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Why Elections Matter—and Why We're Still Arguing About It

(AP Images)It’s practically the eve of the election—and I’m still kind of stunned to hear from people who don’t plan to vote, who think voting doesn’t matter. A young writer, 21 years old, wrote to me the other day, after seeing an interview I did on what elections are and aren’t, and on how the candidates do and don’t differ on foreign policy. (Spoiler alert: mostly they don’t.)

Among other things, he said “We young people understand that the political theater of electoral politics will not bring about the radical transformations required to avert environmental and economic catastrophe.”

And of course he’s absolutely right. Anyone who thinks that choosing a “better” leader for the US empire will somehow bring about “radical transformations” has been watching too many campaign infomercials. Only powerful social movements can do that. We have to fight for democracy and we have to build our movements—choosing a presidential candidate doesn’t accomplish either one.

Because national elections—at least those for president—in this country are not democratic. As I said in the interview he was critiquing, presidential elections are not our turf, they’re not our people, they’re not our choices. And anyone who thinks that voting for one candidate over the other is going to solve our problems—especially global problems including wars, occupations, climate change and global inequality—is way wrong.

So our work has to focus on building our movements. But who gets elected president is dangerously relevant. My own work focuses on stopping the drone war, getting US troops out of Afghanistan now instead of two years from now, ending US support for Israeli occupation and related issues—and on those issues there’s hardly any difference between the candidates.

There is one war-and-peace issue where they do differ, and that one matters a lot. Both set “red lines” and say they would use military force against Iran—that’s disastrous under any circumstance. Romney’s red line, which is Israel’s red line, would use force to prevent Iran from reaching “nuclear weapons capability.” While it’s not defined anywhere in international law, “capability” is generally assumed to include the ability to enrich uranium and scientific knowledge. And arguably, Iran actually has that capability already. In the real world of potential new wars, there’s a huge difference between that, and Obama’s red line, which he would invoke to prevent Iran from “having” a nuclear weapon, an event which the entire combination of US military and intelligence agencies agree could not happen before at least a couple of years out. The difference matters—because over years it is possible to build and strengthen movements that will make any such new wars impossible.

And while foreign policy shows the closest parallels between the two parties, that isn’t the only issue. Who gets appointed to the Supreme Court—whether a mainstream moderate centrist or a young right-wing extremist ideologue who will work for decades to move the court even further to the right—matters a huge amount. And that’s exactly who the current Republican party will appoint. Top Republican candidates view rape—“legitimate” or otherwise—as God’s plan for bringing babies into the world. Women, especially poor women, living in much of this country already have few or no options for full reproductive healthcare, especially in how to deal with unwanted pregnancy. One party is pledged to appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal across the board. That matters.

Some undocumented young people have just won the opportunity to gain legal status in this country; that’s way not enough, but it matters when the alternative is a new regime pledged to deport all undocumented or to force them to “self-deport.” Obama’s commitment to Medicare and Social Security remains mostly intact, largely because his political base demands it; Romney’s commitment to both is non-existent, except as a means towards increasing privatization. As usual it’s the poor who would suffer the most. Obama has not made good on most of his earlier commitments on climate—but Romney would take those failures further, opening up the Keystone pipeline on his first day in office.

My on-line critic went on to say, “Perhaps a Romney administration would speed up a response by a dislocated working class in overthrowing this doomsday machine? Obama is an extremely effective tool of the corporate enterprise.” Somehow I never accepted the view that the worse things get, the more likely we’ll have a revolution. I just don’t think it works that way. Revolutionary processes—look at the Arab spring—don’t emerge where people are the most beaten down, the most impoverished (which is why we haven’t seen a Sierra Leone uprising or a Niger spring). They happen when people have some renewed hope and then those hopes get dashed. I’m pretty sure we’re not anywhere close to a revolutionary moment in this country. And I certainly don’t think that making things worse for the poorest, oldest, sickest and most vulnerable among us is a viable strategy for building movements—or for making revolution.

This election is not about supporting or withdrawing support from Obama; it’s about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the “lesser-evil” theory, fine. There’s an old saying that when you’re drowning, and the water is rising up over your mouth, that last half-inch before it reaches your nose is a half-inch of life and death. Especially if you’re short—or in this case, especially if you’re poor.

This election, regardless of who wins, will not solve the problems of this country and the world. We have to build movements powerful enough to take on the challenges of climate change, war, poverty, inequality. But we should be clear, there are significant differences between the two parties and the two candidates; while neither are our allies, one will make our work of building movements even more difficult, will threaten even more of our shredded civil liberties, and will put even more people around the world at much greater risk. Around the world many people are terrified of an electoral result that will return us—and them—to the legacy of George W. Bush.

Elections don’t change the world—only people’s movements do. But elections can make our work of building movements impossible—and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.