Jan 29, 2020

Voting Is a Chess Move, Not the Whole Game

"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
By Tim Hjersted / filmsforaction.org
Voting Is a Chess Move, Not the Whole Game

Vote‬ defensively.

Vote offensively.

Vote when there is someone worth voting for.

Vote for or against ballot measures.

Vote locally where we have more agency over the outcomes.

Reject the ideology of our oppressors. Not voting says nothing to the ruling elite. It doesn't threaten their legitimacy. They don't care if you don't vote. They don't care if 90% of us don't vote. 40-60% already don't. And that's exactly what they want.

Meanwhile, Republicans and establishment Democrats run candidates, hire lobbyists, fund think tanks, write bills, lobby those bills, fund media operations, organize and mobilize their base to vote, get their reps elected, and ultimately, they get the government that they worked for. 

They make the rules. They pass the bills in the statehouses. They obstruct in congress. They elect activist far-right judges. And they focus on local and state elections while we spend most of our time focusing on presidential ones.

Government makes a difference for them. It works great for them! They own this country because they have seized the levers of government for themselves. 

Watch this excellent spotlight on ALEC and state-legislatures to really get a sense for where these private interests are putting their efforts:



Meanwhile, the left and the apolitical (who largely support progressive policies) in large swathes believe voting is pointless and abstains from the realms of politics altogether, as if that's the moral, rational, radical or educated thing to do, then observes for another 2-4 years how poorly the government works for them.

If that's been you in the past, hey, no disrespect! I get it. Why invest energy into something that seems hell-bent on foiling your efforts at every turn?

It's true, the government has worked more for neoliberal Republicans and Democrats for more than half a century. Most of us are too young to remember a time when the government was responsive to ordinary people, and an honest reading of history shows that elections have never been truly democratic or truly responsive to all segments of the public - hello somebody!

But when women and African Americans didn't even have the right to vote, did they say, "Hey, voting has never done anything for us in the past! Why even bother? Why invest energy in gaining the right to vote when it's clearly pointless. The game is rigged! We should probably just put our attention elsewhere..."

Apply any argument for not voting today to a time when people couldn't vote at all, and it seems clear that the answer isn't to concede defeat. It's to fight!

If there is an institution in the world that has the power and legal authority of an established police, court, prison & military system, the people should have control over that system.

Full stop.

Change it or alter it to make it more humane of course, but to do that the public has to have control over those systems (from without and from within).

Most of these systems are staffed by ordinary people who are doing their best, based on how they were raised and educated. These systems are not monolithic, and the shared ideology and consensus that holds the current system together is weaker today than ever.

Many in the government would probably like to improve things as well but have little agency by themselves. Like most employees in a company, their power remains mostly latent as individuals but is powerful when part of an organized union, supported by civic and political organizations on the outside. Whatever room they have to change things at an individual level is bolstered by having an engaged public driving those changes.

This is as true for the presidency as it is for a city commissioner or board of education rep.


Now, for those who would object to my argument being too partisan, I'm not saying the Democrats that run for office aren't a part of the problem.

My point is that we, as the public, who are more progressive, don't engage.

Too many honest progressives and radicals (folks that aren't centrist right-leaning Dems) don't believe in running for offices of government. Because of the way we've been socialized to view politics, a majority of progressive people don't want to get involved. And so the people who are happy to take that power are the ones who get it.

But maybe with the enthusiasm that Bernie Sanders brought back to politics in 2016, and AOC and many others brought in 2018, we can turn this ship around.

We need to get real progressives in every local position of government from the bottom up. Whatever party we use as a vehicle for change, we need to build power first at the local level, where we have the most agency to affect the outcome.

If Republicans, establishment Democrats and the corporations that fund them can make government work for them, I'm pretty damn well sure we can make it work for us.

We just need to start doing what the movement for Bernie Sanders is doing, and that starts with ending this debilitating allergy to political engagement.


Question: “How can you vote?  With all you’ve done and written, how can you participate in this corrupt, money-driven system?  I thought you were far more radical than that!”

"Political strategies and tactics are not jealous lovers. You don’t have to be monogamous. Direct Action will not feel betrayed if you also vote from time to time—you can be poly in your tactics.  And I am.  Of course I vote!  If you’re a woman, or a person of color, or a person who doesn’t own property, or even a white male who doesn’t belong to the nobility, centuries of struggle and many deaths have bought you the right to vote.  I vote to keep faith with peasant rebels and suffragist hunger strikers and civil rights workers braving the lynch mobs of the South, if for no other reason.  But there is another reason—because who we vote for has an enormous impact on real peoples’ lives." - Starhawk


Want a little more inspiration?

Here are a collection of articles from the Films For Action library on voting, democracy, direct action, and holistic, long-term visions and strategies for change:


Ideological Hegemony: How Our Own Thoughts Became the Greatest Weapon of the Ruling Class
Tim Hjersted · "Ideological hegemony is the process by which the exploited come to view the world through a conceptual framework provided to them by their exploiters." - Kevin A. Carson
Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas
95 min · From Venezuela's Communal Councils, to Brazil's Participatory Budgeting; from Constitutional Assemblies to grassroots movements, recuperated factories to cooperatives across the hemisphere -- this documentary is a journey, which takes...
How to Start Participatory Budgeting in Your City
Maria Hadden and Josh Lerner · Have you noticed all the cuts being made to your city budget? To schools and libraries, fire fighters and social services, and other public spending? Think you could do a better job managing the budget? Soon, you may have that chance.
What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like
Daniel Denvir · We have a decade to transform the US economy to stave off climate catastrophe, and Bernie Sanders has the only agenda to do so and the only mobilization strategy to get it done. No plan for a better future is worthwhile if environmental...
Democracy At Stake - The Sad State of the US Political System
17 min · In this four-part series filmmaker Matthew Cooke joins Patricia Arquette to explore the state of democracy in the United States.
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.
The Promise of a Million Utopias
Michael Shuman · This paper by Michael Shuman, published alongside three others, is one of many proposals for a systemic alternative we have published or will be publishing here at the Next System Project. You can read it below, or download the PDF. We...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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...
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...
Halle/Chomsky: an Eight Point Brief for LEV (Lesser Evil Voting)
John Halle and Noam Chomsky · Among the elements of the weak form of democracy enshrined in the constitution, presidential elections continue to pose a dilemma for the left in that any form of participation or non participation appears to impose a significant cost...
The Promise of Radical Municipalism Today
Aaron Vansintjan · Politics is about bringing people together and taking democratic control of the spaces where we live
What Is Democracy?
2 min · Coming at a moment of profound political and social crisis, What Is Democracy? reflects on a word we too often take for granted.
Radical Municipalism: The Future We Deserve
Debbie Bookchin · Only a global confederation of rebel cities can lead us out of the death-spiral of neoliberalism towards a new rational society that delivers on the promise of humankind.
Scaling Up: Ideas about Participatory Democracy
Sveinung Legard · A common objection against participatory democracy is that, yes, it is a beautiful idea, but it can only work at the local level, like the neighborhood, the small town or the village. Our modern world is too complex, too global and...
Building Democratic Power at the Local Level - A Strategy for Long-Term Liberation
Alexander Kolokotronis · In the era of Trump, we will need to consolidate counter-power via participatory democracy and economic self-management at the local level.
What Is Economic Democracy?
4 min · An animated look at David Schweickart's proposal for a next system, grounded in democratic worker cooperatives and built around public control of financial capital.
Democracy? That Would Be Anarchy!
Liam Barrington-Bush · The lead-up to an election is a tough time to be an anarchist. There's always someone wagging a patronising finger and telling you that your, or their, or someone's grandparents died for your 'right' to submit agency over your life to...
An Atlas of Real Utopias?
Sol Trumbo and Nick Buxton · Atlas of Utopias is part of the Transformative Cities initiative, sharing 32 stories of radical transformation that demonstrate that another world is possible, and already exists.
Two Brilliant Thinkers Had the Same Solution to Political Oligarchy: Direct Democracy
Yavor Tarinski · The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralizing and monopolizing power and control. - Vandana Shiva
The 4th Branch of Government: An Idea To Create Direct Democracy For, and By, The People
Duke Johnson · Imagine a Collective Arena for all issues facing The Populous. An e-forum. Think WikiPolicy, with a Collective Voting Platform.
Getting Free: Creating an Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods
James Herod · The main purpose of this book is to try to persuade revolutionaries to shift the sites of the anticapitalist struggle and to select new battlefields. I identify three strategic sites for fighting - neighborhoods, workplaces, and...


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

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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