Never in the History of the World has an Election Destroyed a System of Oppression
January 12th, 2016
Vote or Die. That’s the dichotomy rap mogul P. Diddy popularized back in 2006 in an effort to marshal the nation’s youth to the ballot box on election day. Fast forward two presidential elections later, as the American political machine gears up once again, how does Diddy feel now? In a recent interview at Revolt’s music conference the former star spoke plainly about his previous efforts and, in particular, on the issue of voting, saying: “We started Vote or Die, and the whole process was all full of shit. The whole shit is a scam.” He went on to add, “At the end of the day, I’m not telling you not to vote… I’m saying be a realist and know that they’re motherfucking kicking some bullshit up there.”
Whether or not he meant to, enmeshed within his response Diddy got to the central question many people have been asking themselves since this election cycle kicked off: If voting is a scam, should we participate in it? Before we tackle that question, we first have to backtrack a little. Because a typical American is not taught that voting is a scam, on the contrary — we are taught about voting in almost religious terms. We are taught that unlike the downtrodden peoples of authoritarian states we have this latent power, a voice or say in the workings of government. That we can control it, and our own fates, by use of the vote. And even if to some extent voting is imperfect, even if it is in fact a two-bit hustle necessitating a choice of “lesser evils,” what Malcolm X once called a game of political football, it is still the best possible means of influencing policy and creating change as opposed to any other alternative. This is why it is so crucial, we are told.
Any deeper analysis of the vote beyond the sort of “all or nothing” understanding peddled to us reveals it is a laughably limited means of generating change. One day a year (maybe two!) you get to (maybe!) cast a vote for a person who makes policy in your stead. Afterwards, politicians engineered into office theoretically heed the will of voters, but that never happens. In reality, as a mechanism of political engagement, the vote is one of the most powerful methods to discipline citizens along a patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalist status quo. It encourages people to give themselves over to a corrupt social order in return for promises of reform which the state and its power elite have no obligation to fulfill. Put simply, rather than a mechanism for positive change, the vote is often a powerful means of managing — and obstructing — progress.
What is Voting and What Does It Do?
Voting is a limited expression of popular will, choosing which parties or candidates come into political office. In strict terms, it is nothing more or less than the choice of which politician you want to delegate your power to at a specific point in time.
How is the Vote Limited?
Frequency of Voting. Because voting is limited to a specific point in time, politicians are only truly accountable to the general public in the months leading up to an election. This means that for the rest of their term politicians are primarily concerned with the needs of special interests groups, lobbyists, and their funders rather than working class people. Effectively, they can ignore the needs and popular will of the electorate until it is politically expedient.
Time and Location. Votes are only counted at specific places, which has led to voter manipulation and suppression as long as the institution has existed: for instance the recent Turkish elections, where the AKP moved voting stations in Kurdish areas during election times. But even in the United States, bastion of liberal democracy it is, elections are held on workdays and often in difficult to reach places. Subsequently, low participation and lopsided representation become unavoidable. The most privileged can vote most easily while the least privileged are least able.
Choosing Candidates. While voters have a choice between candidates, they have little to no influence over the organizational forces which bring these politicians to the point of candidacy. Yes, we can vote in primaries, but we have no say in the machinations of party machines (think super-delegates), little to no control over the funding of candidates, etc. This is all the more evident in local elections. These contests which are supposedly the moments when we as voters have the most influence are also the place where it is most common to see uncontested elections, with a candidate running on every party line.
How is the Effect of Voting Limited?
Oligarchy and Plutocracy. Voting is not only limited as an act, it is limited in its influence and powers. Though there have been major and recent concerns about the capture of the state by a small portion of the people, this is a feature, not a bug. The revelation in the Princeton Review article Economic Inequality and Political Representation, that economic and political elites are the only groups with a say in matters of policy, was just as true now as in the ‘60s when Robert Dahl wrote “Who Governs?”, a book on the corruption and unaccountability of the municipal government of New Haven, Connecticut. Such is the direct result of representative government, which isolates policymakers from the public 364 days out of the year while simultaneously creating an inequality of information which the wealthy position themselves to exploit.
Most policy-making is not done by elected officials. Since 2010, an increasing majority of actions by the government have been new regulations written by civil servants rather than new bills written by legislators. This means that the majority of new laws created by our government have little to no relation to the outcome of elections, and while this is connected to deadlock in Congress, this deadlock is going to continue for the foreseeable future. While this happens, the majority of policy will be made not by elected officials accountable to the people, but by clerks and bureaucrats accountable only to their bosses and to the lobbyists who participate in the rule-making process.
We do not directly make policy. All this is not coincidence. The very system of representative government is designed to limit popular engagement. This fear of truly popular government can be seen in the desperate fretting our esteemed Founding Fathers had as they designed the Constitution. The decision that we would do our policy-making through middlemen was a purposeful attempt to silence the masses from expressing and enforcing their political demands.
How is Voting Used as Obstruction?
Disenfranchisement. The vote is a right. And like all rights conferred by state power, they can be and often are taken away or restricted. Voting, therefore, is useful for generating change only insofar as the marginalized can consistently and reliably participate in it and depend on the state to carry out their electoral will. Rarely though, if ever, does the will of oppressed people and dominant political classes coalesce. Instead, they are almost always embroiled in conflict — the dominant class undercutting the needs of the oppressed, using the state as a primary mechanism to do so, in part, through disallowing or restricting voting rights (the Black Codes, Jim Crow, felon restrictions, etc).
Gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is another method deployed to restrict a community’s political will. As editorialist Joe Collins described it, gerrymandering is the act of “distorting the way votes are counted in order for a party to stay in office, or stay more in office” by “moving district lines, splitting up groups, and sending their votes elsewhere to be counted — or wasted.” Collins went on to elaborate, “Packing the majority-minority districts is like stuffing a few more clothes into a full laundry bag — you can put more stuff in there, but it still just counts as one bag. The more black votes that go into a majority-minority district, the fewer blacks there are to contend with in other [elections].”
The ramifications of gerrymandering are far-reaching in places like the Deep South where electoral politics have been divided along racial lines. Historical trends like white flight have created districts which mirror segregated communities, meaning fewer marginalized voices at every level of government to champion the programs needed to lift the impoverished. Here, like with disenfranchisement, the vote becomes a tool of institutional inequity when wielded by the dominant class.
Disempowerment and Apathy. Never have oppressed people made progress through the vote alone. Once again, history paints a different picture than popular myth, a picture where greater access to the vote has typically been a byproduct of powerful grassroots movements for greater social, political, and economic equity. Movements whose origins, though they have varied deeply, have always exercised a willingness to act outside the narrow confines of electoral politics. It is this willingness, and the actions that followed, not ballots, that have brought about change. These movements increasingly have been erased from history, sublimated under the genius of the legislators who did little but place a rubber stamp on actions made in the streets.
Learning to Act
How many times have Southern States voted to remove flags imbued with the heritage of slavery above their capitols? And if or when they did, the vote counted for many formerly Confederate States has been clear: The flag stayed, just as it did towering over South Carolina after the brutal murder of nine black people by a white supremacist shooter. And yet, in the wake of tragedy, one black woman fed up with inaction decided that a flag which constantly inspires hate needed to come down, immediately. Bree Newsome, an advocate and activist of the Black Lives Matter movement, scaled up the flagpole in front of the South Carolina capitol and removed the hate-filled banner. Just like that. Done. No pleading with legislators to do the right thing. No waiting for someone else to save the day either.
When asked by a reporter “Why not wait until lawmakers vote to take it down,” she replied:
“What is there to vote on? There’s doing the right thing, and there’s doing the wrong thing. It’s time for people to have the courage. Everybody who knows what the right thing is to do, we have to step up… We have to do the right thing, or else it won’t stop.”
What Newsome did, exercising her agency to create change outside a strictly state-sanctioned political process, is called direct action. Direct action occurs when a group, sometimes an individual, takes an action intended to “reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue.” This can include nonviolent and militant forms of resistance which target institutions, persons, or property deemed hostile to a community’s well-being. It can be any form of activity people decide upon and organize themselves which is based on their own collective strength and does not involve getting intermediaries to act for them.
Most of us, like Newsome, have power enough to make immediate change to our communities through direct action, because we have far more flexibility to create change than the state itself is capable of, or allows. This flexibility stems from the fact that direct action does not ask us to delegate our power, or to defer it to a set of unjust laws and corrupt institutions. Instead of getting someone else to act for us, we act for ourselves. And by acting for ourselves we are expressing the ability to govern ourselves, to take control of our own lives in the pursuit of liberation. In other words, we stop waiting for a better world to happen to us and begin doing the work of creating it, for it is through acting and learning to act, not voting, that we will open the path to a world free of oppression.
History is the greatest demonstration of direct action’s potential. It has been the essential element of organised protest by ordinary people. Remember, safety regulations did not drop from the heavens after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; they were fought for by hundreds of thousands of women who struck before and afterwards. The Second New Deal did not burst like Athena from Roosevelt’s skull; it was crafted under pressure from ever increasing wildcat strikes. And neither did the Voting Rights Act nor the fall of Jim Crow leap from Johnson’s benevolent heart, decades of resistance necessitated it. We forget this because the ideology of the vote tells us that elected leaders are the true agents of history, that as normal people we can only hope to influence them. The truth is that the politician is merely the notary of history, that it is normal people, working together, who make change.
Though Newsome acted on her own she was not acting in isolation. Any successful action occurs with a scaffolding of organized people behind it. Consider that Newsome herself was saved from a three thousand dollar bond through immediate crowdfunding by her fellow organizers, a point which highlights how a spectrum of people with a diverse array of competencies can all participate in shaping their communities. It also highlights that organizing is not limited to a place and time, but is rather rooted in local people and local organizations aimed directly at the interests of local communities.
Whether you decide to vote or to not vote is up to you. But let this be a call to action, a call to organize, to resist, and to struggle for our communities’ collective needs with full awareness of elections’ inherent limitations. After all, if it were true that voting is the best possible vehicle to creating positive change in our society, we should give pause to how frightening it is that a ballot box alone is what separates the United States from the totalitarian regimes to which it is opposed.
Jean Allen is an activist based in New York and the writer of A Critical History of Management Thought. Frank Castro is an independent journalist in the Bay Area, radical educator, and author of the blog Full Praxis Now.