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The Left & The Elections

James Tracy & Steve Williams
Date Published: 
April 01, 2008

All across this country, the election for president is heating up, and the question confronting many activists is: “How does all of this relate to me?” and “What role do I play in all of this?”

The US leads all industrialized “democracies” in the rate of electoral abstention. With the exception of the 2004 Kerry-Bush race (which peaked at 64 percent), it is rare that more than half of the nation’s eligible voters actually queue up at a polling place and decide who occupies the White House. The reasons for this are varied but one thing is clear: on the fault-lines of the US order, the two parties hardly sit on opposite sides of a wide gulf.

New urgency
At the 2006 World Social Forum, Venezuelan President Hugo Ch·vez posed an important challenge. He suggested that previous generations of revolutionaries, activists, and organizers have had the opportunity to think in terms of centuries, recognizing that the struggle for justice and self-determination is a long and protracted one. But, he warned, given the level of the global ecological crisis that consumer capitalism has brought about, we now only have a matter of years before humanity and the planet go beyond the tipping point and slide into the morass of self-destruction. There is still hope, but we will all have to rise to the challenge.

Given the defining role that the US plays in wreaking human and ecological devastation around the world, those of us living and struggling inside these borders have a special responsibility to build a movement that can truly disrupt the drive of US imperialism. The 2008 presidential elections promise to be one such opportunity. However we decide to engage in or reject this contest inside the Empire, it is crucial that we understand what’s at stake.

In terms of politics, there is not much that gets one excited nowadays. The Democrats disappoint more often than not. The 2006 “Democratic Sweep” of Congress was widely hailed as a national referendum against the Iraq War. Yet the Democrats have failed time and time again to deliver any meaningful challenge to the Bush Administration. This type of capitulation has become the rule rather than the exception. It is obvious that the Democrats are fundamentally concerned with protecting the interests of US imperialism—just like the Republicans.

Despite their similarities, it is important to note that the Democrats and the Republicans are hardly the same. The differences between them around issues like the “Culture Wars” and reproductive rights are real and important. Whichever party seizes control of the White House in November will have the opportunity to shape the terrain on which we are struggling. The differences are not whether one party is imperialist or not; they both are. The differences come in terms of how each party proposes to manage imperialist interests. And it is in the context of these differences that we will be carrying out our work to build a movement over the next five years and beyond. In this sense, voting is just political self-defense: it can’t bring liberation, but sometimes it can keep the wolves from the door while opening up space for bigger change.

Obama run
At the level of long-term politics and movement building, there is more reason to be interested in the 2008 campaign. In the context of the past eight years, which has included the disenfranchisement of Black voters in Florida and George W. Bush’s criminal neglect of the disaster in the Gulf Coast region, the fact that the biracial Senator Barack Obama is even in the running is an indication that a significant number of people wish to deliver a “No” vote on Bush’s racial nightmare.

This is even more important given that his opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, is married to the man that has been dubbed the “first Black president.” The fact that a majority of Black voters—starting in South Carolina and then moving across the country—have broken from the Clinton machine to vote for Obama in the primary is notable. When the Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union (largely Black and Brown) endorsed Obama, Clinton had her own “Florida moment”—allowing her operatives to sue to exclude the workers from caucusing based on archaic rules of order. Obama’s candidacy has shattered Hillary Clinton’s faÁade of blackness and has helped to bring about a significant stirring in African American communities.

Nevertheless, however inspiring his speeches are, Obama is short on program. He is not calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq; not for single payer healthcare; not for ensuring the right of gay, lesbian, and transgender couples to marry; or for equal rights for all immigrants and the de-militarization of the borders. He has openly pandered to the reactionary American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), hardly the voice of unity and reconciliation that Obama supposedly promotes. Even if he is nominated, and then elected, a movement for economic, ecological, racial, and gender justice will have to strengthen itself to put pressure on an Obama administration.

Playing a role
We ignore the ballot at our own peril as these elections will tell us more about where many hundreds of thousands of everyday folk want this country to go than it will about where elected officials are willing to take them. With just months until November, and without any serious larger progressive strategy about how to relate to the elections, there are still several important roles that grassroots activists can play:

    1 Minding the ballots: Those of us who raise serious questions about representative democracy are usually spot-on in our analysis of how fundamentally undemocratic the process is. However, it is an important struggle to protect what limited amount of participation has been won through decades of organizing, and not to allow further disenfranchisement as in what happened during the heists of Florida and Ohio, and is likely to happen again. This type of work can incorporate tactics like direct action and become the basis for building a program for meaningful change: re-enfranchisement of ex-offenders, eliminating the electoral college, proportional representation, and designing a basis for participatory politics that builds real power for working-class communities, and those scapegoated and patronized by both parties: people of color, immigrants, queers, and youth.

2 The morning after: Whether a Democrat or a Republican administration takes the White House, the neo-conservative lobby will have tremendous influence in both national and international policy. When politicians who are presumed to be “liberal” take office, progressive organizations tend to abandon base building, direct action, and popular mobilizations. This is the exact opposite of what we should do. Organizations must be able to make the case to newer folks in the movement that only ongoing grassroots organizing will help us achieve priorities like ending the war and rebuilding the Gulf Coast. And if the Republicans hold on to the White House, there will likely be a wave of demoralization among those drawn to activism in the past few years. Those of us who have been around this block a few times have a role helping to re-energize the disappointed.

3 Strategic coalitions: Within the left, there are few more divisive issues than whether or not to even participate in the electoral process. The debate tends to be dominated by two loud voices: those who believe that “your vote is your voice,” and those who think that voting “only encourages them.” By sharpening a discussion around strategy, it is possible to build an approach to electoral politics that builds unity among those who agree on almost everything else, truly evolving a multitude of tactics.

In the end it is true: if voting was truly effective, it might have been outlawed a long time ago. If it were completely useless, then George W. Bush wouldn’t have had to steal the vote in Florida and Ohio. Let’s take this opportunity to use the elections so that we can build a movement that has impact way beyond the next four years.

About the Authors

Steve Williams is an organizer with People Organized To Win Employment Rights. James Tracy is the editor of Avanti-Popolo: Italian-American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus.