Last updated October 5th, 2020.
I believe deep, systemic change is necessary to solve the problems humanity faces. I also believe that voting is a flawed but vitally important tool we have to alter the terrain upon which our year-round activism is based.
For those that believe in true, participatory democracy, where people have the right to participate in decisions that affect them, these tools we call voting, city councils, education boards, state and federal governments: they belong to us, not the corporations that have stolen them through bribes, revolving doors, anti-democratic voting laws, corporate media, and systemic corruption.
When a vital mechanism for making city-wide, state or national decisions is threatened, we should not cede that power to corporations or reactionary political forces.
It's true that the anemic form of decision-making we call voting is weak (we don't even have ranked-choice voting!), but that isn't a reason to abandon it. If we believe in the basic idea that people should have agency over their own lives, then it is a muscle we should strengthen, and fight for vigorously.
We should fight for it, also, because if we don't, we can be damn sure that folks that do not have everyone's interests at heart would love to use the power of the state to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. That's basically the situation we have now, but it could get a lot worse if we don't fight for an alternative that's better.
Fighting for something better means protecting what little democracy we have and making it stronger. While there are many realms where we should also expand democracy, such as in our workplaces, neighborhoods, households, jails, schools and cities, we should also work to expand democracy within the system that currently has the power and authority to "make laws," which are backed by the courts and police. These structures were built to avoid influence from the public, no doubt, but they're not going to get better if we avoid them.
We must work to own these political institutions, or they will continue to own us.
Electing representatives that support our vision of democracy is the first step towards ranked-choice voting, participatory budgeting, and other more far-reaching experiments in direct democracy, sociocracy, municipal self-government, and liquid democracy.
There are some folks who say we have to choose between voting and systemic activism - that voting takes energy and attention away from the more important work we need to be doing. But I don't believe that.
That is win-lose or zero-sum thinking - another false dilemma arising from the logic of the cultural paradigm we live in. Win-win thinking offers an alternative: we simply do both.
From a holistic perspective, this makes sense. We believe we need to create fundamental change within our workplaces, schools, prisons, courts, hospitals, police departments and cities, but politics - the one that has a significant effect on all the others - that's the one we should avoid at all costs?
I say we need to change it all.
The false dilemma between voting and day-to-day activism is also false because we've basically tried the "don't vote" route.
It's been the same story for decades:
A majority of people don't vote and they don't engage in regular activism either. Decades of record low voter turnout hasn't led to a surge of grassroots organizing or a sudden toppling of the established order.
While I'm heartened by the surge of political enthusiasm I've seen in the last 5 years - thanks in good credit to Bernie Sanders and all the people after him that were inspired to get involved and run for office, this surge has yet to hit a critical mass. There are still many people that have stayed apathetic - hardened by a thousand disappointments and withered by crippling cynicism.
I honestly have a lot of empathy for the heart-space they're in. I touch into that reality often myself. The reality of our politics is painful... and utterly disheartening in so many ways.
This is what really comes through to me when I talk to people about why they don't vote, and why they feel apathetic about politics. It's a sense of despair and futility:
"Politicians are selected not elected."
"The game is rigged."
"Voting doesn't change anything."
"Voting for the lesser evil is still evil."
"If you think something will change if you vote for a different politician then you might not understand how the system works..."
It was this last statement, shared in a comment thread shortly before the 2016 election, that inspired me to write this response:
"You know, I used to think a similar way, but lately, I've come to see how this belief actually serves the interests of the ruling class. Their greatest weapon is to get us to think that these demobilizing thoughts are our own.
It's true: Voting alone won't solve all our problems, but when combined with mass movements, collective action, and year-round, robust activist organizing, our efforts are collectively powerful.
It's quite a coup that the ruling class has 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 45% to 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 45-60% of people who believe voting is pointless 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.
But 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."
Not entirely convinced? I wasn't either until I watched the video clip below featuring Noam Chomsky.
In the video, Chomsky explains how business elites viewed democracy as an emerging threat to their power in the early 20th century:
"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.
...So you had to create a mood of anti-politics, which leaves a very powerful interventionist state but makes people hate the federal government, and 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
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.
Non-voters have a lot of favorite sayings, which explain why they don't vote, some of which I mentioned above, but the one I hear most is a quote from Emma Goldman, who said, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."
This is admittedly a satisfying quote - it's got a great ring to it - but it actually ignores the political realities of the last century.
For one, 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."
Activist movements had to fight pretty damn hard to win the right to vote. This led the establishment to develop dozens of new and more sophisticated methods 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. If making voting illegal or difficult is proof that elections do matter, then the evidence heavily supports the position that it does.
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.
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.
A promising candidate may run for office and we may write off their campaign without a second thought because that may be less painful than investing our efforts into something and then feeling disappointed if they lose.
Every cynic was once an idealist who has grown defenses around their heart to avoid the pain of having their hopes dashed yet 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 our collective efforts 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 heads or reject them.
It comes down to our choice to choose action over apathy - not just on election day, but all year round.
That last part is key because as important as voting can be (depending on the specifics), voting on election day is only part of a much larger strategy that depends most of all on our day-to-day activism and movement building beyond, within, and around 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 movements because they know that if enough of us get engaged and vote, we'll win. While poll taxes, voter ID laws and the other schemes they have can stop some of us from voting, they can't stop all of us. Voter apathy is still their greatest weapon, and if they lose that, they know they'll lose.
That's why I believe the answer to a corrupt voting process isn't to opt out - it's to totally and completely overwhelm the voting system with numbers that the establishment has never seen.
If we want to see the day when government truly represents us, the people must attack the government's primary defect - that inconvenient rule that allows us to vote them out of power.
2020 US Presidential Addendum: What about Trump vs Biden?
When neither choice is entirely desirable, but one is worse than the other, the strategic rule is: choose your opponent. Who do you want to be mobilizing and organizing against for the next 4 years to advance progressive policies? For me, it's a simple choice. I'd rather our movements be fighting for progressive change under a Biden presidenancy than a Trump presidency. There are far more tactical advantages and opportunities for change in this scenerio, none of which have to do with hope in Biden. Activism, organizing, and movements, not voting, is where all the real change will comes from, but voting for Biden and ousting Trump will give our efforts significant advantages over the coming years.
I wrote a guide to voting in 2020 if you'd like to read more and share it with your friends.