Why you should vote today (an appeal to radicals)

originally published on November 2, 2010

Paul Rosenberg offered this the other day at Open Left:

A Republican victory this Tuesday will tilt the odds heavily in the direction of retrospectively casting 2008 as another 1968, despite all the numbers of election night pointing to the contrary.  If Democrats hold on to control of Congress, however slightly, that means that we’re in a new era, no matter how discouraging the current lack of vision by Democratic leadership may now seem.

That’s why I find the following video (h/t Dave Johnson) so compelling.  Because as I see it, it’s not a dishonest representation of where the current DLC-dominated Democratic leadership is today.  It’s an honest representation of where we, the conscience of the party, have a damn good shot at taking it back to where it belongs once again.  From the International Brotherhoood of Boilermakers Union:

I have a lot of radical friends who don’t think voting makes a difference, that it only legitimizes a corrupt system, and that on principle they shouldn’t do it.  (Perhaps you’re one of them.)  I used to agree with this, and, unlike many of my not-so-radical friends, I respect the arguments people are making.  I have no trouble seeing why people would write off the whole enterprise as pointless.

I take a more complicated view though.  I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive piece before the elections about how and why real progressives and leftist radicals – these labels really do trip us up – should engage our flawed electoral system and the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to write that piece… yet.

But here are a few main points for anyone on the fence today.  I want you to be on the voting side of the fence.

Here’s a main argument against voting:

“If voting made any difference, they’d make it illegal.”

The fact is, “they” have made it illegal all throughout history and continue to try to today.  Black people and women couldn’t vote for more than half our country’s history, and they had to fight incredibly hard to win that right – and there are still major skirmishes about systematic voter disenfranchisement in elections today.

But the “they” in “they’d make it illegal” betrays some assumptions that I think are embedded in most anti-voting arguments.  “They” is “the system” – and it is monolithic.  Democrats and Republicans, the argument goes, are just an elaborate good cop / bad cop routine designed to fool the sheeple.

This kind of thinking betrays an overly simplistic view of the world.  We are always remaking the world, and our reality is made up of the results of many struggles.  In those struggles, the details matter.  Having more health care coverage is better than having less.  Having less war is better than having more war.  Having regulatory agencies that are doing their job in protecting people from pollution and abuse at the hands of unbridled corporate power is better than having agencies that are gutted and not regulating.

And having more progressives in office is what makes many of these outcomes tilt one way or the other.

I agree that we need to be engaged in our civic duty way beyond voting.  But voting affects the terrain for all of our battles.  And if you’re serious about social change, you should be serious about learning the details of the terrain.  Is your battle in a forest or a desert?  Those kinds of details matter to your chances of success.

Finally to my friends in the antiwar movement or who work primarily on international issues, if you think voting doesn’t matter, try traveling to most any other country, talk to regular people on the streets, tell them you’re an American and that you’re not voting, and see what they have to say.

For more thinking on the complexities of progressives engaging the Democratic Party, see my interview with Mike Lux.

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