By Tim Hjersted
Mar 10, 2016
Leftist: "If you think something will change if you vote for a different politician then you might not understand how the system works..."
Me: "I used to think a similar way, but lately I have come to see how your statement represents the ideology of our oppressors. Their greatest weapon is to get us to think these demobilizing thoughts - the thoughts which serve and maintain the status quo - are our own.
Voting alone accomplishes little, you're right, but when combined with a mass movement, direct action, and robust activist organizing, our efforts are collectively powerful.
It's quite a coup that our oppressors have gotten us to believe exactly what we need to believe to maintain our own oppression - that the one mechanism which can legally threaten their legitimacy, we believe holds no power. Think about that. Roughly 60% of the United States doesn't vote because they believe it's pointless. The one legally binding mechanism that threatens their power - we believe holds no power. That's ideological hegemony. That's how the ruling elite rule this country - we have internalized the thoughts which uphold our own oppression.
If the 60% of people who believe voting and other forms of activism are pointless suddenly threw off those chains of powerlessness, and started to get engaged, not just on election day, but every week... you can bet that this country would see a revolution unseen in the history of the world.
First we have to throw off those chains - the thoughts in our own heads - that tell us that we are powerless and ineffectual against the ruling powers that be."
Now, if you're pretty well convinced that voting is pointless, I doubt the few paragraphs above are going to persuade you, so if you're still interested in this train of thought, let's dive a little deeper here.
In the video below, Noam Chomsky talks about the history of the people's struggle against the corporate powers which rule their working lives and which also control the state.
"Business leaders and elite intellectuals recognized that the public had won enough rights so that they can't be controlled by force, so it would be necessary to turn to control of attitudes and opinions." - Noam Chomsky
"The reason to make people hate the federal government is it has a defect... But the things that they're worried about is not what's bad. They're worried about what's good. The government has a defect; namely it's potentially influenceable by the population. Now private corporations don't have that defect. Nothing you can say about the GE management. But you can do something about federal government policies. And that defect, for good Madisonian reasons, has to be gotten rid of. So they have to create a mood of anti-politics, where everything is blamed on the federal government, and you don't notice the real power behind it. You're not supposed to read the Fortune 500 issue." - Noam Chomsky @ 3:58
Noam Chomsky's analysis is spot on here. The government's primary defect is that all of its legitimacy rests on the notion that the government is supposed to represent the people. So it offers us voting and elections to maintain its legitimacy, because it can't rule straight up as an authoritarian force. It has to rule by covert means - giving the public a means to influence the government, but covertly doing everything it can to sway the elections in their favor.
One of the left's favorite quotes is from Emma Goldman, who said, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal." But this feel-good quote, which I've heard repeated thousands of times, actually ignores the political realities of the last century.
Let's ignore the fact that, during Goldman's time, voting *was* illegal for women up to 1920 and numerous laws kept African Americans from voting up until 1965!
"Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote."
Let's also ignore the reality of dozens of sophisticated methods currently used today to legally and more covertly prevent or discourage people from voting. Emma Goldman was a brilliant thinker in many ways, but on this point, she got it wrong.
Business and political elites would certainly love to rule the country without the people getting in the way, but ruling America as an authoritarian dictatorship isn't realistically feasible. Every government rests on legitimacy. That's why most dictatorships sooner or later get overthrown in popular uprisings. The smart way to rule is to market the system as fundamentally democratic while swaying outcomes via "soft power" measures and more sophisticated propaganda techniques.
Today, that system is quite elaborate and sometimes contradictory. There are now dozens of ways that the establishment attempts to tip the scales in their favor. Gerrymandering districts. Voter ID requirements. Early voting cuts. New requirements to register to vote. Limits on mail-in ballots. Provisional and absentee voting changes. Polling place closures. Voter roll purges. Citizens United. Super PACs. Establishment media. Suppressing third parties. Making everyone that goes to prison ineligible during their incarceration and 2 years after they're released. Voter misinformation at the polls. Electronic voter fraud. Restricting the available candidates to only options the establishment deems acceptable (Obama and Hillary in 2008 was one such false choice, as was Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 - with either pick being essentially favorable to the establishment).
One example of a contradictory strategy is revealed by making government so obviously dysfunctional and broken with endless bickering and gridlock that people look at the system as hopelessly broken. The more dysfunctional government appears, the more people will want to avoid politics like the plague - and yet, despite this level of dysfunction, the government is highly functional when it comes to bolstering corporate welfare, tax breaks for the rich, and maintaining a bloated defense budget which feeds our tax dollars into the coffers of the defense industry. The government is working great when you consider who owns it and who benefits from this state of affairs.
Given all of these strategies, which the public is becoming more and more aware of, it's not surprising that so many people say the game is rigged and elections are pointless. But it's that final belief that stands as the ruling elite's greatest coup de grace. Apathy, disgust and despair in the face of such injustice is their ultimate weapon.
It's their greatest weapon because we cherish this belief as a badge of honor - as proof that we're awake to the utter corruption of our political system, and we're not so naive or foolish to believe that voting could change anything. It's our own belief in the futility of voting that protects the state against its primary defect.
Despite all of the rigged corruption within our faux democratic system, the fact remains that if 99% of the people chose to vote, the state would have no choice but to honor the will of the people or risk outright insurrection. Most of the time, they can avoid this threat by ensuring that the only options are favorable to corporate interests. Obama, Hillary, John McCain and Mitt Romney were all false choices in this regard. They were all owned by the corporate money that invested in them. So I can understand why leftists protested our bought-and-paid-for elections of the past. But here we are in 2016, and we have a situation that is truly unprecedented in modern history. We have an independent democratic socialist, running as a Democrat to avoid the third-party trap, running an insurgent campaign funded entirely by the people.
Unlike in previous elections, in 2016, we actually have a meaningful choice between the two Democratic options. While some leftists will say Sanders is not radical enough, by universally objective political standards, there is no question Sanders represents a stark alternative to Hillary, as shown by PoliticalCompass.org's assessment of the candidates. For contrast, look at the options Americans had in 2012.
Can Sanders beat the establishment?
Despite the superdelegates, the media establishment, the political establishment, corporate money and every other trick in the bag being thrown at Sanders to crush his candidacy, he continues to defy expectations, and the only thing at this point that could stop this movement from winning is the belief in our own powerlessness. It's the left's belief that the establishment's power is absolute, that it can't be broken. I can't tell you how many times I've heard some of my friends say, "there's no way they'll ever let Sanders get into office." The message is - no matter what we do, they'll win. The irony is, that's the only thing standing between our victory or theirs.
To win, we have to throw off decades of learned helplessness. We have to objectively see how Sanders represents a clear and distinct challenge to the powers that be. We have to see the opportunity that this election itself presents.
Leftists have a litany of beliefs that have been true so many times in the past, it has become an ideology. The danger is in applying this ideology to every situation, we'll have blinders on when a real opportunity arises.
When we believe that "elections are pointless," "voting never makes a difference," "the game is rigged," "candidates are selected not elected" or that "if voting changed anything they'd make it illegal," it's very tempting to try to fit any new political developments into our existing ideology. We'll want to fit the Sanders phenomena into the same box as before. Because in some ways that's comforting. Every cynic was once an idealist who has grown defenses around their heart to avoid the pain of having their hopes dashed yet again. Ignoring the fact that Obama was always a well-marketed corporate candidate with moderate conservative (neoliberal) positions, a lot of people got their hopes up that he might be different. It's understandable people don't want to get their hopes up again.
But fighting this fight isn't about offering us security. Fighting this fight is about being vulnerable and courageous in the face of uncertainty. We fight not because we can be certain we'll win, but because our hearts tell us it is right. We are sick of our apathy, we are sick of the oppressors that live inside our heads telling us what is and is not possible. We know there's no guarantee this movement will be successful. But it's assured that if enough of us believe we can't win, and we stay home, we'll lose. And if enough of us believe we can win, and we get out and vote and get involved in activism on a regular basis, we'll win. It's that simple.
Whether our oppressors continue to rule over us is entirely up to whether we choose to accept the oppressive thoughts inside our head or reject them. It comes down to our choice to choose action over apathy.
The Bernie Sanders movement is not about him. It is about millions upon millions of us deciding that we've had enough. That we're not going to play our part in their game anymore (where we stay home and they continue to rule).
Fortunately, millions upon millions of people are making that choice. They rejected the conventional wisdom among many lefists that says voting is pointless. And now what was once declared impossible is now possible. Even the establishment media, which eerily echoed the narratives of radicals on the left who said Sanders campaign has zero chance of succeeding, are now being forced to change their tune because the people rejected the future they were told was inevitable.
That's the power of choosing action over apathy.
Whether Sanders becomes the nominee is very much up in the air - it will come down to how many people decide to vote and get involved over the next 5 months. But we should remember that no matter what happens, no matter who wins the nomination or the presidency this year, this revolution will continue.
The Sanders movement has awakened the sleeping left in ways I have never seen in my entire life. As one writer put it, Once People Feel the Bern... The Fire Will Not Go Out.
The movement, no matter who wins, will continue to fight for the ideas that Sanders has brought to the national stage. Bernie has opened a crack in the iron wall, and we will continue to hammer against that wall until it no longer stands. We will push the fight farther and in more radical directions because we understand that our vote is only one small but important piece in a much larger strategy that depends most of all on our day-to-day activism and movement building beyond the sphere of electoral politics. Voting by itself never was nor ever will be a silver bullet - but when combined with sustained activist organizing and movement building, we possess a power that is truly threatening to the ruling establishment.
They know this. They are afraid of our movement. That is why they have stopped ignoring Sanders and have now begun a full-frontal attack. They are afraid because they know that if enough of us get engaged and vote, we'll win. Millions of people are rejecting the ideology of our oppressors. With a candidate that is finally worth voting for, they are choosing to attack the government's primary defect - that inconvenient rule that allows us to vote them out of power.
Bernie Sanders Understands His Role In The Movement
The Bernie Sanders movement is a movement among dozens of activist campaigns and struggles which align with our collective goals. While these movements cover the range of left politics, from radical to progressive, they share in common the goal of pushing our culture and politics to the left. That is why the vanguard should unite with less radical movements, and why left-of-center progressives should ally with those on the far left. We are all pieces of the puzzle working on changing the structures of society via different angles of attack. It's my view that supporting all of these movements will collectively offer us the greatest chance of success. No single strategy is likely to create the world we envision. It's going to take all of us working on taming the system (via the state and elections), eroding the system (via outside movements, activism and building alternative social and economic structures), and working on building real utopias that will bring about the transformative changes we desire in the long run.
"Let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is [that] no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them. That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly: It is not just about electing Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country." - Bernie Sanders
I find it incredibly encouraging that Sanders is straight up telling people that no president can solve this country's problems and that the only way we're gonna do it is if we have a massive uprising of people that do it themselves. That is the kind of DIY spirit that activists have been trying to get across for years, and here we have a presidential candidate getting this message out to millions upon millions of people.
This more than anything shows me that Sanders gets it. He gets his role as a piece of the puzzle, but he knows that the real solution is us. And that's exactly what we've got to get every American to know and believe: The only way to topple the establishment's rule is for millions of Americans to shake off their apathy and start taking action - not just at the polls, but in their communities, in every day activism - in a mass movement against Oligarchy.
It's time to take this country back from the billionaires and corporate interests that have owned this country for far too long.
"Voting is a chess move, not a valentine. And here's the joy of being politically engaged all year round every year; you get to work with a whole lot of chess pieces and players and strategies and longterm visions, so you don't agonize over whether this little hop with a pawn we call voting defines you. You get to define yourself by what you're passionately committed to, by who you align with, by your dreams and your visions, you get to move a lot of pieces a lot of times, you get heroic allies, and you play to win above, beyond, around elections. But you vote, because you know it matters too."
- Rebecca Solnit