Your Bumper Sticker is Not a Philosophy: Reflections on Voting and the Limits of Radical Purity

You hear it often when you reside on the left of the political spectrum in America, especially around election time.

Sometimes it’s discussed and debated in whispers, other times in rather bombastic tones. It’s a debate about whether truly progressive folks, let alone radicals, should be willing to vote for clearly compromised Democrats, despite how far from our own views they obviously are. Some say yes, while others insist no, and just as strenuously as the first.

I know all the arguments on both sides. I know them because at some point in my life, I have probably made them all, depending on the situation.

When it comes to the arguments for not compromising, for not giving our votes to candidates whose policies seem so similar to those of the right, even now there are times when I still find myself attracted to them, at least partly.

But this is not one of those times.

For those of us on the left, there is something almost sacramental it seems about refusing to vote, while insisting with all the wisdom of a bumper sticker: “If voting changed anything it would be illegal,” or that “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” It’s almost a rite of passage for progressives to counsel abstention from exercising the franchise, or to advocate voting for a third party candidate—not because they have any chance of winning, or because by voting for them we will actually be helping to build that third party into a viable political force, but simply so that our conscience can be clear. We can vote for that radical alternative, and then drive back to our homes from the polling station in our fuel-burning vehicles, take off our shoes manufactured in a sweatshop somewhere, and then send out a blog post or social media message on our overpriced, virtual-slave-labor-produced technology, telling everyone how awesome it feels not to have contributed to evil today.

There’s something cathartic (in a juvenile, angst-driven, anarchy-tatted kinda way) about preening as a moral superior because you didn’t give in to the two-party “duopoly,” or whatever the hell Ralph Nader calls it. Maintaining one’s ascetic sense of unsullied ideological purity feels good. So does heroin, of course, but I’m not sure the indulgence of either is one’s best bet for safety in the long run. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that voting is the key to real political change; it self-evidently is not. But to think that it means nothing, or so little as to not recommend the activity is to engage in a dangerous moral conceit. Dangerous because there appear to be others, every bit as committed to their worldview as we are to ours, who feel no qualms about pulling that lever, or pushing that button on the touch-screen—even though I figure they also know it isn’t the sum total of political engagement.

See, some things are pretty easy to understand, and this is one of them. If voting doesn’t matter, dear precious revolutionaries, then riddle me this:

Why are some people trying so damned hard to keep certain other people from doing it?

If the game is so unalterably rigged that the elite will get their way no matter who is in office, then why would right-wing billionaires spend so much of their coveted loot on electing certain people rather than others? Why bother? Are they stupid? Have they nothing better to do with their lucre? Or do they know something that we might not? I’m guessing the latter. I doubt quite seriously that folks with that much money and power are stupid. Venal, cruel and worthy of contempt? Oh quite possibly those, but not stupid; and above all else, highly self-interested. They put their money and their votes where they think it will do the most good for them. Not for the country, or the world, and not for the rest of us, but for them. And right now, there is no question who those folks are backing.

Yes, yes, I know (yawn): Wall Street threw a lot of money at Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008; and if Hillary Clinton is the nominee in 2016 they likely will again, given how much the Clintons love ’em some bankers. But right now, this year, this week, their money is decidedly being spent in different directions; and not, I beg you to recall, for shits and giggles.

More to the point, the right is trying in over two dozen states to dramatically limit access to the ballot box for millions of voters, and not simply because they are bored and have nothing better to do with their time. They have placed limits on early voting because the folks most likely to vote early are the folks with the least flexibility on election day: lower-and moderate wage workers, and especially people of color. They are demanding photo ID for the same reason: not because there is any evidence of a voter fraud problem — in fifteen years there have been 31 cases of in-person fraud that could even theoretically have been stopped by these new laws — but because the folks less likely to have photo ID are poor and working class and folks of color. They are disallowing college students from using their school identifications though, even if they include a photo; and why? Because they know the way younger voters have trended lately, and it isn’t to the right. It is entirely transparent and purposeful. To the folks who comprise the most reactionary tendencies in this nation, they know that voting matters—at least at the margins.

Let’s be clear: They didn’t lose those 40,000 registrations in Georgia (overwhelmingly black folks and young people) just to be dicks. They lost them because they don’t want those 40,000 people to vote; because those 40,000 people could be the difference in a close Senate race and they know it. They are trying to weaken the protections of the Voting Rights Act — and went to court to accomplish these ends — for a reason. They try and intimidate black voters for a reason.

They do these things because they expect them to pay off. They apparently aren’t satisfied with the degree to which Barack Obama is solicitous of the wealthy, or the extent to which he bombs people around the world, or the extent to which his health care bill was a giveaway to the insurance industry. They apparently aren’t satisfied with his moderate and cautious stances on immigration, or his court nominees, however far from radical they quite obviously have been. They want more. And if you think it can’t be any worse, you might want to put down the pipe.

So yes, the Affordable Care Act is inadequate. But it really matters that so many state legislatures are in the hands of right-wing extremists who are refusing to expand Medicaid, thereby denying care to at least 5 million people. And if you don’t think that matters, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts you aren’t one of those 5 million, and likely don’t know anyone who is.

And of course, the Democrats are overwhelmingly in bed with the same companies as the Republicans, and yes, they are far too enamored of the empire and throwing the empire’s weight around, at the cost of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. But if you think the right wouldn’t seek to empower those companies and that empire even more if given the chance—that they wouldn’t bomb more countries, cut more taxes for the rich, and roll back what minimal labor protections still exist for working people—then once again, ask yourself: why is that same right-wing spending so much money and trying so hard to win this election?

The real work of democracy, obviously, is in the streets and always has been; it’s in places like Ferguson, where mostly young folks of color have been leading an inspiring uprising against not only the killing of Mike Brown but the larger plague of police violence against, and mistreatment of, the black and brown in this country. But it is not only there where work is to be done. And though it should be apparent, the work of protest movements really is made easier or harder, depending on who is in office at a given time. The Voting Rights Act really would have had a much harder time passing, as with the Fair Housing Act, had Barry Goldwater been president, rather than Lyndon Johnson. And if John McCain and Sarah Palin had been running things, the courts really would be worse, and there would have been no health care reform at all, against which we on the left could spend our time railing.

And yes, I know: some of the Supreme Court justices appointed by Republicans in the past turned out to be more progressive than some of the justices appointed by Democrats. But have you not noticed the difference between the Dwight Eisenhowers and Richard Nixons of the world, on the one hand, and the Ted Cruzs and Rick Sanotorums of the world, on the other? The Republicans of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are gone now. They have been replaced by people who make St. Ronnie of Dementia appear moderate by comparison. They are beholden to media personalities who insist with a straight face that the president wants Americans to die from Ebola as payback for slavery and colonialism; replaced by people who are so intimidated by (or in agreement with) the philosophically deranged, that they’re afraid to even call Donald Trump and the birther brigade assholes, despite how snugly the label fits.

Voting is just a tactic: nothing more and nothing less. Is it the be-all-end-all? Of course not. No self-respecting member of the nation’s elite would be satisfied to just vote every few years and leave the rest up to chance, and neither should we. But those elites damned sure don’t sit out the elections either, smug in their conceit that either way, everything will work out alright. They take no chances; they play every hand; they never fold—not even once. They work overtime to block low-income folks from the franchise, knowing that photo ID requirements will present a more onerous burden for the poor and working class than anyone else—between $75 and $175 dollars, once you factor in paperwork requirements, travel time to get the ID made and time lost from work—and that this burden can be the deciding factor for millions. Mission accomplished.

It’s why some don’t stop even there: some on the right are so insistent on keeping the vote out of the hands of certain people that they are openly advocating barring the poor from voting, or requiring people to own property in order to vote, or making them pass a civics test first, or barring anyone receiving any kind of government benefit from voting. They are openly advocating a return to the days of Jim Crow elections, all under a color-blind rationale that allows them to appear (to themselves at least) as something other than the racists they really are. But make no mistake: The people those sheriffs and election registrars wanted to keep from voting in Mississippi in 1964 are the same people conservatives wish to keep from voting today; folks of color first, and then any of the rest of us committed to racial and economic equity. To stay at home or discourage others from voting, as some act of left-wing puritanical contrarianism, is to give them exactly what they want. It is to do their work for them. Although many races aren’t decided by margins small enough to have allowed for low turnout on the left, or among folks of color (left or not) to make the difference, don’t think for a minute that state and local races—which have major impact on everything from health care to reproductive rights to education policy—can’t be.

And please, before someone does it—and I’ve heard it before, so that’s why I bring it up—no frivolous and reflexive quoting of Audre Lorde here, about how the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. The misuse of such a genius as she for purposes other than those to which she dedicated her life is all-too-common but nonetheless enraging for its ubiquity. First off, Lorde was not talking about voting when she issued this famous phrase, and you can’t just take a quote, the sound of which you like, and deploy it for any damned purpose you happen to desire. To do so signifies a maddening lack of originality, and indicates how quick some are to rely on slogans and aphorisms, however insightful, rather than strategic and tactical thought. And second, for the love of God: voting was never one of the master’s tools. The master, the manor-born, or the King didn’t want people to vote; and especially not the slaves, the peasants, or the commoners. The master would always prefer dictatorship and no elections at all. To miss this point is to spit in the face of Fannie Lou Hamer and suggest that she was naive, just playing foolishly with the master’s tools when she was fighting for the right to vote; so too it is to disrespect John Lewis, and martyrs like Jonathan Daniels, James Reeb, Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, and so many others—all of whom fought and occasionally died for, among other things, the right to vote. But here we are, nearly fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, and we’re still dealing with the occasional self-proclaimed radical who thinks they’re imbued with more profound political insight than any of those just named; even as not one of them has done half of what they did, sacrificed nearly as much, or paid a fraction of the price as these others, for the sake of their convictions. Frankly, it’s grotesque.

What it comes down to is this: Voting is harm reduction; just like giving clean needles to addicts. Voting doesn’t solve our problems, just like clean needles won’t solve the problems posed by intravenous drug use. But harm reduction matters.

I make no pretense to having the answers; but that said, I’m fairly confident that whatever the answers are, and whatever the best strategies for moving this country to a place of justice might be, none of them involve greasing the skids for reactionary Christian supremacists, rabid nativists, implicit (if not explicit) white nationalists, and puerile homophobes. I’m quite certain that anything that makes Ted Nugent happy or Michelle Bachmann joyous is bad for the world, and anything that helps Sean Hannity sleep well at night is something terrifying and to be resisted at all costs.

For those of us on the left then, wondering whether or not it’s worth voting for yet another compromised Democrat, may I suggest a relatively easy way to answer that question, so that we then might move forward with conviction, do what we have to do, and get on with the more important business of organizing for change? It’s not that hard: On election day, just ask yourself, “What would Ann Coulter want me to do?”

And then do the opposite.

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