What do electoral politics have to do with democracy?

In Spring, 1970, when students went on strike and universities all over the country were closed down over one more outrageous expansion of the Vietnam War, young people took to the streets. They burned their draft cards; they went AWOL. There was a bombing of a draft office or other government building somewhere in America every day.

Into all this ferment the Pepsi-Cola Company arrived as an unlikely supporter. Suddenly every group that worked on lobbying and electoral politics had streams of money. The strike energy flowed into this safe and stable activity, overwhelming the voice of proponents of nonviolent direct action and effectively marginalizing organizers who connected the war with racism, inequality, and imperialism.

As a result, for most of my life, my attitude toward electoral politics was, “Don’t kid yourself. Don’t vote.”

People who disagreed would cite very close elections and say, “Look. Every vote counts.” I never doubted that. But what does every vote count for?

Electoral politics only rarely acts as a mechanism of deep democracy. It favors groups that already have power. It allows only a certain range of questions to be discussed. It limits choices to those that do not threaten the fundamental power relations of our society. It’s winner takes all, so minority points of view never achieve even small access to the halls of power.

Worst of all, electoral politics provides an illusory promise of change. Someone like Barack Obama rises up with grass roots support to become president. And he doesn’t save us.

It matters hugely that Barack Obama was elected president. He is a wholly different kind of person from the usual power elite—he is Black, he was raised multiculturally, he knows what life is like for the excluded. He has appointed minorities and women to powerful roles where they will make a difference in people’s lives. After decades of neoliberal politicians who believed wholeheartedly in unfettered market economics, he refreshingly affirms the fundamental social contract that what happens to the least of us should matter to all of us.

Yet he picks Wall Street insiders like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner as advisers. He fails to end tax subsidies to the rich and to oil companies. He takes frightening positions on civil liberties. His potential actions are bounded by entrenched interests, by the need to get re-elected in the face of polarized and idiotic public conversation, by his centrist economics, by his personal drive to conciliate.

Community organizer that he is, Obama’s run for the presidency organized us out of a stupor of despair into a sense of possibility. But we projected onto him a set of expectations that no one in that position can possibly meet. The Obama presidency was bound to disappoint, and it becomes easy to wonder if his re-election even deserves support.

As a tool of change, electoral politics is best used if we recognize its limits—if we can keep from deluding our selves that it will deliver a Messiah.

We will have to turn out the vote for Obama. And we will have to go on with demonstrations, occupations, boycotts, genuine conversations with our neighbors, disruption of shareholder meetings, union organizing, challenging the culture of endless consumerism, and everything else we can think of to end the domination and destruction that threaten our world.

Name Remember

About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances & Publications
3/12/19 Peace, Justice and Transformation, Parallel Conference to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, 777 United Nations Plaza, NYC
11/13/18 A Journey from Guerrilla to Grandmother, Lifelong Learners: An Independent Collaborative, Temple Shir Tikva, 141 Boston Post Road, Wayland, MA 01778
10/10/18 Provincetown Women’s Week Reading from Doing Time:Papers from Framingham Prison, AMP, 432 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA
4/6-9/2018 The Nature of Change, Radical Imagination Conference, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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