Extraordinarily Pissed-Off Voters

The quadrennial season is upon us: Elections USA. On the left, we have already begun to rehearse an argument that we had in 2000: should we unite behind the corporate-warfare Democratic Leadership Council’s Party, can we wrest that party away from the DLC, should we do so by using our limited resources to help Ralph Nader, are the Greens a good vehicle, what about the New Party, the Labor Party, and finally, is there any point in perpetuating the illusion that the franchise is of any worth?

These are the kind of arguments we had then, and they are now being held in earnest mainly because the Right has revealed itself to be outrageously zealous in tone, that Bush-Cheney have morphed into Goldwater who made Johnson look liberal to the liberals. The slogan is “Anybody But Bush,” but for anyone who has looked at Kerry’s recent record on the main issues of our time (warfare, corporate globalization, and social justice), there’s, as a forthcoming Counterpunch volume calls it, “a dime’s worth of difference.”

All this, to me, is a red herring. This is the wrong argument to have, mainly because it is both ineffectual and it misses the real issue. Nader’s 2.9 million votes in 2000 is far less than the number of people who went to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 on its opening night: the point is not to fight over those who come to the polls, but to engage those potential voters who have either been deviously disenfranchised, or who feel no stake at all in either the democratic institutions or else in the movement for social change.

Our debate, at this immature stage of our movement, should not be only on the value of a Nader candidacy. To allow this discussion to overwhelm us, which has already deteriorated into rancor, is to miss the fact that the social revolution engendered by our work on different fronts is already a political fact.

Our communities are active in many arenas (against police brutality, against workfare, against racism, against warfare, against domestic violence, against ecocide, against homophobia, against the working-class, against local sovereignty, against injustices of all kinds) – we need to move from these vibrant, often successful struggles to a different level. We have to have the courage to move toward the electoral domain to solidify our gains and to risk governance, with all its problems.

I was struck by the idea that an independent candidacy will help bring people to the polls: that Nader or anyone else in the race will enthuse voters to come and vote for them, and then for Democrats running for the Senate, House and various positions. I think this is upside down. We already have a social movement that has made many gains, and it is up to us to move our base to the polls to elect viable and decent local candidates who are accountable to our movements. That is how our movement is growing, not through a top-down, Hail Mary attempt.

The successful candidacies of Boston’s Felix Arroyo, Providence’s Miguel Luna, Austell’s Alisha Thomas, Tucson’s Raul Grijava, Newark’s Ras Baraka, New Platz’s Jason West and so many others are examples of where electoral and social politics meet. These people are deputies of our movement, who have gone from sustained struggle in various social movement to the ballot box, to political office. Rather than concentrate on the Presidential race as a way to get our issues heard, we need to run from the social campaigns in our localities and build an electoral movement that is as diverse and complex as our social movement.

The question we should ask is how did Arroyo, Luna, Thomas, Grijava, Baraka, West and others get elected in the first place. How did the left create the social coalitions necessary to win, despite the fact that the election system is entirely rigged for property over justice? Part of the answer is in an excellent new book by the League of Pissed Off Voters called How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. The Anti-Politics, Un-Boring Guide to Power (Soft Skull, 2004, edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and William Upski Wimsatt).

The book opens with statements from the editors who quickly pass over the Green-Democrat conundrum (“The revolution is not going to happen tomorrow”), and then proceeds to inform us that “we actually have to do the hard work of winning over and mobilizing another ten or twenty million or so skeptical American voters to build a solid progressive majority so that we can actually have dangerous revolutionary things like health care and affordable tuition; jobs that pay enough to live on; Social Security for when we’re old; and an economy based on ecological sustainability instead of permawar.” The authors have a thirty-year vision – a hope that their strategy will pay off in three decades.

Arroyo, Luna, et. al., are not simply good candidates who came from no-where to win elections. They are a product of “identity politics,” typically disdained by the pundits who know little of the immense gains of these political campaigns for justice in our different, vital pockets. Brown and Wimsatt’s book catalogues some of these campaigns and shows us that the candidates have been important, but more important has been their role in the small campaigns that have energized their localities.

I’ve known Miguel Luna for over a decade now, and his run for City Council only made sense because he has been active forever in Providence’s South Side, in every campaign for justice. He is now a delegate of those struggles, and he remains accountable to them as much as to his overall constituency. Because people like Luna are linked to movements, they have saved themselves from becoming bureaucratic cretins. We have to reclaim the electoral and begin to make demands on the reconstruction of the state – no more cannibalization of the state for corporate interest, but a reclaimed state that will regulate profit for the good of people.

The GOP is afraid of Arroyo, Luna, et. al., because these are the leaders of America’s future. By 2052 most estimates hold that people of color will be in the majority. This is probably what has spooked establishment intellectuals like Samuel Huntington to descry the demise of what Arthur Schlesinger called the “vital center” (in 1997). Because the darker nations don’t vote Republican, Wimsatt writes, the GOP leaders are “shitting in their pants. The Republicans know if they don’t lock down their political machine in the next few election cycles, their reign is history.”

For this reason, the GOP has engineered all kinds of ways to institutionalize their dominance – through Gerrymandering, through disenfranchisement of the contingent classes, through disinformation in neighborhoods of the contingent and through the use of “show candidates” of color who are well-funded and “impressive” but without any ties to the struggles that are otherwise alive and well in these municipalities.

Race remains the central fault line for our movement. Even as we cut race with all the social oppressions that animate our lives, we have to recognize that social movement in the US are provoked by racism and race. The Kerry campaign, Nader and the Greens are fundamentally unaware of the importance of race; they mouth the right statements, but they have little contact with these struggles among the contingent that bear the leaders of tomorrow. A party that starts white ends white: it is a challenge to make it otherwise.

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s Banana Republicans (Penguin) and Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (new edition from Plume) have extended meditations on how the GOP is trying to build a “one-party state.” What the GOP want to take away from us, in addition to everything else, is the right to vote. The opening section in Michael Moore’s moving Fahrenheit 9/11 reminds us of how Florida’s establishment stole the election – and how despite the protests of the Congressional Black Caucus and other allied Representatives, not one member of the Senate joined to dispute the election.

J. Morgan Kousser’s Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction, a serious scholarly study published in 1999, shows us the contours of the devious plot to disenfranchise voters of color.

While you read all this, pay attention to these words from Linda Burnham who works at the Women of Color Resource Center (www.coloredgirls.org), “Many of us presume the right to vote as a given in the ‘world’s leading democracy.’ But the right to vote is contested political turf. Whole sections of the population can be permanently squeezed off the turf, as are ex-felons in most states.

Other sectors can be marginalized, denied access or subjected to chicanery and corruption. We may be sure that those forces that see it in their interest to limit access to the vote will once again take steps, including illegal, unethical and wholly partisan ones, to affect the outcome. They must be met by us: vigilant voters determined to defend, expand and exercise the franchise.”

Brown and Wimsatt’s book covers several very fruitful campaigns to defend, expand and exercise the franchise: such as Boston Votes, Oregon’s Bus Project, People United for a Better Oakland’s work on the Just Cause ordinance and Restore the Vote’s work to bring ex-felons into the democratic process. These stories inspire us to bring the elections to our neighborhoods, to draw more and more people to the polls.

Our social movements continue to prepare the terrain for progressive platforms to gain electoral power. Energy should be fully in those social movements, but if we don’t also begin our walk toward City Hall and the White House, we’ll be unable to exercise genuine power in our communities. To do all that, we need to make the link between the struggle and the election. This is a far more important task than to treat our vote as a commodity and decide which shop to sell it to in exchange for some measure of personal satisfaction.

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