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Electoral Action Ain't Democracy
Dana Williams
It should be a given that voting isn't the be-all and end-all of democracy. If people think that walking into a little booth once every year (or every four years) and poking a few holes in some pieces of paper is the pinnacle of modern democracy, they are selling themselves-- and the idea of democracy-- short.

There are many avenues for people to act politically, many of which can be conducive to the practice of democracy. People can join block clubs, PTAs (Parent-Teacher Associations), social and economic justice organizations. They can contribute financially to organizations that encourage public participation-- League of Women Voters, NAACP, American Friends Service Committee, United Way, etc.-- or they can volunteer their time toward that end. They can directly lobby politicians, protest against or for policy, do petition campaigns, conduct public referendums, organize town hall meetings, and so on.

But, for most, voting is enough. That's sad, too, because it's just so EASY. Democracy, by it's very nature is very un-easy. It's tough, difficult, grueling, challenging, contentious, conflictory, and very engaging. Anyone who shows you a simple solution to a complex problem like democracy or public governance of a complex society should immediately be distrusted. Whether a society's decision making process is formed through majority rule, proportional representation, utter dictatorship, or consensus, democracy is always a messy affair.

Voting often hinges upon the selection of the better of two evils-- two mediocre (or bad) candidates who are relatively indistinguishable, both rolling in tons of money and dull rhetoric. Traditionally the “good guys”, the Democrats have been aping the Republicans (traditionally the “bad guys”), and have succeeded in proving that they can be just as reactionary and draconian and Right-wing-friendly as the Republicans. They cozy upto corporate power, offer false promises to unions and working people, approve of any “free trade” deal that crosses their desks, fall obediently into line and worship the flag whenever “the President” of the time pushes the country into war.

Helen Keller once mused, “We vote, what does that mean?” In the end, probably not much. Especially on the scale of national elections, there is very little possibility of any person or even bloc influencing a presidential candidate. And, of course, since Presidents are kings that are voted for, it's probably not even desirable to influence them.

On the other hand, though, voting at local elections can really make a differences, especially with citizen-run campaigns to reform corrupt city governments or to throw reactionaries and fat-cats out of office. Also, although I cringe to think of the ramifications: voting is the easiest act of political activity and can in a small way play a role. It also can be an in-road to talking to others about more important matters.

For instance, talking about issues instead of candidates is vital. We have a serious hero worship fetish in this country, and seem to prop all our hopes upon one individual or a small group of individuals. In the process, we forget that we are empowered people! We can make a difference beyond voting for candidates. Speaking about issues is the best way to avoid personality politics. Who gives a shit whose hair is better (or more real) or who can give the best sound bite-- where do they stand on the death penalty? Better yet, where does America really stand on the death penalty? What can citizens do to remove it from the face of society?

Thus, although it's important not to fetishize voting, registering to vote can be important: it places people in jury pools. Presently, pools tend to be composed of middle- and upper-class voters, who tend to be White. Since the vast majority of people arrested for crimes in this country are NOT, it is important that poorer people and people of color are registered so they can truly be “peers” and try those arrested. Otherwise, we'll likely continue in a shameful (and classist and racist) trajectory that will resemble slave lynchings more than criminal trials.

Enfranchising non-Whites and the poor is important. But, it's equally important to re-enfranchise ex-felons who are trying to reintegrate themselves into society. They need a voice, and-- as pitiful a voice as voting offers-- it can be an affirmation for a sizable sector of the country. Also, a large voting block of cons would cause politicians to (hopefully) stop all their “law and order” grandstanding crap.

I believe in a "diversity of tactics" to challenge and change the current political system. That means the whole spectrum of easy/less-meaningful (voting) to the harder/more-meaningful (movement building) are important and should be supported. I'm not goin g to criticize anyone who does either of these things or anything in the middle. It takes all kinds of resistance to bring powerful institutions to their knees and we have to appreciate this reality.

Even though I will continue to vote in elections, I believe the whole thing to be a massive racket of distraction. I see the energy being sapped by the anti-war movement into the campaigns for Democratic “hopefuls” Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinch. Do these individuals really stand a chance of winning? Even if they were to be nominated and win the presidency, they would still face the overpowering institutions of the Pentagon, Defense Department, Armed Forces, defense contractors, and capitalism itself. They'd be lucky if they weren't assassinated within their first month in office. But, a strong anti-war movement could change the tenor of the country, force the power-elite into war-mongering retreat.

The rivers of money that flow, unseen through polling places and the halls of Washington, D.C. lead me to one sure-fire long-term goal. Direct action and non-electoral organizing. I won't discard voting, but I won't trust it as my savior-- because it isn't. Using the tactics of subversion, civil disobedience, intervention, economic action, and insurrection are more useful and fulfilling. So many opportunities to make a difference and become empowered depend on people believing that democracy is a hard game to play... and no one should play it for you. We need to divorce ourselves from the notion of easy, quick-fix solutions and realize that change has to start with ourselves.

10/17/03