To Participate or Not To Participate

[Note: This is a transcription of Episode 23 of the podcast RevolutionZ. RevolutionZ, as listeners know, addresses vision and strategy for a fundamentally transformed society. The most recent episode was an open letter to DSA, Democratic Socialists of America. This episode discusses how to relate to the 2020 election. Next will come two episodes on political vision…how to conduct legislation, adjudication, and collective projects. Then there will be more strategy, more vision, and so on. Will many who now advocate socialism in an organization like DSA or in the communities supporting Bernie Sanders check out RevolutionZ? Will aroused working people of diverse backgrounds do so? I hope so, but it will depend on outreach. I hope you agree it would be good to have happen – beyond anger: vision and program. Check out listening options at RevolutionZ‘s web site.]


I recently heard the third round of Democratic Party candidate debates and I will refer to what I heard later. But first, here are some reactions to U.S. presidential elections I have heard over the years from left activists with deep understanding of social relations and with firm commitments to winning change.

  • The two parties are actually two wings of one party. Nothing is at stake because whoever wins will serve the same overarching boss.
  • The choice is between tweedle dumb and tweedle dumber. The Election Day task is to pick your preferred sell-out moron.
  • The government writ large does its corporate thing regardless of who pronounces the results.
  • Even a well intentioned President has little choice and leeway. Persistent pressures determine the outcomes.
  • The four year cycle of voting or not voting, and of then having no say and watching nothing good happen kills brain cells nearly as fast as sniffing glue. Periodic hypocritical posturing destroys inclinations to care and to fight for change even faster.
  • Corporate media manipulates results to impose winners. They call it journalism.
  • Corporate investors buy candidates and rake in the benefits. They call it civic virtue.
  • Candidates preen, prance, and prostitute themselves however mindless polls, pundits, and donor puppeteers dictate and rake in the fame. They call it courage.

And no doubt you have heard more reactions, for example, about voter suppression, about quadrennial cooptation, about electoral college lunacy, and so on.

I mean, seriously, win California by five million votes, or win by a hundred votes. It makes no difference for the national election. Ten contested states, with one third of the U.S. population, will determine this election. Even within the few contested states, arguably a small number of contested counties will determine the State outcomes.

And here is the thing. In my experience each critical left reaction I quoted so far, the broad ones about the whole thing being bought and paid for and about the institutional context delimiting the role of elected officials, and the more technical ones about voter suppression and electoral college idiocy, are all at the very least largely true and often even significantly understated.

Every four years, during each new election cycle, pundits urge that something horrible can be averted, or that something good might be attained, and tell we leftist critics that we should set aside our overarching critiques, we should drop everything, and we should immerse ourselves in the electoral extravaganza.

Such pundits tell us, “don’t refrain from voting. You nay-sayers with all your critiques are wrong. Voting is essential. Just do it.” And then advocates of specific candidates tell us to “donate, donate, donate” and inundate us with entreaties to do so. The irony is they reveal that in our electoral system more time goes to fund raising than to anything productive of insight and program. The candidates’ advocates may even tell us to focus only on the extravaganza. “Leaflet, make calls, volunteer. You can return to life as usual when the votes are in.”

In response, a subset of left critics go beyond maintaining their critique to trumpet a contrary message: “Don’t get fooled again. Don’t donate. Don’t volunteer. Don’t vote.”

Usually the critics are right in their specific criticisms of the process. But since it takes just minutes to vote, and since who wins can matter, those urging voting in states where it may matter also have a point – and more so in some election cycles, less so in others.

But regardless of the tally of rightness or wrongness for any of the past dozen electoral rounds, now it is 2019 and it is closing on 2020 and here it all comes again. Or not. Oh, the two parties are largely as they have been, at least at the top. And the basic institutions of government and influence are as they have been. But beyond that, things seem to me to be hugely different, or potentially so, than I have ever before heard of in U.S. elections and certainly than I have seen in the last fifteen or so, though not quite so different than 2016.

Here is a way to assess whether to vote or not vote – to volunteer or not volunteer – to ignore or to relate – that you may not have heard before.

Let’s ask, to start, for critics of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism, for activists seeking a new world, and thus for listeners to RevolutionZ who perhaps favor a new participatory socialism, what would an election process that would be worthy of serious involvement look like for this cycle?

If we can settle on a picture of that, then if the critics of our paying serious attention to election 2020 are correct, the envisioned worthy election will be far from anything that might happen. We will have no reason to participate.

But if the advocates of paying serious attention to election 2020 are correct, and I will admit up front that that includes me, then the envisioned worthy election will be quite attainable. We will have good reason to participate.

So what is the best we can plausibly envision for the 2020 primary and election cycle And would the best we can hope for be good enough to warrant our giving serious attention? And, if it would be, then what can we do to help make the best happen?

The best process of any election at all, including the 2020 U.S. presidential election would surely at least move the understanding, desires, and beliefs of large numbers of voters in positive directions. If all the noise can’t do that, then it is just noise.

Beyond that, the best 2020 election process we can hope for might also engage campaign workers in empowering ways that prepare them to stay involved and even equip them to win more gains after 2020.

The best 2020 election scenario we can envision would also generate interpersonal connections and lasting organization that would persist after the election.

And finally the best 2020 election we can envision would yield a winner of the election who would forestall disastrous losses, or actually win major positive gains.

If we can agree on the above bases for judging whether the 2020 election process is worth attention, meaning that it has to fulfill the aims noted, then we can assess election 2020 to see if we think it can have these four positive effects:

  • raise popular political consciousness and arouse positive desires;
  • prepare and engage participants to persist in seeking change beyond the election;
  • generate connections and organization able to support efforts at change beyond the election;
  • and beat Trump and elect someone able and willing to foster truly valuable change and further develop consciousness and activism able to do so.

Which is to say we can assess the coming election as something to ignore as mere waste, or something to seriously relate to as critically important for the future – and we can make that assessment without recourse to dogma of any kind.

So, first, might the 2020 U.S. presidential election move the understanding, desires, and beliefs of large numbers of voters in positive directions?

Can there be any doubt that this can occur, that it is in fact already occurring? During the primary campaign, and likely escalating into the future, Sanders and to a lesser but still quite significant extent Warren, are already pushing highly progressive notions into public discussion, and into actual popular desires. A number of the other candidates at least pay lip service, and sometimes more.

Universal health care, profound educational overhaul including rescinding student debt, massive gun reform, legal reform including closing for profit jails, attacking pharmaceutical profit making, Green urgency on a massive scale even including nationalizations, major tax reform, reducing military spending, overtly identifying the corporate institutional enemy of change, and finally urging the efficacy and necessity of activism, of movement building, are a few obvious examples.

Imagine either Sanders or Warren, after the primary season, running against Trump. Imagine Sanders or Warren debating Trump, attacking his horrific policies but also posing their own progressive and even radical alternatives in a full scale, highly aggressive battle for the informed support of working people, not the donations of the rich. I doubt the word socialism will become a label for a fundamental transformation of defining economic or social features, but I would not be surprised to see many fundamental issues begin to surface while critically important less advanced but more immediately implementable issues gain mobilized support.

Yes, critics are right in thinking that if the Democratic Party elite has its way it will somehow elevate Biden or Harris or some other standard bearer to candidacy. And yes they are right that in that case the post primary campaign season will be far less productive. But that outcome is very far from destined. And yes, they are right one can’t yet be entirely sure about Warren. But certainly attention by serious leftists who understand the institutional whys and wherefores of elite politics and the importance of evolving trends among an aroused populace, can help prevent the Biden/Harris outcome by helping propel the Sanders/Warren outcome, or even just Sanders alone, shifting consciousness and desires in the process.

Second, might the 2020 U.S. presidential election engage campaign workers in empowering ways that prepare and incline them to stay involved and to win more gains after the election?

While this perhaps isn’t as absolutely certain as that the primary and election campaigns can raise popular awareness and desires, I am inclined to repeat, can there be any doubt that this can happen? This primary and the coming campaign season promise to be vastly more contentious and informed even than 2016, and 2016 led to serious lasting impact on huge numbers of campaign workers.

In a Sanders versus Trump contest, and potentially a Warren versus Trump contest, I would wager millions of volunteers for Sanders would learn outreach skills, talking skills, and gain confidence, all oriented around not just votes but policies, and even broad philosophies. Is there some other process over the next year and a half that could offer anything remotely like that potential?

Were most of those who worked on the last Sanders campaign later corralled into more mainstream channels than I would have preferred? Sure, though even they may have been affected in ways whose full fruition is not yet known. So even very temporary involvement likely had benefits that may persist, but, in any event, many others who worked on the Sanders campaign subsequently went further left.

And is the associated emergence of really aggressive progressive elected officials of no consequence? Is the growth of DSA of no consequence? Do critics of elections really want to suggest that the fact that the U.S. Congress is fundamentally flawed in countless ways, which it most certainly is, means that someone like OAC in office is not just limited in what she can do, which she would be the first to acknowledge, but worthless?

That makes even a little sense only if you think fundamental change can arrive with no intermediate steps at all. And that is absurd. It makes even a little sense only if you think a right wing politician outside the normal limits of American politics, such as Trump, bolstered by a supportive, militant base, can do lots of damage against predominant trends and pressures, but that a leftist politician comparably and arguably even further outside the normal limits of American politics, such as Sanders, bolstered by a wider and more militant base, can’t do anything positive against predominant trends and pressures. And that is just too defeatist.

At times it seems as if we leftists are so intent on being more radical than thou that we deny the possibility of anyone doing anything of any value. We often forget or deny that our own development involved steps. Where will Sanders or even Warren wind up when attacked mercilessly by the mainstream as they will be. Will they be cowed and bent? Or will they be pushed further on the trajectory of left commitment? And does their path depend only on them? Or does it also depend on the support and pressure they get, including from those to their left?

We often tend to take our analyses so far and to apply them so mechanically that we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It is as if we prefer to bemoan horrors than to celebrate or even admit gains. Is this because we wrongly think to admit any gain at all somehow negates our overall critique of existing relations? How insecure would that be?

Trump won and the damage is undeniably a whole lot worse than business as usual. But it was Sanders’ achievements that can ultimately become the more important legacy of 2016 – which is why the mainstream sees Trump, not Sanders, as the story to endlessly tell. I wonder why so many on the left follow that mainstream lead? Is it really so hard to see the possibility of better than business as usual, even while understanding that the business of business as usual is profit and not well being?

But still, a critic of participation may plausibly reply, yes, I get what you are saying, but what if the mainstream successfully elevates Biden or some other corporate standard bearer to the candidacy?

Well, the mainstream elevated Clinton, disastrously for Sanders, but Sanders is back stronger and openly more radical than before. Likewise, Warren is pushed far further left than she was earlier, and other candidates and officials likewise, and political organizing and organization beyond electoralism is growing.

Over half of many major constituencies say they favor a socialist to a capitalist direction for the U.S.

Let me repeat that. Over half of many major constituencies say they favor a socialist to a capitalist direction for the U.S.

Yes, I know that what socialism is for most and maybe even nearly all favoring it is a muddle, but still, if that tally isn’t a huge instance of an election cycle positively affecting the popular mindset, what is? For left critics of electoral participation to see all I have described and maintain that electoral disconnection is in every case better than electoral involvement is truly hard for me to fathom.

Last election I urged that not supporting Clinton in contested states would not only abet Trump winning the election – which let’s not deny the obvious, it certainly did – but that in that case four years later the task would be to get back a mainstream Democrat like Clinton, rather than to move way beyond a one term President Clinton. Instead, luckily for prospects, Trump has been such a polarizing monstrosity, that the possibility of moving way to the left of Clinton is very real and present, albeit the danger of disastrously losing again or of winning but just returning to the mainstream with the likes of Biden is also real.

But how can the solution to those working in the campaign staying activist after the campaign rather than becoming mainstream, and the solution to warding off Biden replacing Sanders or to other mainstream violations of decency and sense, or the solution to Trump winning again, be abetting all those outcomes by abstaining from and even ridiculing participating?

Third, might the 2020 U.S. presidential election generate interpersonal connections and even lasting organization that would persist after the election for use in winning more gains? Again, pending how people choose to relate, the answer is at the very least, yes, it might.

If all the resources and energies brought to bear in the actual election just wind themselves down into dormancy after the election, well, where’s the gain in that? If Trump wins, catastrophe. And even if someone wins who isn’t Trump but is back to business as usual, the conditions that created Trump could create another horror, arguably more competent and so more dangerous down the road. Again, no gain in that. The extravaganza would be a disaster even if not the worst possible disaster.

But in 2016 new organizations formed and others grew. And there is every reason to think the same is possible, and even highly likely, again, even losing the election, much less winning it. Sanders emphasizes and Warren has in her best moments also said that grass roots activism is essential and must grow greatly, if they are, once elected, to do all that they hope to do. Sanders especially, but Warren too, talk about the need for new grass roots organizing and organization. With informed energetic left involvement, why can’t such new organization not only be militant and steadfast, but also politically astute?

The simple and ironic truth is, the more a left critic doubts that new organization will arise spontaneously from the campaign itself, and all such critics do doubt that, the more reason there is for that left critic to consider participating so as to increase the likelihood of new organization emerging.

Yes, for some left activists that may well mean devoting nearly all their effort to non-electoral work that they are already doing, where they are already connected, informed, and effective. But for most left activists, or for folks who might become active, won’t the incredible interest that is going to be aroused in the coming campaign provide a very good avenue for seeking to reach out and develop on-going commitment of new people?

Finally fourth might the 2020 U.S. presidential election yield a new President and thereby prevent disastrous losses, or actually win positive gains? Well, of course it might. Trump can be beaten. And beyond that, someone far to the left of the usual mainstream Democratic Party system-stabilizing mindset may win.

And whether this happens may depend on people in contested states voting. And it may depend on people of good will, for example the Green Party, not siphoning off votes in contested states. And it may depend on activists establishing a tone and mindset that says to working class folks who voted for Trump last time that it was understandable given their anger at the horrific decline of their communities and given their warranted hostility toward an election process and establishment politicians, including Clinton, but that it was also nonetheless self defeating given that Trump would violate their trust and ignore their needs.

So it turns out, at least as I have here reported, that election 2020 and its aftermath can be well worth serious participation, even arguably more so than for others, for people with supremely critical analyses of contemporary electoral arrangements.

Do you agree? If not, would you get in touch via online comments or email and let me know why not?

Okay, at the outset of this episode of RevolutionZ I said I would touch on the candidates’ third debate performances to see if their words auger what I have called possible. So, here goes.

I tried to make myself a typical viewer – with relatively few preconceptions – well sort of. I doubt there were all that many typical viewers who watched the whole damn thing. Too boring. But, at any rate, in that persona, watching, I wondered, how do I know whether anything anyone is saying corresponds in any degree with anything the same person would try to do? If I didn’t know Sanders’ history, for example, why would I believe him?

I also wondered, watching him, how he got as popular as he is. He has less on screen charisma than very nearly any other candidate. He heats up in a way most would expect to be detrimental. But – people believe. What seems like it would be a minus, his apparent frustration and obvious anger, I think may even be a plus. It may resonate rather than repel. I realized, watching, that I had no clue which.

Will Sanders’ supporters keep believing his commitment? I am not sure. I suspect it is going to require that he adds to his repertoire some deeper formulations, because the rest of the candidates now say or sort of say whatever Sanders says that resonates, and avoid saying whatever he says that troubles audiences and add to the mix lots of personal meanderings, which again, may or may not appeal – I don’t know but I suspect in this race substance and even philosophy is going to matter more than appearance and “likeability.” Everything about this race may be turned upside down. But, if not, how does a viewer distinguish the other candidates’ acting and expedience from Sanders’ sincerity and originality?

I did see in the debate the basis for the left critique. The interviewers were artful, for example, in keeping Sanders time to a minimum. They were artful as well in keeping substance to a minimum – even with the candidates nearly all pushing toward substance, though the main cause of thinness, I might call it, as with social media more generally, was probably the idiocy of brief answers, of ten debaters, and of no time for serious substance. And the post debate commentary was similarly artful at boosting Biden and further muffling substance.

But at the same time, and more in tune with the idea that election 2020 will be something new, a number of the candidates, not even just Sanders and Warren, though mostly them, and even mostly him, even asserted the power of corporate influences to pervert outcomes and even motives once candidates are in office. This would have legitimated calls from them to the responsibility of the audience to mount pressure that they would need if they, in office, were to succeed. I wanted to hear more of that, but in the third debate it wasn’t forthcoming.

Almost all the candidates mouthed nice sentiments, nice intentions, and even nice specifics. I, in my any viewer persona, saw the way what is deemed wise to say has moved leftward – which is Bernie’s impact and more recently Warren as well and will continue, I hope and think.

My guess is that Democrats debating each other as now, and one of them running against and debating Trump in the actual election, will be miles apart. If it is Biden or a Biden wannabe the tone from the Democrat will shift toward the right. But if it is Sanders and probably Warren, it will shift further left.

But the bottom-line truth is, this debate, the first I have fully watched since Kennedy/Nixon which I saw while in Junior High School, told very little other than arguably, how well some of them could handle themselves in a short answer format – and that Sanders and Warren are still on a path of real opposition.

Nothing I saw made me want to alter my views about the possibility that election 2020 could be powerfully positive enough to warrant not only voting and advocating, but even volunteering, especially but not only in swing States. And most of what I saw also bore out leftest criticism of U.S. electoral politics.

So that’s where I wind up. Thinking both that electioneering undeniably often stunts activism, wastes resources, chooses between candidates whose real views we don’t know, and in any event typically buttresses the interests of those who buy campaigns, ultimately succumbing to government by, for, and of corporate elites.

And because Trump winning would literally threaten civilization, and because Sanders winning would not only stop Trump but take us a good distance in good directions, thinking this election is the most important in my lifetime and perhaps ever – and thus worth serious participation.


  1. Elizabeth Marxsen September 20, 2019 6:20 pm 

    She’s impressive. I would like to see a transition to a different system of government and economics, something like participatory socialism.

    Short of that, I’d like to see alot of the same things Warren advocates: Medicare for all (she mentioned in her speech,I was surprised, I thought she was not all in on that, and I’m using my “medicare for all” terms loosely), get money out of politics, get corruption out of gov’t, did she address global warming? Not sure, but that’s one of it not the biggest threats to the human race, along with nuclear war. She’s impressive – very energetic, incredibly prolific in terms of policy proposals and sheer intellectual output. I like the way she hammers on corruption.

    Its hard to elect competent, honest leaders with our corrupt electoral infrastucture. There are candidates who would work above self-interest to end the corruption, and she’s probably one. She falls short in some ways, but with the dire set of circumstances now she’d be a good person to put out some fires.

    I know polls say people want things like medicare for all and other “socialist” reforms, and that the voting populace skews left, but that voters are overriden by a broken electoral system, but my experience tells me this is a conservative country. I worry about a left-wing-of-the dem-party candidate in a general election.

  2. Elizabeth Marxsen September 16, 2019 5:12 pm 

    I think if Biden were elected, it would be a disaster. I fear it wuld follow a course that’s becoming a pattern. Disastrous repub. pres’s such as Bush, followed by right-centrist, corporatist dem’s such as Clinton and Obama. Whose anti-worker policies aliented voters and resulted in repubs (Bush and Trump) being elected as a reaction. That said, I see lots of white, repub. suburban upper-middle class folks who voted for Trump, are now turned off, and would only vote for a “moderate” dem like Biden. I’m afraid these are voters who could hurt Trump and swing the vote to the dems, but will only do so for a “moderate” dem. If that’s so that means nominating Biden. Blech. What do you think?

    • Elizabeth Marxsen September 16, 2019 5:19 pm 

      obviously I’m looking at this election from a strategic rather than policy standpoint. I believe the priority and imperative is removing trump. Beyond that, would favor Bernie or better yet someone to the left of him.

      • avatar
        Michael Albert September 17, 2019 7:24 pm 

        I wonder what you think of the ’Warren speech in NYC put up on ZNet today…

    • avatar
      Michael Albert September 17, 2019 7:25 pm 

      Trump has three main types of support – folks whose interests he promotes, disgruntled/furious folks whose interests he tramples, and racists/mysogynists. Democrats can try to take votes away by appealing to either of the first two camps, but pursuing either pretty much precludes pursuing tho other. I think both winning, and what happens later depends on taking disgruntled/furious folks, not elites…
      Sanders or Warren could do that, of course not Biden. I suspect any of them could win though the attacks on sanders or Warren will be incredibly harsh…otherwise they would have an easy time winning

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