The "No Illusions" Guide to Elections: Vote to Choose Your Opponent, Then Organize!

This guide is for people who are ambivalent about voting in elections. It directly addresses the objections of the "don't vote" position while finding common ground. To summarize the position of this guide: "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 and principled use of time given the far-reaching impacts it has on our day-to-day efforts. The following is dedicated to explaining why.
By Tim Hjersted / filmsforaction.org
Nov 1, 2022
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The "No Illusions" Guide to Elections: Vote to Choose Your Opponent, Then Organize!
Art by Tim Hjersted

Use Your Vote to Choose Your Opponent

In a healthy representative democracy, we could vote for our values and choose representatives we trust. But in the anemic and rigged democracy we have in our country, 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 (without ranked choice voting) 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

 

You vote to keep the terrible people out. The lesser of two evils is a reality. - Rowan Thomas


Choose Offense Over Defense

There’s a strong case to be made that the Lesser Evil lets us go on offense. Another four years of the Greater Evil and we'll be defending basic rights and social protections we gained decades ago.

My plan is to spend a part of one day voting against the Greater Evil and then spend 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 Can Really Be This Easy

Take one day to vote against the Greater Evil and don't spend another minute of emotional energy before or after that on the decision.

When voting stops being about personal representation and is simply a tool to alter the terrain of our activism for the next two to four years, it makes sense to use that small bit of power to alter the outcome in a preferred direction. There's no need to agonize about it because our real power and agency come 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 the Lesser Evil reflects on me. 

I'd rather be protesting the Lesser Evil than the Greater Evil. I'd rather the Lesser Evil's staff run the EPA than the Greater Evil's staff because it is 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 rights, protections, and standards of living that we attained decades ago, we can spend that time pushing for higher standards and expanded rights for all.

 

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.

 

TL:DR

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.

 


 

Questions

 

"Should we shame or judge people for not voting for the Lesser Evil?"

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.

 

"Shouldn’t We Withhold Our Vote Until the Lesser Evil Makes Concessions?"

Sure. Saying “I’ll vote for ____ if they make significant concessions to the progressive movement” gives us more leverage than “I’ll never vote for ____.”

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 the Lesser Evil even if they don't make concessions because I’d prefer to protest the Lesser over the Greater Evil for the next four years. Then there’s a portion of people who will never vote for the Lesser Evil either out of protest, apathy, or principle. But there are also millions of people, mostly young people, in between who are only likely to vote for the Lesser Evil if they're willing to deliver on some progressive policies.

Usually, the Lesser Evil needs this middle block of people to beat the Greater Evil. Shaming this voter block - any form of coercion - will not work.

Liberals would be unwise to repeat the failed strategy of shaming progressive swing voters. Instead, they should put pressure on Democratic candidates to adopt ever-more progressive policy positions, like this."

 

Objections

 

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

The Democrats that didn't learn from past losses aren't going to learn anything new from fresh losses. They'll think up new excuses or fall back on old scapegoats - anything but themselves and their corporate political agenda. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the tragic MO of this group. 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 the Lesser Evil When He/She's Done XYZ?"

Yeah, the Lesser Evil is still usually pretty bad in many ways. I don't encourage anyone to downplay the Lesser Evil's record or sugarcoat the facts. It's almost never great folks. This is where the "no illusions" part of this guide comes from. But I'm not voting *for* the Lesser Evil. I'm choosing my opponent.

 

"Voting Won't Solve All Our Problems"

Couldn't agree more. Like a balanced breakfast, voting is best accompanied by year-round activism, community organizing, strategic campaigns, labor unionizing, and other forms of action in, around, and beyond the ballot box. Voting alters the terrain of our struggles, but our struggles are ultimately what deliver the goods. 

 

"A Vote for the Lesser Evil = Consent."

So I think it's fair for people to make an argument for this, but it's not an objective truth. It's a subjective truth, for sure, and to those who say this is their truth, I can't argue with that, 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's a tool to help alter the real terrain of the battle, which is our day-to-day activism."

You could also say, "I'm voting against the Greater Evil, simple as that."

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 the Lesser or Greater Evil will be making decisions that affect millions of people. What reality would be better for people and the planet? What offers us more opportunities for positive change?

 

"When You Vote, You Give Your Tacit Approval to the System."

No one can read minds. Not voting could be a protest or it could be apathy. Not voting is assumed to be apathy by most. With nothing else to go on, one could easily assume not voting is a tacit approval of the status quo. Like, "Hey, either option is fine by me."

The honest truth is: voting is what we think it means to us. If I say I'm voting to choose my opponent and I don't endorse the system, that's my truth. If you say not voting is protest, that's your truth. Objectively neither is true. We either vote or don't and live with the outcome.

"Imagine If Everyone Stopped Voting and Exposed the System for the Sham That It Is."

My first thought is: This system has already been exposed as a sham. Trust in politics, the corporate media and other institutions remain at historic lows, and this hasn't catalyzed the kind of mass mobilizations this objection is likely hoping for.

My second thought is: Yes, that'd be amazing but it will never happen and is a fantasy as much as believing voting without activism will lead to significant change. Our democracy is extremely fragile. Even without the voting system we have, citizens must develop the capacity to vote, engage critically and make decisions collaboratively and democratically in some way with people they disagree with. From the city level to the national, we need structures to make decisions, whatever form that may take. Without those material support structures in place, a nonvoting revolution would likely lead to chaos and despotism. We have to be realistic with the conditions we're working with: There will always be die-hard voters. Most Republicans and authoritarians could care less about a "nonvoting" revolution. Such an appeal is only attractive to thinkers on the left, meaning a "nonvoting" campaign will only serve to empower fanatical right-wing forces.

Meanwhile, those in power will always legitimize their rule while dismissing nonvoters. We already see voting figures as low as 5-10% in some circumstances and this hasn't destabilized the system. I'm not counting on this magical scenario ever coming true.

I humbly believe trying to get people to stop voting is a serious tactical error and a waste of our precious energies.

A committed cadre of anarchists and anti-authoritarians have been promoting the "don't vote" philosophy for decades. So long as there are conservatives in the world, this campaign will never hit a critical mass and I believe it'd be a disaster if it did (hello fascism - yes, it can get far worse).

So here's my invitation to my dear nonvoting advocates: let's promote a peace-building synthesis view that meets the needs of both sides of this debate: vote to choose your opponent AND commit to local organizing and strengthening true democratic foundations.

In my humble estimation, the "don't vote" debate has proved fruitless my entire life. It could be solved by changing a single word in the slogan. "Don't Just Vote" is a rallying cry everyone should be able to get behind.

Promoting activism beyond voting meets the true needs of the "don't vote" crowd, and voting meets the need of the "vote" and "don't just vote" crowds. I think it's high time we all commit to the synthesis position so we can put this debate to bed and move on to more important discussions.

 

“The Greater Evil Will Hasten the Political Revolution.”

Folks, if four years of previous Greater Evils didn't catalyze a revolution, another four 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 the Greater Evil in the first place. 

Having the Greater Evil "shake up the system" is - I humbly submit dear reader, an ill-informed take at this point. I was hoping for that to be true several years ago when the latest Greater Evil was elected, but that's not what 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 four more years of the Greater Evil, 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 doesn't lean on reflexive or habitual 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?

 

“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've used the "Lesser and Greater Evil" framing in the spirit of the "no illusions" premise this guide is based on, but I don't think this kind of black-and-white thinking serves us when we take it too literally or as an absolute.

The politicians we elect to any office affect thousands of things, maybe 10,000 things. Not all of those 10,000 things are evil. Many of them are good, but if you repeat ideological statements, it will be impossible to see those things, because the ideology of the statement erases nuance.

 

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

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

The strategy of the Greater Evil is to cause so much damage every day, no one can keep up with it all. Thousands of things the Greater Evil has done got little to no pushback because the onslaught has just been too immense. For every headline that gets attention, there are 10 things the Greater Evil's team has done behind the scenes that go 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. They need to believe their activism may make a difference, and I don't think the Greater Evil wrecking the country for four years has helped morale. Many people find it all too depressing and have given up.

 

"There's Not a Big Difference between the Greater and Lesser Evil."

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

 

“There’s another word for lesser evilism. It’s called rationality. Lesser evilism is not an illusion, it’s a rational position. But you don’t stop with lesser evilism. You begin with it, to prevent the worst, and then you go on to deal with the fundamental roots of what’s wrong, even with the lesser evils. [...] So even if there’s core, deep problems with the institutions, there still are choices between alternatives, which matter a lot. Small differences in a system with enormous power translate into huge effects. Meanwhile [...] you continue to try to organize and develop the mass popular movements, which will block the worst and change the institutions. All of these things can go on at once. But the simple question of what button do you push on a particular day? That is a decision, and that matters. It’s not the whole story, by any means. It’s a small part of the story, but it matters.” - Noam Chomsky

 

“Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens. [...] I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death…. I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.” - Howard Zinn, March of 2008


 

For further reading...

On Voting

 

Why Not Voting Is Such an Ineffective Form of Protest
Thomas G. Clark · Of the most commonly recurring themes that keeps popping up in the comments sections beneath my work is the "if only everyone stopped voting ..." type is probably the most infuriating. The reason that I find these appeals for people to...
Ideological Hegemony: How Our Own Thoughts Became the Greatest Weapon of the Ruling Class
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The Anarchist Revolt Against the Ideology of Not Voting Is Finally Taking Shape
Tim Hjersted · Anarchists have traditionally opposed voting for a variety of ideological reasons. For many, not voting is held as a badge of honor - a way of signaling one's commitment to anarchist theory. I've often thought that this belief in not...
Voting Is a Chess Move, Not the Whole Game
Tim Hjersted · "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...
My Appeal to Leftists Who Won't Vote or Who Believe Voting Third Party Is a Principled Stance
Chad Kautzer · My appeal to leftist comrades who think that not voting is a way to be a "principled" leftist, or that it's leftist to choose a third-party candidate so you can vote in good conscience. These are not leftist positions (Yes, I dare to...
The Anarchist Case For Voting In Elections
Paddy Vipond · As another election season approaches, we are faced with the age old anarchist dilemma: To vote or not to vote.
To Vote or Not to Vote: For Anarchists, Is There Only One True Way?
Tim Hjersted · People can say with conviction and confidence that voting will never make a difference - but it's still a belief, and possibly one that may be too ideological for our own good, as it can skew our perception of reality.   I can think...
I'm an Anarchist and I Vote
Ryan Conrad · Greetings from Trumplandia, also known as the second congressional district of Maine, which is now polling for Donald Trump. I have called Lewiston, Maine, home since 2001 when I moved there for university as a teenager. I am currently...
Voting Matters
2 min · More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most extensive pieces of civil rights legislation, people of color across the United States still are engaged in a battle to protect their right to vote. Voting...

 

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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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