This is the text of a talk that I gave at the Left Forum on March 17, 2012 in NYC in a session entitled "Is Voting a Solution?" that also featured talks by David Swanson and Andy Zee.
OWS by Creative Commons
Is the solution more democracy and how do elections fit into that picture since this session's title is "Is Voting a Solution?" "How do we get there from here?" would be another way of putting this question.
A basic disagreement exists within the Left between those who argue that elections are important for the Left to participate in -- usually lesser evilism - and those who argue that elections are not the avenue for the Left. I belong in the latter camp and devote a chapter to this question and related issues that I discuss in depth - democratic theory in particular - in my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society. In that chapter I critique key tenets of democratic theory and show why the failure of democracy to be realized in actual practice is not a matter of a good theory that somehow isn't being lived up to in practice. The problem is not a disengaged citizenry, an overly powerful corporate world, or a media that is not independent enough. Instead the problem grows out of the "shortcomings of democratic theory itself and the underlying material conditions that produce democratic theory and that make representative democracies a sham for real popular participation" (p. 259).
I'm going to focus on just two areas in my remarks because of the limits of time.
1) Putting energy, even if it's secondary to what you mainly do, into elections to support the so-called lesser evil or even a great candidate from a third party, is a serious mistake and based on an incorrect understanding of how political power is actually exercised, which brings me to my second point,
2) Elections do not determine public policy in this system.
The wellsprings of political power are not shaped by elections. When there have been more progressive policies adopted such as advances for civil rights, adoption of social safety net measures, union rights, or the end to wars, these have not come about because of who was in office and which major party had the majority. The good things have always come about because of mass struggle in the streets. There is a reason for this that has to do with the actual sources of political power, which I will get into in a minute, but first some examples of this point. There is the end of de jure racial segregation that resulted from the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War's end that came about because of the Vietnamese people's heroic people's war against U.S. imperialism and the anti-Vietnam War movement here and worldwide, there's the women's liberation movement, the 1930s labor movement, the gay rights movement, and the Occupy movement.
As an example of the latter, GOP pollster Frank Luntz admitted several months ago during a session that he conducted for Republican governors that "I'm frightened to death" of the Occupy Movement. "They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism." Note what he didn't say; he didn't say that people voting for the Democrats or third party candidates scares him to death. Instead he's scared to death of the movement that is taking on capitalism, precisely because it was and is changing public opinion and shifting the balance of opinion against the capitalists and their parties the Democrats and Republicans and changing the overall political atmosphere.
The President, Congress, Judiciary and the various levels of the state ranging from the national to the local level, and the elective, appointive, and voting processes (such as legislative committee and floor votes) that most people think are where political power is determined and exercised are not the essence of political power. These are the outer, public shell of political rule. While political decisions are made in those bodies, the decision making process does not occur in publicly visible ways. Floor votes, for example, almost never take place unless the legislative leadership already knows the outcome before the vote. If they don't like how the votes are going to go, they generally don't put the matter before the whole body. This is how Nancy Pelosi blocked Bush's impeachment by not letting the matter come out of committee to the whole body. Most people who voted in Pelosi and a Democratic majority in 2006 mistakenly thought that by doing so that the Democrats would hold the Bush Regime accountable and end the wars and torture. Instead the Democratically controlled Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that legalized torture and Congress gave more money for the wars then the Bush Regime even requested.
Some say that we need to elect progressives to Congress and then we will see better state outcomes. NDAA, however, only passed because some 9 members of the so-called progressive Democrats voted for it. If they had opposed it, it would have been defeated. If progressives aren't going to stand up to a fascist law, then what good is having progressives in office? A Democratic President, Obama, not a Republican, insisted that the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act of 2012] go even further and include American citizens as subject to its blatantly illegal and unjust and fascist measures. Two successive Republicans withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam and ended the war: Nixon and then Ford. A Democrat, LBJ, escalated the Vietnam War, running on a peace platform and winning in a landslide against that "warmonger" Barry Goldwater. The list goes on and on.
A look at history over even just the current Obama administration, let alone a longer look at multiple administrations and multiple Congresses, shows that election results and election campaign promises do not correspond to the actual policies enacted by those public officials. The widespread notion that there is a difference between the lesser of two evils and the greater of the two evils is not sustained by an examination of the actual behavior of the two major parties. While the rhetoric of the two major parties remains different, their actual policies are not. The basic difference between the two major parties is not their perspectives but which social audiences they are trying mostly to appeal to. The Republicans are after the more white, more socially conservative, more affluent social bases and the Democrats are after a more socially liberal and more ethnically and racially diverse audience. Obama has actually gone further down the road to the right than Bush Jr. dared, embracing sovereign immunity (in which the government declares its right to do virtually anything), assassination, and preventive and pre-emptive detention, in other words, the nullification of habeas corpus and the rule of law under which the state may not simply eliminate those they deem to be adversaries merely on the government's accusation.
Some people recognize the validity of this line of argument and advocate in the alternative that people vote for third party candidates, and even if those people lose, if enough people do this then it will scare the major parties into reforms and/or it will eventually bring third party candidates into office. The record of this kind of strategy is clear in countries outside of the U.S. where they don't have a winner-take-all format: when third parties have come to power and/or are in a power-sharing arrangement, their policies on the truly fundamental matters are no different from those of the major parties.
Why should this be? The basic answer is that political power isn't exercised via the franchise, despite what democratic theory says. This is one of the errors -- of which there are several - contained within democratic theory. Since the richest 451 people in the world have more wealth than the bottom half of the world, and if you were one of these 451 people and enjoyed your wealth more than justice, would you permit the principle of "one person, one vote" to actually be implemented? Wouldn't you make sure that your riches were protected against anyone who got it into their heads that this wasn't right, by making sure that the candidates who were the final nominees were both acceptable to you and if by some bizarre turn of events someone actually did get into office that threatened you, that this person was rendered ineffectual and/or discredited and/or was killed or had an unfortunate accident?
Where does political power really come from? There are two components to the exercise of state power: persuasion and coercion. All governments, for as long as governments have been around, which is actually during the last 5% of our existence in human societies, exercise their power and stay in power through coercion and persuasion. That's it. That's the whole of it. If you don't have the ability to make people who resist you do what you want them to do, then you don't have political power. How do you get people who don't want to do what you want and who despite your trying to persuade, will not be persuaded? You use force. That is why these two elements are always and everywhere the essence of political power by states. And it is a power that you cannot ignore, as Occupy learned when the state came down and raided their encampments. [And as demonstrated on Saturday night on OWS's sixth month birthday when the police brutalized peaceful demonstrators at Zuccotti Park, using batons to choke protestors and preventing any assistance to be given to a woman for seventeen minutes who was having a seizure after they handcuffed her.]
State institutions and their various names and supposed relationships to each other as checks and balances on each other don't reflect the actual exercise of political power. Governments that are facing mass protests that literally include a majority of the country's population will not be overthrown and will not go away as long as those governments are willing to use force to stay in power. If they have to rely exclusively on force and they have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of the people and they aren't successful in restoring their legitimacy in the eyes of most of the people, then they will likely not last long. But they can survive the temporary loss of legitimacy if the crisis is not resolved through a revolution.