We enjoyed the interview with Terri Lee and Mark E. Smith in the Boston Occupier. We also read with interest the response by Katie Talbert—An Answer to “What If They Held the Election and Nobody Came?”—and as boycotters, we’d like to offer a response to some of the concerns raised in that editorial.
The first part of the editorial expresses the view that it is unrealistic to expect a large-scale boycott, because many people vote on the (real or perceived) benefits they get from the current system:
To imagine that all Americans will enmass sit out the national elections is akin to imagining that if one squints hard enough while saying magic words, a pink pony will appear at one’s door. There exist enough numbers of people in this country who, at least by belief, benefit in some way by the current system. They will participate in the electoral process and validate it for themselves.
This is the same sort of argument used to dissuade people from voting for “third-party” or write-in candidates—that the numbers are too small to make a difference. Boycotters, however, unlike the naïve straw men described in the editorial, are under no illusions that everyone will join the boycott—nor is unanimous support for the boycott a requirement for its success. There are already more non-voters than there are registered members of either major party. We’re not discouraged by these numbers, but rather inspired by them. Why should we quit, when we’re the ones ahead? As the editorial itself notes, so-called “voter apathy” is a symptom of a populace that feels that voting doesn’t make a difference:
We’ve never seen full voter turn-out, or full participation, because at some time in our history this country has had one group or another systematically removed from the voting process. Now, more of those roadblocks have been pushed aside. Yet people still will not participate; not because of some high-minded idea of a group election boycott, but because they have felt for years, possibly their whole lives, that their vote does not count.
This misses the point of the boycott. We don’t WANT to be counted, when the tally represents those who’ve participated in the selection of our next executive branch death-squad leader. The position is quite clear. Indeed, we all know in advance who the winner of this election will be: the same corporations and cartels who have been in power for decades; for anyone who desires to change that, voting truly will make no difference.
The editorial then insinuates that the general population has moved to the right, politically, under the influence of right-wing executive leadership:
Since the 80’s, when a xenophobic, racist, shamelessly pro-plutocrat led the country, the nation has moved away from a generation of reformism and toward an elitist capitalist trajectory.
First of all, the same corporate interests behind the scenes today have been in power far longer than the past few decades. Furthermore, although the Reagan administration was indeed bellicose, its foreign policy options were kept in check by domestic popular opposition. For example, in the 1960s, the U.S. might have simply invaded Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinista government, and it might have invaded Guatemala and El Salvador as well, if U.S.-supported regimes there faced a serious risk of being overthrown by popular insurgencies. But the Reagan administration decided that it couldn’t afford to invade Central America, thanks to an unprecedented solidarity movement in the U.S. – a movement that, it’s worth noting, wasn’t tied to any political party and operated outside of the electoral system.
The editorial mentions the disenfranchisement of an increasing number of US citizens as a result of the war on drugs, and also the non-citizen labor that has no voice in US politics:
The war on drugs has created an increased number of disenfranchised American citizens. Additionally, the increased oppression of non-citizen labor represents an intention to create a worker class that has no voice.
We don’t disagree, but those are not reasons to participate in the very system that has silenced, and continues to silence, so many. Indeed, this system silences us all, because the power is no longer derived from the consent of the governed, but now seems to belong to the highest bidder. Our system of government bears little resemblance to the “functional democracy” the editorial describes:
A functional democracy requires that everyone have skin in the game or believe their participation will render them what they expect. Possibly that is the problem; we are getting what we expect. Too many in this country have already resigned in frustration; they feel, often rightly, uncounted and unheard. Our corporatocracy offers distraction, instant gratification and easy solutions promised in sound bites by hollow puppets of the plutocracy. People know this, but as long as the wheel grinds forward they go on.
Unless your expectation is that yet another puppet of the banking and oil cartels is put in a position of power to continue the atrocities at home and abroad, prepare to be disappointed by the 2012 presidential election. If the voters believe that “their participation will render them what they expect,” their expectations must be set at an all-time low, given that the actions of our government today make the Watergate shenanigans under Nixon seem positively wholesome in comparison. The “game” is drone bombings, the NDAA, continued genocide of indigenous peoples, the war on drugs, the fiction of “clean coal,” the Monsanto/FDA revolving door, and countless other atrocities against the planet, the people, and other living things. We don’t want “skin in the game” if that’s the game being played. The very idea of everyone having “skin” in this game is too appalling to contemplate.
The editorial then presumes that the goal of a boycott is to attract the attention of those in power:
Possibly the boycott represents an effort to answer to this voter malaise by offering a new rallying point. By choosing to speak out about not participating, it is assumed, the elites will take notice. But if history is any guide, the elites will not take notice. They will invent rationalizations to the majority population for the low voter turn-out and the people will return home, again more hopeless and in despair than before with no alternative to capture and ignite their interest in self governance. The ruling elite, further empowered will claim they have a “mandate from the people” to continue turning the screws toward fascism, with the least powerful the first to feel its effects. Those on the left who didn’t vote can feel smug and blame voters, while those suffering the direct results of racist, sexist and classist policies feel further abandoned by all.
The point of a boycott is not to change the mindset of the so-called “elites”—we don’t really care what they think. The purpose of the boycott is to get the rest of us (aka “the 99 percent”) to break their fascination with the “elites” and what they think. Social change is the result of popular resistance and demands; those in power, when they’re under enough pressure, eventually accede to the will of the people. As for feeling “smug” and blaming the voters—there is nothing to feel smug about, for any of us, when the choices are so dismal. Our experience has been that those who promote voting as an effective vehicle for positive social change are the ones who tend to be smug, blaming non-voters for the increasingly authoritarian character of our political system. In the end, neither voters nor non-voters are responsible for the results of a rigged election—it is the plutocrats who are to blame. Those suffering from “racist, sexist and classist policies” are suffering because of the plutocracy, not because of voters or non-voters. We agree with the editorial’s point that “most working people want systemic change in this country; most want the plutocracy overthrown and removed from power.” We must resist the plutocracy—not solely by boycotting their rigged elections, but also by protesting in the street, in the media, and online.
The next criticism seems to be that in order for real change to occur, everyone must “act out the practice of democracy” in the hope that somehow the pretense will create the reality:
Change … will require that all act out the practice of democracy, on even the most humble level of casting the vote … as a representation of the democratic duty that will always be the crux of the ideal democratic society.
Unfortunately, this practice does not work. Is pulling a lever in favor of one of the pre-selected corporate candidates (in the case of the duopoly) or a guaranteed loser (in the case of “third-party” candidates) really practicing democracy? Whoever wins the presidential contest will assume an office that has over time acquired illegitimate levels of power, including the power to carry out extrajudicial executions on citizens and bombing campaigns against foreign civilians under the thinnest of pretexts. Under the ground rules of electoral democracy, by casting a ballot we affirm our endorsement of the results of the election. As long as the elections are controlled by the same forces that control money, there is no way to wrest control of the elections from the grip of plutocracy.
That argument goes on to claim that the beginning of the revolution will only be possible when voting becomes commonplace:
When voting becomes so commonplace that the electorate begins to take ownership for that vote, then we will have the beginnings of the unified front for revolution. It is far easier to take something from someone when they’re already convinced it has no value. It is far easier to organize on that which people value.
This argument seems to be that voting is currently worthless, but if enough of us forget that and pretend that it’s worth a great deal, then we’ll eventually thereby become its owners and, voilà, it will be worth enough to make revolution possible. This seems patently ridiculous. If one is invited to a poker game, and knows in advance that the other players will be cheating, is the best course of action to let oneself be cheated again and again, hoping through playing the game to magically transform it into a fair game? Talk about expecting pink ponies at the door! None of us is getting a pony in this election—not even if we were to elect performance artist satirical candidate Vermin Supreme—whose platform includes free ponies for all Americans, but who makes it clear that, like all other politicians, he has no intention of keeping any of his campaign promises, and runs on the slogan “Remember—a vote for Vermin Supreme is a vote completely thrown away!” Indeed, any vote is a vote completely thrown away, because any vote is consenting to the outcome of the election—and when we know in advance that the outcome will be that the same corporate interests remain in power, we cannot in good conscience participate in this charade.
Perhaps Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement said it best in 1964, when he said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” Voting boycotts worked to help overturn apartheid, and they can work to help overturn the corrupt system in the United States. When the elections have become (as they are now) a method of reinforcing the existing power structure, we must in good conscience decry and eschew them. We urge you to boycott.