Every four years in the United States, the symbiosis of Democratic-Republican duopoly and commercial media pentopoly—which the host, which the parasite?—whips up a froth, no, a chiffon pastry of primaries, debates, and conventions, decorated with attack ads, polls, and predictions. “The most important election of our generation,” we hear yet again, and “the next president will shape the Supreme Court,” though the campaign emphasis is a frosting of personality and image. The corporate candidates and commentators remain mostly mute on the pernicious products of capitalism—war, climate change, wealth concentration—that threaten human existence.
In the end, we’re left with crumbs: the real, functioning voter class (at best, 60% turnout of the 65% who are registered) chooses between two “viable” candidates. The electoral college reduces the contest to a question of turnout in a handful of “swing” states. And progressives—in those select locales, anyway—face the lesser-of-two-evils dilemma because, despite the paucity of choices, presidential elections matter. A lot. Maybe not always in foreign policy, maybe not to folks in the wealthier classes, but definitely in domestic policy, definitely for the working class, especially women and minorities, and also non-human endangered species, all of whom need those few diminished protections the federal government still provides. Though the influence of the person in the Oval Office is often exaggerated, notably in economy-shaping and war-making, a U.S. president does wield enormous power through policies, appointments, patronage, and persuasion. It doesn’t have to be this way. Presidential elections will matter less when presidents (and the judges they appoint) are less influential, and presidents will be less influential when the masses realize their collective power. Let us not eat cake.
This, of course, is not a call for greater voter registration and turnout. A strong voting bloc can win concessions, but, in a corrupt and non-representative political system, votes alone will not bring profound change. If a progressive notion gains voter support, the Democratic Party is likely to co-opt the issue before the election, abandon it afterwards. In 1896, the Democrats temporarily adopted the Populist Party’s enthusiasm for bimetallism. Today, Hillary Clinton gives lip service to Bernie Sanders’s call for free college tuition and pretends to agree with his rejection of “trade agreements.”
In the 1960s, Civil Rights Movement organizers learned a variant of this lesson. Unnerved by the disruptive power of direct nonviolence exercised by children in Birmingham and a threatened nonviolent occupation of Washington D.C., in 1963, President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy encouraged civil rights activists in the South to get out of the street and into the voting booth. In 1964, a presidential election year, most civil rights groups accepted this logic—less disruption, more voter registration. They committed to a 100-day moratorium on demonstrations and direct action to ensure that the Democratic candidate, President Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded the murdered President Kennedy and was backing a major civil rights bill, would not be defeated by “white backlash.” In short order, the attorney general, the president, and other national Democratic leaders betrayed the movement. Kennedy’s Justice Department did little to protect organizers and would-be voters from white supremacist terrorism and unconstitutional disenfranchisement. Denied formal participation in two-party politics, Freedom Summer participants formed the mixed-race Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention to challenge the legitimacy of the official (white and racist) Mississippi delegation. Johnson made sure that convention officials recognized the racist delegation, which had no intention of supporting him, and offered only two at-large, nonvoting seats to the MFDP. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” Fannie Lou Hamer declared, and led an MFDP walkout.
Direct nonviolent action, not electoral participation, is how the Civil Rights Movement in the South, often powered by working-class black women, forced presidents to act against Jim Crow segregation. President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, did not want to enforce school desegregation ordered by the Supreme Court. “You can’t legislate morality,” he insisted, and sympathized with the concern of southern whites “that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.” But nine students in Arkansas, shepherded by Daisy Bates, forced his hand by daring to enroll in Little Rock’s Central High School and not giving up when the governor sent armed troops to stop them. Having to choose between federal intervention and surrendering constitutional authority, Eisenhower unhappily upheld his office.
Similarly, Democratic presidents were reluctant to take a stand on civil rights, especially considering that southern racists were a key Democratic constituency. When southern governors refused to protect the Freedom Riders, President Kennedy finessed the issue. Later, he tried to persuade movement leaders to stop Birmingham children from marching, but it was the children who persuaded him. Their courage and persistence exposed the depth of violence that underpinned Jim Crow apartheid. Faced with international condemnation, Kennedy responded by calling for legislation to outlaw public segregation, which his successor pushed through Congress. President Johnson rejected the MFDP delegation, but the resilience and suffering of nonviolent activists in Selma, in 1965, moved him to support publicly his own voting rights legislation. Both presidents acted more boldly on civil rights when the suffering of nonviolent activists—as portrayed in newspaper photos and national television broadcasts—won the sympathy and support of whites outside the South. Thus, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Presidents are political animals—always calculating, always checking the wind. The patient suffering of movement activists gave cover to Kennedy and Johnson to do the right thing.
Put another way, Kennedy and Johnson were not acting as leaders. In U.S. political discourse, the term leader is used with little reflection. The assumption is that the presidential oath of office automatically creates a leader. The U.S. president, we are told, is not only the “leader of our country,” but “the leader of the free world.” This is propaganda. If we believe the president is our leader, then we must look to him for guidance; we assume he actually leads. In reality, presidents play numerous roles. They act as head of state. They sign off on the decisions of others. They are dealmakers and power brokers, negotiators and bureaucrats. They are front men and celebrity spokesmen. They often mislead the masses, but seldom lead them. They rarely provide original ideas, rarely display the courage of their convictions. They don’t go first. They don’t show the way. Presidents are, in a word, conventional, and convention does not require innovation and initiative.
Our major progressive accomplishments—abolition of slavery, female enfranchisement, business regulation, worker protections, elimination of Jim Crow—began outside the electoral system. Indeed, true leadership has often come from those denied the vote—a clue to where the greatest political power lies. (Have you heard, for example, of Alice Paul and Septima Clark? Why not?) Meanwhile, the conventional men of politics have typically been the last to express support. “Great Man” history teaches us, falsely, that a powerful leader will solve our national problems—George Washington overthrew British tyranny, Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, Franklin Roosevelt saved us from the Great Depression—and, thus, we should wait patiently, passively for a great leader to end our misery. But since presidents are not truly leaders, our job is to remind them of their job: public servant.
Consider President Barack Obama: eloquent but not particularly courageous, a master of superficial sincerity, mourner-in-chief, believes in “American exceptionalism” overseas and incremental change at home. Given the opportunity, upon his election in 2008, to serve a progressive movement, he opted instead for dismal insider politics—to the great surprise of his most avid supporters who mistook a presidential candidate for a leader—and quickly lost a supportive Congress. Rather than encourage progressive activists to organize and give him political cover, Obama demanded that they “cut me some slack.” He would rather be presidential than heroic. But, as his belated endorsement of gay marriage shows, he is pleased when he finds it safe to do the humane thing. Just a guess, but he would probably love to be a civil rights president, signing legislation and executive orders that protect minority voters and reform the racist police-court-prison complex, rather than commuting drug-related prison sentences one by one. He might even take righteous pride in being a peace president, curtailing U.S. war-making—he seemed to enjoy the Nobel Prize. If only a massive popular movement pulled him along, against his conservative nature, and showed him the way. The fault is ours, not his.
Consider Bernie Sanders: He did what he could, impressively so, within the confines of the electoral system. He agreed to play the duopoly’s game, and, in the end, his endorsement of Hillary Clinton followed those rules. If some of his supporters feel betrayed, the fault is theirs for mistaking a symbol for a savior, for extolling “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie,” for expecting the great man to solve their problems. And how could they not fall into that trap? Our culture, Madison Avenue cant notwithstanding, emphasizes the virtues of hierarchy and obedience—to parents, teachers, ministers, coaches, bosses, commanding officers—over the virtues of activism, solidarity, and democracy. Hopefully, Sanders supporters will take seriously what their man told them: “Election days come and go. But political and social revolutions that attempt to transform our society never end. They continue every day…in the fight to create a nation of social and economic justice.” Indeed, it was the Occupy Movement, despite insufficient training and strategizing, which created the cultural opening for Sanders in the first place.
So vote happily for a presidential candidate, or hold your nose and vote, or don’t vote at all, but help build a nonviolent movement to compel the president to act for human good. The greater that movement, the less presidential elections will matter. Learn from the successes and failures of the Civil Rights Movement. And keep in mind the words of Mohandas Gandhi, which Martin Luther King learned to quote: “There go my people. I must rush to catch up with them, for I am their leader.”