Why you should vote today (an appeal to radicals)

originally published on November 2, 2010

Paul Rosenberg offered this the other day at Open Left:

A Republican victory this Tuesday will tilt the odds heavily in the direction of retrospectively casting 2008 as another 1968, despite all the numbers of election night pointing to the contrary.  If Democrats hold on to control of Congress, however slightly, that means that we’re in a new era, no matter how discouraging the current lack of vision by Democratic leadership may now seem.

That’s why I find the following video (h/t Dave Johnson) so compelling.  Because as I see it, it’s not a dishonest representation of where the current DLC-dominated Democratic leadership is today.  It’s an honest representation of where we, the conscience of the party, have a damn good shot at taking it back to where it belongs once again.  From the International Brotherhoood of Boilermakers Union:

I have a lot of radical friends who don’t think voting makes a difference, that it only legitimizes a corrupt system, and that on principle they shouldn’t do it.  (Perhaps you’re one of them.)  I used to agree with this, and, unlike many of my not-so-radical friends, I respect the arguments people are making.  I have no trouble seeing why people would write off the whole enterprise as pointless.

I take a more complicated view though.  I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive piece before the elections about how and why real progressives and leftist radicals – these labels really do trip us up – should engage our flawed electoral system and the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to write that piece… yet.

But here are a few main points for anyone on the fence today.  I want you to be on the voting side of the fence.

Here’s a main argument against voting:

“If voting made any difference, they’d make it illegal.”

The fact is, “they” have made it illegal all throughout history and continue to try to today.  Black people and women couldn’t vote for more than half our country’s history, and they had to fight incredibly hard to win that right – and there are still major skirmishes about systematic voter disenfranchisement in elections today.

But the “they” in “they’d make it illegal” betrays some assumptions that I think are embedded in most anti-voting arguments.  “They” is “the system” – and it is monolithic.  Democrats and Republicans, the argument goes, are just an elaborate good cop / bad cop routine designed to fool the sheeple.

This kind of thinking betrays an overly simplistic view of the world.  We are always remaking the world, and our reality is made up of the results of many struggles.  In those struggles, the details matter.  Having more health care coverage is better than having less.  Having less war is better than having more war.  Having regulatory agencies that are doing their job in protecting people from pollution and abuse at the hands of unbridled corporate power is better than having agencies that are gutted and not regulating.

And having more progressives in office is what makes many of these outcomes tilt one way or the other.

I agree that we need to be engaged in our civic duty way beyond voting.  But voting affects the terrain for all of our battles.  And if you’re serious about social change, you should be serious about learning the details of the terrain.  Is your battle in a forest or a desert?  Those kinds of details matter to your chances of success.

Finally to my friends in the antiwar movement or who work primarily on international issues, if you think voting doesn’t matter, try traveling to most any other country, talk to regular people on the streets, tell them you’re an American and that you’re not voting, and see what they have to say.

For more thinking on the complexities of progressives engaging the Democratic Party, see my interview with Mike Lux.

What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? (part 3 of 3)

Reposted. Part Three of a three-part article from 2006, written in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. Read Part One here and Part Two here first.

Many of us, when we become disillusioned with the dominant culture, we develop an inclination to separate ourselves from it. When we begin to become aware of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other forms of social, economic or ecological oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. This often comes from a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.

However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from society. With society seen as bad, we begin to look for ways of distinguishing ourselves and our groups from it. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and society, because these distinctions support our justice-oriented narratives. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive. We adorn ourselves with distinguishing features to express separation, and also to flag likeminded people and establish ourselves in–and assimilate into–oppositional subcultures.

These distinguishing features take on particular flavors in different subcultures. Activist and movement strategist Michael Albert describes student activists he encounters at college speaking engagements, “As compared to their classmates, the activists look entirely different, have different tastes and preferences, talk differently, and are largely insulated from rather than immersed in the larger population.”1

Mark Anderson describes in tribal terms the same phenomenon in punk:

The punk subculture has many of the hallmarks of a tribe…piercings, tattoos, more. These markers, also including hairstyle, dress, music form, even slang, help to demark the boundaries of the group, to set it off from the larger populace. In this way, appearance can even be a form of dissent, a strikingly visual way to say, “I am not a part of your corrupt world.”2

Many such subcultures–consciously or not–prize their own marginalization. If society is unjust, then our justice-oriented narratives are reaffirmed when we are rejected by society (or more accurately, portions of society). If society is bad, then marginalization in society is good. We tell each other stories of how we were ostracized in this or that group, how we’re the outcast in our family, how we were the only revolutionary in a group of reformists, etc. We swim in our own marginalization. This is the story of the righteous few.

One of the largest barriers to strategic thought and action in many U.S. social movements today is that, in the story of the righteous few, success itself is suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been “watered down,” rather than because they’ve organized or communicated their message effectively.

Here we see the importance of checking our narratives for faulty components. If we allow the story of the righteous few to hold a place in our narratives, then our social change efforts are likely to be greatly hindered by a general mentality to separate and distinguish ourselves from society and to retreat from success. To organize effectively this mentality has to turn 180 degrees to a mentality to connect with others, to notice commonalities, “to weave ourselves into the fabric of society,”3 and to embrace being embraced by society. This is a profound paradigm shift that most radicals have yet to make. It intensely challenges us because it requires nothing short of getting over ourselves.

The dominant is not all of society, and often it’s not even the majority.  Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire comments:

Sometimes, in our uncritical understanding of the nature of the struggle, we can be led to believe that all the everyday life of the people is a mere reproduction of the dominant ideology. But it is not. There will always be something of the dominant ideology in the cultural expressions of the people, but there is also in contradiction to it the signs of resistance – in the language, in music, in food preferences, in popular religion, in their understanding of the world.4

We often make the mistake of assuming that everyone subscribes to the dominant ideology, or even that those who seem to subscribe do so completely. However, a lack of visible resistance to a dominant ideology does not necessarily signify an enthusiastic embracing of the ideology. Submission or acquiescence to a dominant ideology is not the same as ideological alignment. For example, many people, though aware that a new Wal-mart would harm their local economy, may still refrain from participating in a grassroots campaign to stop it. A small turnout for a counter-Wal-mart protest does not necessarily mean that the entire town–or even the majority–is happy about the development. It could be that people lack faith in the feasibility of stopping something as big as Wal-mart, that the tactics or rhetoric of the campaign seem inaccessible or extreme to them, or even that they perceive a lack of strategy in the campaign (among many more possibilities). While each of these possibilities still poses a challenge to organizers, these challenges are of a different type and quality than the challenge of reaching someone who is explicitly pro-Wal-mart. By exploring alternative explanations for lack of participation, organizers can develop better strategies. But if organizers see the lack of participation as an inevitable popular embracing of Wal-mart, then they will feel–and likely be–defeated, and if they continue in their resistance, they are likely to be taking a stand more than waging a struggle; consciously or unconsciously adopting the storyline of the righteous few.

Social movements should aim to succeed. Fighting an advantaged opponent without the intention of success is not so much fighting as it is coping. The tendency of the outgunned resister to run headlong kamikaze-style into enemy lines is the tendency of someone who wants to be righteous – not of someone who seeks to affect change. We must ask ourselves if our intention is to bring about real change, or if it is to act out righteous narratives (either as individuals or in small enlightened groups).

The tendency to think “that all the everyday life of the people is a mere reproduction of the dominant ideology” is detrimental to movement building. We need to shift our mentality to one in which we actively look for forms of resistance to dominant ideologies, however subtle, and encourage these forms. While it is important to recognize the limits of often subtle and uncoordinated expressions of resistance to dominant ideologies, it is equally important to recognize the existence and value of such expressions. By encouraging such expressions we can affirm and therefore strengthen people’s anti-dominant values and identity, which can lead to a broadening of our base.

While we challenge the dominant storyline, we must also challenge some components of our own narratives. We must scrap the chapter of the righteous few, and replace it with a story of collective liberation in which, instead of setting ourselves apart, we engage in the hard work of bringing people together.


  1. Michael Albert. The Trajectory of Change (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002).
  2. Mark Anderson. All the Power (Canada: Punk Planet Books/Akashic Books, 2004).
  3. Quoting NY activist Beka Economopoulos.
  4. Paulo Freire, Ana Maria Araujo Freire, and Donaldo P. Macedo. The Paulo Freire Reader (New York: Continuum, 1998).