Thinking Ouside the (Ballot) Box

Over the last weeks, I’ve been getting emails from every direction (particularly from my progressive friends) telling me why we should all get behind either Clinton or Obama. 

First let me make clear my view that as progressives in this country we have very little impact on the outcome of the election and less still on the post-election behavior of the winner. We’re a small part of the electorate. Our votes are not the kind of favors presidents reward. In a way, that means we have less at stake in the short term and can concentrate on our long-term goals. We’re far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters. Our ability to create a world we can thrive in does not depend on who wins this election, it depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. 

The election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are further disenfranchised at breakneck speed and, as much as possible, make them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that this decline of empire is what is driving the political elite to the right. Both these people represent very reactionary politics in ways that I don’t even want to get started on. Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them. 

There are two points here. First, neither Obama nor Clinton represents an alternative to propping up a failing empire that is based on pirating the world’s resources (including ours) for the sake of a small elite. Second, the fact that someone is being targeted by oppression may arouse our outrage and lead us to identify with them, but it doesn’t change their actual political positions. 

When Reagan was running for president, some people attacked him on the basis of his age. Our job was to expose the meaning and consequences of his politics, not ridicule him for being old. In this race, we need to defend the candidates from sexist and racist attack because we oppose sexism and racism. That they are being targeted is not a reason to support them. For that we need to assess the impact of their politics on our vision for the world. 

One of the reasons that progressives are being drawn into arguing their relative merits is that our disenfranchisement pressures us to go for whatever looks like it could provide some immediate relief. But we can’t afford to settle for immediate relief. No matter who wins, this election is unlikely to provide us with even that much. Both Obama and Clinton are deeply tied to interests that make it impossible, even if they wanted to, for them to address the root causes of global and domestic looting. 

I want to clarify that I think elections are important—though for our purposes as progressives, our real potential for electoral impact is in local and statewide elections, not national ones. This makes keeping Dennis Kucinich in Congress much more significant for our goals than who gets the Democratic nomination for president. There are also times when for several possible reasons our best political strategy is to urge widespread electoral participation. Sometimes this can be aimed at a specific outcome we’ve agreed is our priority—for example, electing members of Congress who will commit to action on global warming, without any illusions that they will represent us on other issue, or because of the power that the act of voting itself represents. For African Americans to vote during the voting rights struggles in the U.S. South in the 1960s was a tremendous act of resistance. They were also able to challenge the holding of public office by extreme racists. 

So elections have their uses, but it can be dangerous to pin all our hopes on them even when media hype (including naming this the most important election in—was it U.S. history or the last century?) encourages us to do so. This isn’t an exact parallel, but the focus of much of the early feminist movement on winning the vote ended up more or less gutting that movement. Issues like women’s labor conditions, birth control, and marriage rights went on the back burner for many feminists, for a long time. When the vote was won in 1920, there was no movement left to mobilize for other important struggles and organized feminism remained dormant for decades. We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted or fooled into thinking that the victory of either of these candidates will represent a great leap forward for women or African American people. 

Among all the candidates running for national office, Clinton and Obama rank first and second as recipients of health industry contributions and are in the top four recipients of donations from the finance (banking, investment and insurance), energy/natural resources, communications/electronics, and construction industries. What’s more, Obama is ahead of Clinton in taking money from pharmaceuticals, electrical utilities, Internet companies, and foreign and defense policy PACs. 

Clinton is inseparably entangled with international financial institutions and networks, including Goldman Sachs, the world’s largest investment corporation, with a powerful influence on policies affecting finance. High on their domestic agenda is deregulating banking and securities trading and privatizing social security. Goldman Sachs is one of Clinton’s top contributors. 

Rose Law Firm, where Clinton worked, represents Monsanto, the world’s largest genetic engineering (GE) corporation and perhaps one of the world’s worst corporate criminals. Monsanto is responsible for pressuring poor farmers worldwide to buy patented seeds and then, because they are “intellectual property” of the corporation, preventing them from replanting seeds produced by their own crops. While farming communities are destroyed and scattered as a result of Monsanto’s activities, the company employs young girls, some no doubt refugees from abandoned farmland, in highly toxic cotton seed processing factories, under terrible work conditions. 

Obama, like Clinton, receives major funding from Maurice Temple- man, who is not only part of a multi- generation diamond mining cartel in Nigeria, but is also directly involved in the “destabilization” of Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Ghana, and Rwanda, including roles in the overthrow of Ghana’s first elected president Kwame Nkrumah and the CIA- backed assassination of Congo’s first elected president Patrice Lumumba. Many democrats take Templeman money, and the fact that Obama is African American doesn’t necessarily make it worse, but that he’s both African American and represents himself as somehow progressive makes it unconscionable.  

Several people have suggested that part of Obama’s appeal is that his history as a local leader is widely assumed to have had integrity and his charismatic style of oratory create unconscious emotional resonances with Martin Luther King, Jr. But although Obama has opposed the war in Iraq and spoken out for troop withdrawal, he has also stated that “all options are on the table with respect to Iran” and has made it clear he is open to military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Dr. King was very clear about the connection between racism and poverty at home and wars of conquest—both because money that should go to improving people’s lives was being diverted to the military and because poor people of color were being killed and disabled faster and in greater numbers than the middle class and wealthy and white. 

Obama, on the other hand, promises to expand the U.S. military by 65,000 Army soldiers and 27,000 Marines. We all know that in 2008, as in 1967, those young men and women will be primarily poor and disproportionately of color. He also proposes to increase “defense” spending “so that the finest military in the world is best-prepared to meet 21st-century threats.”  

Dr. King had no problem identifying the real purposes of U.S. military ventures. He said, “…what we are submitting [our soldiers] to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved…and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.” 

I think at this point it’s clear why I feel neither excitement nor anxiety about the Democratic primary process. But that’s not the end of the conversation I want to have. As a woman of color, though I am not surprised, I am disgusted and angry at the way a black man and white woman have been put into the ring against each other, while the white male elite looks on. So should we all be. As Robin Morgan says in her essay “Goodbye to All That, #2,” it’s strongly reminiscent of the way the same two constituencies were pitted against each other to compete for their rights during the late 19th century, as if abolition and women’s suffrage could not coexist and there were not enough votes to go around. It was utterly predictable that the first serious female and black presidential candidates would run against each other. 

The people who disappear in this contest are women of color who are subjected to both sexism and racism, and who, with our children, are suffering more devastation at a faster rate than anyone else in this country. In 1981 I was a contributor to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color, a collective refusal to make an untenable choice; to resist the pressures we faced to abandon ourselves either as female or as people of color, to distance ourselves from the political struggles of one or the other of our people or face being called traitors. The book had a strong impact on many progressive people, but not, of course, on the wider society. In 2008 we are being told, as usual, that we have to choose between a man of color and a white woman, neither of whom will do much to change the increasingly desperate conditions of our lives. 

For those who participate in Democratic primaries, the choice to support either one of these candidates should be one of strategy, not generic loyalty or desperate hope. First, how much energy do we want to allocate to the elections and how much to our other social change strategies? Two, what do we want our votes to accomplish? 

Although the assumption that a Democratic president will be dramatically more benign than a Republican is open to some question, let’s agree that we want the extreme right out of office. The ability to defeat the Republican nominee is one criterion to be weighed. But we also need to weigh how supporting one candidate or the other, or neither, will affect our ability to build alliances for greater changes than the candidate has to offer. 

Ultimately, it’s more important to change how people think than how they vote. In her article, Morgan quotes Harriet Tubman who, when asked how she managed to free hundreds of slaves replied, “I could have saved thousands, if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.” 

To the extent that we fail to challenge the idea that our greatest power is our presidential vote, we help to maintain illusions that both over- and under-estimate our real capacity. As long as people think voting for president is effective, there is no need for them to examine the real decision- making processes of the U.S. government, a wholly owned subsidiary of the very rich. And it will be difficult to convince people that they are living under a ruthless corporate rule that they must oppose in order to have real effect. 

As long as people think that votung is their best shot at exerting power, they will find it hard to see the great range of other options for political action that we actually have. As long as people think the president of the United States sits at the center of history and is more likely to shape our global future than the millions of people who not only think another world is possible, but who are busily creating it, their aspirations will remain narrowed to a tiny point. The great wave of hope that is circling the globe will pass them by. 


I began this article as a response to Morgan’s “Goodbye To All That, #2” article on the viciousness of the sexism in this campaign. What it’s permissible to say in public is only one marker of oppression, but it’s an important one. I agree with her that we need to notice and talk about how much easier it is for Clinton’s opponents and the media to go all out with violent and degrading sexist attacks on her than it is for the same level of racism to be openly expressed at Obama. Which is not to say that he isn’t targeted, but in the public arena where this battle is taking place, sexism is considered trivial. 

The power brokers expect Obama to be a model minority candidate and he has that option. He can assimilate himself enough to be black in a way that’s acceptable to a workable number of white people. There’s no comparable role for Clinton. To the degree that she assimilates by acting like one of the guys or taking hawkish positions on the war, she loses her “femininity” and becomes less acceptable, not more. A “model female” doesn’t run for president. 

I’ve made it clear that I don’t support Clinton and don’t think being mistreated is any reason to, but the content of the attacks on her is a marker of the condition of women in the United States. As organizers it give us an opening to bring sexism into focus in an imaginary “post-feminist” country. This doesn’t in any way take away from the importance of talking about the impacts of racism or big money or any of the other rottenness that permeates what is commonly and mistakenly referred to as politics. 

Recent history gives us another way to redefine American politics. America is much larger than the United States. After 500 years of brutal economic and social oppression, Bolivia, the poorest country in Latina America, has elected a radical indigenous man with a mandate to take back the country’s natural resources and redistribute wealth into the hands of its majority indigenous population. 

In Venezuela, under the leadership of a mestizo man, petroleum wealth is being used to put power into the hands of working people and to improve the quality of life and build solidarity and mutual support far beyond the country’s borders. Cuba, in spite of 49 years of economic blockade, has one of the best health care systems and one of the most ecologically sustainable economies in the world. Together with newly elected progressive governments in other Latin American countries, they have created an alliance that allows them to start defying the corporate powers that force their will on so much of the planet. 

Imagine that instead of arguing about Clinton and Obama, we put our considerable energies toward joining that alliance; toward stripping away each other’s illusions, revealing the many possibilities and overcoming our widespread discouragement in order to make such a thing possible. 


Aurora Levins Morales has been published in many journals and magazines, including Ms., Gay Community News, and Revista Chicano-Riqueña. She co- authored, with her mother, a collection entitled Getting Home Alive.