Sunday, June 03, 2007

Electioneering, Chapter Two

The following is excerpted from a talk I gave in the spring of 1983 on the subject "Why I Should Bother Voting for Someone."


There are a number of reasons you hear as to why you should vote: from civic duty, exercising your freedom, and taking part in democracy, to "If you don't vote you've got no right to complain." I'm not going to refer to any of those reasons. I'm going to talk about why you should vote strictly in the context of producing social change and voting's part in that.

First, let me say that it's obvious that a great many people, young and old alike, are disaffected from voting. Only about half of those people who could register to vote do so, and only about half of those registered actually do vote - so even in a two-way race, a candidate could be elected with the support of as little as one-eighth the potential voting population. There are many reasons for this disaffection, some psychological, some sociological, some political, but I'm going to concern myself only with the latter.

The first, and perhaps the major, political reason for people's lack of interest in voting is that the failure of our system to produce high-quality leaders is all too obvious. For evidence we need look no further back than 1980, when after all the primaries, all the caucuses, all the commercials, all the hoopla, the best we could produce was a choice between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, or, as a letter I saw put it, between "an affable incompetent and a mugger in a three-piece suit."

Although it's not entirely a new phenomenon, the roots of this modern disaffection can be found, I believe, in the mid-1960s. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson campaigned for re-election against Barry Goldwater by playing on the public's fears of the latter as a militarist who would plunge us into war. Johnson, on the other hand, pledged "no wider war" in Vietnam and people voted for him as the "peace candidate," and he won in a landslide. But it was during Johnson's term, specifically 1965-1967, when the massive buildup of US troops in Vietnam took place. Many people felt totally betrayed.

Then in 1968, the race for the Democratic nomination featured Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, while Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller squared off for the Republican nomination. McCarthy and Kennedy, running on anti-war platforms, easily carried the Democratic primaries, and while the Republicans had no primaries, public opinion polls clearly showed that Rockefeller was the strong favorite among Republicans. Nonetheless, when the party conventions took place, the nominees were Humphrey and Nixon - because repaying political favors proved to have more weight than respecting the voters' obvious wishes. That experience turned off literally millions.

And it wasn't just election campaigns: For example, a big civil rights issue at the time was rat control programs for inner city areas. But when a bill to fund such a program was introduced in Congress in 1967, it was at first laughed down; indeed, one Senator was quoted as saying "I think the rat thing to do is vote down this rat bill rat now." The bill was later hurriedly passed - but with a much scaled-down appropriation - after riots erupted that summer.

In short, the government seemed extremely unresponsive to people's needs and demands - and it still seems so. People have concluded that it doesn't matter who you vote for, that it won't make any difference one way or the other, so why vote at all? Our recent history does seem to tell us that the wishes of the public are less important than the repayment of political favors and the power of money, leaving us, inevitably, with uninspiring, "lesser of two evils" choices.

And there's one other important reason for why people say "Why vote?" The fact is that most movements for social change began as clearly minority positions, ignored if not actually repressed by the power structure of whatever society we're talking about. They grew outside the mainstream, through non-electoral (and frequently non-legal) means: In our own history, the movement for American independence, including the Revolution, the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements, and the struggle to establish labor unions all fit that description - as do, in more recent years, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the movements for civil rights, environmental protection, and feminism, and against the nuclear arms race, among others. The history is so clear that it's often said that "Congress merely ratifies what the people have already decided."

But it's here that the crux of the matter lies. How do we go about ratifying those changes? How do we make the progressive changes we've made a part of the social structure so we don't have to keep re-fighting the same battles from the ground up? In the case of the civil rights movement, how, for example, to make equal access to public facilities part of the social structure so the battle didn't have to be fought from square one over and over again, lunch counter by lunch counter by school by school?

That's what laws are for: to establish certain social standards to which everyone - at least theoretically - can be held. But to get laws passed, to establish those legal standards, takes political power - and that's where voting comes in. Voting is usually sold as an end in itself, as again, for example, a civic duty. But voting is not an end in itself; it's a means to an end. It's one of the ways, one of the tools that can be used, to obtain and exercise the political power necessary to ratify social change.

There are a limited number of ways to obtain political power: One, obviously, is outright insurrection - just take over and do it your way. A second method is social disruption on such a large scale that the power structure simply cannot afford to ignore your demands and must act favorably on them. Then there is moral suasion and the closely-related logical argument, through which you obtain power simply by convincing enough people or even the power structure itself that you are right. The fourth way is by changing, or at least threatening the position of, those in power. That latter method involves voting.

Most all movements for social change, to varying extents and in varying combinations, use all of the latter three tactics: disruption, persuasion, and voting. Again, most such movements start outside the political system, but most of them involve electoral politics eventually. Let me give you some examples:

The modern civil rights movement began in the streets of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama andat the lunch counters of Greensboro, North Carolina in the early 1960s. That activism, that social disruption, was a - probably the - main factor in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act, and other subsequent laws making various types of discrimination illegal. Those laws naturally didn't end discrimination, but they gave legal force to the movement's principles and prevented its having to fight discrimination one single battle at a time. Those laws were then used to pursue those principles in the courts, whose decisions were used as spurs for further action in the streets. Now, we've obviously got a long way to go: There is still a great deal of racism and discrimination in this country. But those laws did provide certain extra tools to be used in the battle against it.

It's often forgotten that the civil rights movement changed the nature of political power: By 1964, in most places in this country a candidate who openly opposed civil rights and civil rights legislation could not hope to win election. The activism produced moral suasion, convincing people of the rightness of the cause. That changed the nature of the electoral arena, then voting changed the nature of Congress, and the changed Congress passed laws which were used as tools for further action. Voting was not the method of change, but it was a tool used in the process of change.

A second, more recent, example can be found in the movement for a nuclear freeze. To understand what follows, you should be aware that this past spring a resolution endorsing a nuclear freeze was defeated in the House of Representatives.

The nuclear freeze movement began with the issuance of a manifesto, a "call" for a nuclear freeze, authored largely by Randall Fosberg. She circulated it among professional acquaintances and obtained a few dozen signatures, at which point is was circulated through the peace movement, where the few dozen signatures quickly swelled to a few hundred and then to several thousands, escalating ultimately to the huge turnout of 800,000 or more on June 12[, 1982,] in New York City. The energy generated by these actions produced a number of local and statewide referendums on the question of a nuclear freeze. 38 such referendums were voted on November 2, plus one last spring for the state of Wisconsin. Of those 39 referendums, 38 passed. Randall Fosberg's few dozen colleagues had now swelled to 12 million votes in favor of a freeze.

The freeze became a major issue in dozens of Congressional races and was a deciding factor in at least several. The result: That same nuclear freeze resolution that failed last spring will pass this spring - and its success will hopefully be a basis for further non-electoral action.

My third example is the opposition to the Vietnam War. Such opposition was very small prior to 1964, but it - and demonstrations showing it - grew as our involvement grew. The social disruption and moral suasion from the movement were powerful enough to put real constraints on the government's ability to escalate the war further. According to David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, in 1966 Pentagon officials told President Johnson that their computers told them the US could win the war if we sent 250,000 more troops to Vietnam. Johnson responded by telling them to go back and ask the computers "how long it would take half a million angry demonstrators to climb the White House wall and lynch their President."

Despite that, though, the policy didn't change; rather, the government was simply prevented from pursuing it as far as it wanted to. While that itself was of course a real success, it obviously wasn't enough. There were still over 500,000 US troops in Vietnam, the war continued to rage, and the bombs continued to fall.

In the spring of 1968, however, Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not run for re-election, was ordering a "pause" in the bombing of North Vietnam, and had agreed to begin peace talks with representatives of the North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. Why the change? One pivotal event was the New Hampshire presidential primary that'd taken place that February. Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Johnson on an anti-war platform, proved conclusively through his results that Lyndon Johnson's political base was gone. The disaffection from what had become known as "Johnson's War" was so great that LBJ could not retain his office - and when that was proved through the use of voting as a means of expressing political power, Johnson gave up.

Opposition to the war was still a long struggle: The US was involved directly for nearly 5 more years and through military aid for more than 7. But the fact remains that a corner had been turned, and from then on it was the military rather than the peace movement that was on the defensive. Action in the streets had been translated into votes which forced a change in policy, which them prompted more street action, which translated into a stronger position for peace candidates, and the cycle continued.

A key point was that New Hampshire primary. A good question to ask ourselves is: Would there have been a real change in policy if Lyndon Johnson had been able to retain his office, if that threat not just to his political popularity but to his very ability to stay in office - a threat generated by votes - hadn't existed? Frankly, I doubt it.

And that brings us to the bottom line. David Harris, one of the leaders of the draft resistance movement during the Vietnam War, used to say that the State can put up with almost any number of people who simply say "no" - if you want to make changes, he would say, you must do "no," you must act on those beliefs. A power structure that feels no pressure, who's decision-makers feel no threat to their positions, have no reason to change their course.

I'm interested in change, change as measured by hard, bottom-line politics. Not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. And voting for what you believe in whenever that opportunity arises is one of the ways of bringing that pressure to bear. It's brought through publicity, through demonstrating the existence of a constituency for a position or an idea - and, when you're lucky, through changing a few faces.

So my answer to the question "Why should I ever vote for anybody?" is that voting can be part of a process of change. It's not the way to change and it rarely if ever initiates change, but it can be, and often is, part of the process of change. To decline to vote when, again, a referendum or a public question or a candidate offers a point of view that you can positively support is to freely surrender one of the tools, one of the nonviolent weapons, available to you for improving society.

Don't just give away one of your nonviolent weapons for change.

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