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.
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.