatory economics — literature and discussions. And there are others. These are at the planning and thinking level. And at the practical implementation level, there are steps that can be taken, while also pressing to overcome the worst … the major harms … caused by … concentration of private power through the use of state system, as long as the current system exists. So there’s no shortage of means to pursue.