Apr 18, 2020

Voters Guide: Use Your Vote to Choose Your Opponent

This guide is for people who know that "year-round activism + voting" is the best strategy for creating the world we want. Voting alone won't do it, but "year-round activism + not voting" needlessly puts us at a tactical disadvantage. Spending 1 day to choose our political opponents for the next several years is an efficient use of time given the far-reaching impacts it has on our day-to-day efforts.
By Tim Hjersted / filmsforaction.org
Voters Guide: Use Your Vote to Choose Your Opponent
*US president edition

Use Your Vote to Choose Your Opponent

In a healthy representative democracy, we could vote our values and choose representatives we trust. But in the anemic and rigged democracy we have in America, voting is about choosing our opponent.

To guide this decision we should have one goal: to cultivate the real material conditions that will best allow our activism to succeed.

Don’t Use Your Vote to Protest the System. Take Your Protest to the Streets. 

I'm not interested in using my vote to protest the system (whether by not voting or voting for a 3rd party that’s been rigged to lose). I intend to use my vote to create better activist possibilities and take my real protest to the streets, to city hall, to picket lines, to the workplace, to the internet - and every other avenue besides voting, 365 days of the year. That’s where our protests matter. That’s where our protests have power. 

Voting third party or not voting says next to nothing to elites. Huge numbers of people already don’t vote, it's been that way for decades, and our political situation hasn't exactly gotten better. While I don't have a direct line to the ruling class, the vast number of voter suppression strategies they employ to stop us from voting tells me they'd prefer it if we stay home or vote for third parties that are rigged to fail

Choose Offense Over Defense

There’s a strong case to be made that Biden lets us go on offense. Another 4 years of Trump and we'll be defending basic rights and social protections we gained decades ago.

My plan is to spend 1 day in November blocking Trump and every day before and after that building the power of our movements, so we can be successful no matter who is in power.


Your Vote Is Not an Extension of Who You Are. Don’t Make It Personal

People struggle with voting for the lesser evil because they make it personal. We’ve all been taught to make voting a personal extension of who we are, but we shouldn't. We should see voting as an impersonal tool, and far from the most important tool - but a tool nonetheless, to choose our opponent.


Voting in 2020 Can Really Be This Easy: 

Take one day in November to vote to block Trump (and all the other greater evils) and don't spend another minute of emotional energy before or after that on the decision.

When voting stops being about personal representation, and simply a tool to alter the terrain of our activism for the next 2-4 years, it makes sense to me to use that bit of power to alter the outcome in a preferred direction. But there's no need to agonize about it because our real power and agency comes from our activism the other 364 days of the year.


Stop Caring How Your Vote Reflects On You

I don't care how voting for Biden reflects on me. 

I'd rather be protesting Biden then Trump. I'd rather Biden's people running the EPA than Trump's people because it's ultimately less BS to fight, and every minute we're not put on the defensive is a minute we can focus on offense.

Instead of fighting to protect Roe V Wade (which will happen if Trump gets re-elected and gets to nominate another Supreme Court judge), we can spend that time pushing for a Green New Deal.

Now, times that example by a thousand and it seems like a simple calculation.


Vote Like It’s Not a Big Deal

Liberal philosophies teach us to agonize over our decision as if our vote is a moral and spiritual reflection of our character. We’re taught to believe our vote equals an endorsement of that person or system. But if this is true, and if the best option we have is the lesser of two evils, it’s no wonder so many people see this decision as a spiritual crisis and choose not to vote at all. 

“I could never vote for ____” is a reflection of these deeply ingrained beliefs.

I now see this thinking as a liberal trap, because it leads us to expend vast amounts of emotional energy on a decision that shouldn’t be that hard. This emotional energy would be far better spent building our movements in, around, and beyond, national politics. That’s why I say, “vote like it’s not a big deal.”

Instead of it being a huge political or spiritual statement about who we are as people, see it as a small tool we use to support our activism.

The real political and spiritual statement about who we are is based on what we do the other 364 days of the year.



You're not voting for... anyone. You're picking your opponent. 

As the old slogan goes, "Our dreams are not on their ballots."

Once that illusion has been cast aside, we can focus on what really matters: our own activism and movements.







"Should we shame or judge people for not voting for Biden?"

No. There's no point in playing the shame-and-blame game. It's not effective, nor is it in alignment with progressive ideals (living in a society free from coercion). To the extent we try to persuade anyone, it should be through positive appeals, not shame or judgment.

We need to be clear here: Biden is responsible for earning the progressive vote. If Biden refuses to offer significant concessions to progressives, Biden alone will be responsible for not earning the votes he needs to win. We couldn't have made this any clearer.



"Shouldn’t We Withhold Our Vote Until Biden Makes Concessions?"

Sure. Saying “I’ll vote for Biden if he makes significant concessions to the progressive movement” gives us more leverage than “I’ll never vote for Biden.”

But we don’t need to say this because millions of people will do this regardless of what anyone says.

Here’s what I’m saying: “Sure, folks like me will vote for Biden even if he doesn’t make concessions because I’d prefer to protest Biden for the next 4 years over Trump. And there’s a portion of people who will never vote for Biden no matter what Biden does. But there are also millions of people, mostly young people, in between who are only likely to vote for Biden if he hires more progressive staff and adopts more of Bernie’s platform.

Biden *needs* this middle block of people if he’s going to beat Trump. Shaming this voter block - any form of coercion - will not work. If Biden and his supporters pursue the Hillary strategy of 2016 - choosing a conservative VP and doing little to court the progressive wing, Biden may lose.

An open letter to Joe Biden, published the day Bernie dropped out and signed by the Sunrise movement and 7 other prominent youth leadership groups, acknowledged this reality. It’s basically a cheat sheet for winning - with specific policy and staff recommendations to boot.

Democrats would be unwise to repeat the failed strategy of shaming progressive swing-voters. Instead, they should put pressure on Biden to adopt the recommendations in the letter."




"The Democrats Need to Lose or They Will Never Learn."

The Democrats that didn't learn from Kerry or Hillary's loss aren't going to learn anything new if Biden loses. They'll think up new excuses or fall back on old scapegoats, like Sanders voters or Russia (nevermind the 8 million or so Obama-to-Trump voters, which vastly outnumbered Sanders-to-Trump voters). Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is the tragic MO of this group, illustrated by the nomination of Kerry, Hillary and now Biden. I don't think the increased cost in human suffering is a good trade-off to teach folks a lesson they aren't likely to learn.


"How Can You Vote for Biden When He's Done XYZ?"

Yeah, Biden is pretty bad in many ways. I'm not gonna lie about that or pretend he's a friend to progressives. I don't encourage anyone to lie about Biden's record, history or "mental fitness." It's not great folks. But I'm not voting for Biden. I'm choosing my opponent.



"A Vote for Biden = Consent."

So I think it's fair for people to make an argument for this, but I don't think it's an objective truth. It's a subjective truth, for sure, but here are some alternative subjective truths:

You could also say "a vote for someone is a strategic decision that says nothing about me personally because voting isn't a moral reflection of my character or an endorsement of the system. It is simply a tool to help alter the real terrain of the battle, which is our day-to-day activism."

You could also say, "My vote for Biden isn't an endorsement of Biden. It's a vote against Trump and nothing more."

Howard Zinn said we can't be neutral on a moving train.

Trying to be morally untainted or beyond the dirt of politics is impossible. We can convince ourselves of this in our minds. But being a bystander - not voting, is participation in the system. We cannot escape the reality of our actions and non-actions having an impact on the world.

Ultimately, beyond all the philosophy about voting or not voting, there is the material reality of our choices:

Either Biden or Trump will be the president for the next 4 years. What reality would be better for people and the planet? What offers us more opportunities for positive change?

Actively choosing the better of the two realities seems more important than our philosophy about voting because material realities are more important than subjective beliefs.



“Trump Will Hasten the Political Revolution.”

Folks, if 4 years of Trump didn't catalyze a revolution, another 4 won't either. The majority just gets acclimated to higher levels of injustice while clamoring for a return to the centrist/neoliberal policies that gave us Trump in the first place. Biden's win proved that. 

Having the greater evil "shake up the system" is a very ill-informed take at this point. I was hoping for that to be true several years ago, but that's not what's happened.

Ruts in the road, when driven in over and over, don't lead us in a radical new direction. The ruts just get more severe. With 4 more years of Trump, I'm afraid we'll see authoritarian/surveillance capitalism entrench itself more deeply and the future will harden more in that direction.



“The Lesser-Evil Is Still Evil. I don’t Vote for Evil.”
How many hundreds of times have we heard this statement? Isn't it time we invent new thoughts or new ways of looking at this problem that don't lean on reflexive or habit thoughts we've inherited from the past?

"The lesser of two evils is still evil" has no vitality as a creative or useful slogan in my opinion. It feels like something people say when they're done thinking.

It also assumes that voting is about personal expression.

If voting represents us, and we're good, but the choices are evil, then voting makes us evil.

But what if voting isn't about personal expression? What if it's merely a strategic tool we engage with to cultivate the best soil for our activism to grow?

If we stop making voting personal, then it becomes a simple strategic choice: which choice creates better opportunities for year-round activism?


“No Really, The Lesser of Two Evils Is Still Evil.”
This slogan was born from a paradigm that sees the central conflict of the world as a battle between good and evil.

For those who no longer believe in this black and white story, isn’t it time we stop reinforcing it with a narrative that reduces our complex political reality into a simplified binary of greater and lesser evils?

"The lesser of two evils is still evil" is an ideological statement that destroys nuance and hides thousands of important considerations. I don't think this kind of black and white thinking serves us any longer.

Who the president is in America affects thousands of things. Maybe 10,000 things. Not all of those 10,000 things are evil. Many of them are good. But if you say ideological statements, it will be impossible to see those things, because the ideology of the statement erases nuance.


"The Democratic Party Shouldn't Be Rewarded for Its Machinations and Mendacity."

I don't think the DNC cares if Biden loses. Their #1 goal was to stop Sanders and they accomplished that.


In my mind, if we don't want to reward them, then Biden needs to win.

Biden exposes the fraud of the corporate Democrats better than Trump. With Trump in power, they get to pretend to be "the resistance" - as if they're the good guys, and everything would be better "if only" they were in power.

I don't know about you but I really don't want to see that dog and pony show for another 4 years.

If Biden wins and the Democrats retake the Senate, they'll have no excuses.

As my friend Paul James colorfully put it: 

"If Trump gets another run, Dems get to stand on the side wringing their hands and saying sh*t like "Oh, if only we had won! We would have set the nation right!" while doing f*ck all. No. Put them on the front row. Let them show their fecklessness. Let them reveal their worthlessness and let the people see once and for all what sh*t the Dems truly are. If a third party cannot rise from that, it cannot rise at all and Amerikans deserve whatever comes down the pipe."

Told you it was colorful. Ha.

"If Biden Wins Liberals Will Go Back to Sleep and Stop Paying Attention, Just Like They Did with Obama."

I remember that time as well. They were dark times, for sure. I'd still prefer to try waking folks up under those circumstances, where our activism can have a greater impact compared to the brick wall we hit with Trump.

I'd also argue the progressive base is generally more mobilized and active now than it was pre-Sanders. It's also much more obvious that Biden is not the progressive ally we need, whereas Obama was a much better con-man in terms of duping people into supporting him (see this excellent film for more on that). No offense intended to any Obama supporters reading this. I can admit I was taken for the same ride before he got elected.

That said, we face no such problem with Biden. The opposition to Biden from the left will be fierce, as it is already.


"If Trump Wins, There Will Be Less Apathy Among the Left"

I'm not so sure about this. While I hoped Trump would spur more activism, and it did in some ways, vast numbers of people tuned out all the same. Trump's daily assault on people, the environment, the climate, immigrants, and everything else has been exhausting, and that's been part of his strategy.

Trump has been causing so much damage every day, no one can keep up with it all. Thousands of things Trump has done has gotten little to no pushback because the onslaught has just been too immense. For every headline that gets attention, there are 10 things Trump's team has done behind the scenes that goes unchallenged.

For many ordinary people, it's all just too much. It's too exhausting. It's too hopeless. The apolitical have stayed apolitical. People need at least a little faith that things can get better - that their activism may make a difference - and I don't think Trump has helped morale. Many people find it all too depressing and have given up.


"There's Not a Big Difference between Biden and Trump."

Let's assume this is true. As Noam Chomsky says, "Small differences in a system of great power can have enormous consequences."





Tim Hjersted is the co-founder and director of Films For Action, a people-powered library for changing the world.

Films For Action was formed by a few friends from Lawrence, Kansas in 2006 in response to a fundamental critique of our highly consolidated, for-profit media system. We believe a healthy media ecosystem is essential to a healthy democracy.

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