With the 2012 Presidential elections coming up, it’s time to look back on the past 4 years and decide who we want to vote for. I know many progressives who had high hopes for change after the 2008 elections and have been disappointed with the Obama administration’s lack of progress in the economy, in climate change legislation, in immigration reform, in regulating the excesses of Wall Street. Many wonder if it is worth it to vote again after being disappointed at the slow pace of change and at the lack of a more progressive choice than the moderate course taken by the Obama administration. I do think voting is important and I think, as citizens, we should all vote in each elections for the important issues that come forth. But we should also realize that voting alone will not bring change. After the 2008 elections, several activists activists suggested to progressives not to trust in the ballot box alone to affect the political changes that we hope to get enacted. After the elections, even if the candidates that we want are elected, these activists urge progressives to stay active and lobby for the causes that are important to them, and to build up a social movement to rally public opinion and pressure the President and Congress to pass legislation for those issues.
The grueling health care reform debate especially seemed to suck a lot of the enthusiasm and energy out of many progressives, as they watched the Democrats dropped the public option and make several painful compromises despite a large majority in both the House and the Senate. During those debates, a strong movement of conservative activists that later became the Tea Party movement had a great influence on legislators and the Tea Party movement had a great influence in moving the Republican Party to the right during the 2010 elections. Though I disagree with a lot of what the Tea Party stands for, I have to give grudging respect for the passionate civic activism of their members. I read many progressive activists urging their fellow progressives to show some of the same activism in lobbying for what they want in the health care reform bill. Pamela Jean wrote a great blog for Everyday Citizen entitled Voting Isn’t Enough, Let’s Exercise Our Power of Citizenship in which she wrote:
Have we been on automatic pilot since November 2008? How many in our ranks thought that our jobs were more or less done following the presidential election? Who among us slowed down our activism because, in part, we believed that electing Democrats to the White House or Congress was sufficient enough to create sweeping social change and install justice throughout our land?
We can look back at history and see that all significant social changes began as people-powered tidal waves. The people maintained ownership and control of their own movements. The movements germinated, bubbled up and remained political forces powered by the people – and were never given away or handed off to Washington to mismanage.
Obama’s election can only be a very small part of one puzzle. Though some mistook him for it, Obama and his campaign were never movements. He was just a candidate. A man. A politician. Now, he’s just the temporary president. That’s all.
We need movements that have nothing to do with candidates and their political ambitions.
Another Everyday Citizen blogger, Gerald Britt, wrote a blog titled The Prose of Citizenship that reinforces Pamela Jean’s idea:
What are the election revelers from November ’08 supposed to do during the ‘prose-period’ between elections?
Educate yourself on the health care issue; sift through the political rhetoric and talking points and find the facts. Find the position you believe in and make your voice heard, by email, phone calls, texts, tweets, blogs and faxes and whatever else is out there.
It’s not enough to be a voter – that’s great; now is really the time to exercise citizenship!
I heard a story about FDR, to whom Obama is often compared. Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter White, a former President of the NAACP, went to see the President. They wanted him to put the weight of the office behind an anti-lynching law. Roosevelt didn’t want to do it, not because he believed in lynching, but because he needed the southern vote to maintain support for the war. Eleanor Roosevelt and White continued to press him, making cogent argument after cogent argument.
Finally, Roosevelt stopped them. He waved his hand and said,
“You’re right. Everything you say is absolutely right. Now go out and organize and make me do it!”
The prose of governance…
Those of us who really want health insurance reform (and anything else for that matter), need to understand that we are now up against what it really means to have the person for whom we’ve voted in office.
Matt Tiabbi wrote a scathing article in the September 3, 2009 edition of Rolling Stone magazine during the health care reform debate where he made out a similar point as Pamela Jean and Gerald Britt.
Then again, some of the blame has to go to all of us. It’s more than a little conspicuous that the same electorate that poured its heart out last year for the Hallmark-card story line of the Obama campaign has not been seen much in this health care debate. The handful of legislators – the Weiners, Kuciniches, Wydens, and Sanderses – who are fighting for something real should be doing so with armies at their back. Instead, all the noise is being made on the other side. Not so stupid after all – they, at least, understand that politics is a fight that does not end with the wearing of a T-shirt in November.
In 1993, during the debates on Hillary Clinton’s health care reform proposals, Paul Wellstone wrote in The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda about the necessity of social movements to overcome entrenched interests:
Moreover, progressives or liberals who advocated “medicine for all” legislation were dysfunctional. We talked to ourselves. I spoke at many pro-single payer gatherings around the country. I loved the people, especially the doctors (usually family practice doctors and pediatricians) and nurses who cared so much about their patients. But we never moved beyond a small family of fighters that, though right, never became much of a political force. Too many single-payer advocates assumed that proposing the correct solution to the problem would automatically set the legislative machinery into gear. They forgot the missing ingredient: power. We never organized a grassroots constituency powerful enough to successfully fight for the change.
The only way we could have beaten the health care industry would have been with dramatic and effective citizen politics.
I like President Obama, but I have to admit to being disappointed at times during the past 4 years. In 2008, though, many longtime activists warned that Obama’s supporters would be in for a letdown, and that those supporters should stay mobilized to lobby for the changes that they wanted. In the December 2008 edition of The Progressive, Jim Hightower pointed out after the Obama election:
Like fresh poured concrete, the shape of Obama’s Presidency is going to set up quickly, and we can’t be lulled into thinking that casting a ballot is all that democracy requires of us. People who really want change can’t just crank back in their La-Z-Boys, trusting Obama to do the heavy lifting for us. Wall Street, the war machine, corporate chieftains, Republican Congress critters, rightwing yackety-yackers, weak-kneed Democrats, and other powerful forces of business-as-usual policies will be all over him. They are the insiders, and intend to shape him in their mold. We have to be the counterforce- an aggressive and vociferous Loyal Opposition pushing insistently and persistently from the outside. Obama was the candidate of change, but he’ll be the President of change only if we buck him up and back him up.
Howard Zinn wrote in the March 2009 edition of the Progressive magazine:
I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes- the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhoods, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on maters of war and social justice.
Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…
Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed it responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which require direct action by concerned citizens.
Though the electoral process often yields slow and incremental change, I still think the vote is still an important tool for enacting social change. Woman’s suffragists, civil rights workers, and other types of activists risked their lives to fight for the rights of African Americans, women and other marginalized group to be able to vote and have a voice in the government. One has to realize though that voting is just one part of a much larger larger process. Radical poet Amiri Baraka said in a 1982 interview in the book Conversations with Amiri Baraka something about the 1980 Presidential elections between Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John Anderson that still applies to the 2012 Presidential elections. He said in the interview:
To me, the use of electoral politics is only a tactic. I mean I think it does have to be utilized, because I think if you don’t utilize it, you will find yourself in a position where you’re backed up against the ovens, you know; and then the only thing you can do is fight for your life. I mean quite literally. Like people are talking about now they want to repeal the Voting Rights Act. They came on with an editorial on Channel 11, WPIX, “Repeal the Voting Rights Act.” Now, if you sit still and say, “Well, we can’t fight against that, because, finally, voting is not going to change monopoly capitalism”… and it’s not. I don’t think, in the end, anything other than… short of armed revolution will change this system of monopoly capitalism and end racism and women’s oppressions. But for you to sit quietly and let them wipe out the Voting Rights Act is just bizarre. For you not to fight for every kind of democratic right, inch by inch- you know what i mean, like they say, fight for every inch- is mad. It’s like, I was very critical of a lot of people on the Left in the recent election, because their line was, “Carter and Reagan are exactly the same.” Well, look, they represent the same class, but there are different sectors of that class, and they are not identical, you see, as you now found out. Here’s a man now talking about getting rid of Social Security… you can’t say that’s the same as Jimmy Carter. So I think that those kind of sweeping, Leftist, ultra-revolutionary statements serve to do nothing but fog up the reality that you have to fight for every inch. Yes, you have to utilize voting. Absolutely you have to utilize it. People died in the South to get the right to vote, and then you’re going to tell people, “Don’t vote. It doesn’t mean anything.” That’s bizarre. The question is, what does it mean? It has a limited and specific meaning, but it has to be utilized.
These past 4 years have been a learning experience for me. I learned about the importance of voting so that I can have a voice in our government. But I also learned about its limitations in enacting social change. One of the great discoveries over the past few years has been the history books of Gordon Wood, an eminent historian of the Revolutionary Period. Gordon Wood wrote in his book The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United State something that echoes the insights of the activists that I have quoted earlier in this blog:
Despite an electorate that at times seems apathetic, interest in suffrage and in the equality of consent has never been greater than it has over the past generation. Such a concern naturally puts a terrific burden on our political system, but it is a burden we should gladly bear (and many other nations would love to have it), for it bespeaks an underlying popular confidence in the processes of politics that surface events and news headlines tend to obscure.
In fact our concern with suffrage and with the formal rights of consent has assumed such a transcendent significance that it has sometimes concealed the substance of democratic politics and has tended to exaggerate the real power of the legal right to vote. Suffrage has become such a symbol of citizenship that its possession seems necessarily to involve all kinds of rights. Thus acquiring the vote has often seemed to be an instrument of reform or a means of solving complicated social problems. The women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century- premised on the belief, as one women put it in 1848, that “there is no reality in any power that cannot be coined into votes’- came to focus almost exclusively on the gaining of suffrage. And when the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the franchise was finally ratified in 1920 and did not lead to the promised revolution, the sense of failure set the feminist movement back at least half a century…
This special fascination with politics and this reliance on political integration through voting as a means of solving social problems are legacies of our Revolution, and they are as alive now as they were then. The Revolution not only brought ordinary people into politics; it also created such confidence in suffrage as the sole criterion of representation that we have too often forgotten just what makes the right to vote workable in America. In our dealings with newly developing nations, we are too apt to believe that the mere institution of the ballot in a new country will automatically create a viable democracy, and we are often confused and disillusioned when this rarely happens.
The point is that we have the relationship backward. It is not suffrage that gives life to our democracy; it is our democratic society that gives life to suffrage. American society is permeated by the belief in (and, despite extraordinary differences in income, in the reality of) equality that makes our reliance on the ballot operable.
…it was the egalitarian process of politics that led to the mobilization of voters and the political integration of the nation.
A youtube video of Angela Davis and her thoughts on Obama and the community of voters he inspired
A youtube video of Howard Zinn talking about voting for Obama, but afterwards to work for direct action
A youtube video of Naomi Klein talking about Obama