1996: Straight Talk on the Voting Thang

Revolutionary Worker #871, September 1, 1996

For a lot of people, official politics in America looks like a steamroller paving a road to hell--more money for the rich, less for the poor, more censorship and police wiretapping, prisons instead of schools, eliminating checks to poor children to pay government debts. And, as if the last year wasn't extreme enough, the system clearly seems to have its crosshairs set on cutting social security and medicare.

It takes a particularly extreme form of "denial" these days to see Bill and Hillary Clinton protecting people from the right wing--especially after he signed the abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Even Clinton himself admitted that some provisions of this bill were unjust--like cutting off benefits to legal immigrants and allowing states to cut off food stamps to children. But then his political forces argued that it was necessary to return Democrats to office so they (and not the Republicans) would be the ones monitoring these programs. The liberal commentator Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation magazine, "Now we're supposed to vote for the Democrats so they can undo their own votes! Talk about triangulation."

Newsflash: No one in high places is suddenly going to call off the war on the people and announce a period of compassion and social justice.

So, how do people turn the tide? How do people defeat a political establishment that seems united on an extreme and cruel course?

The clear and basic need of this moment is a broad, diverse and determined movement of resistance against the vicious policies the ruling class is determined to carry out.

Such a resistance movement is not only necessary--but it is possible if we dare to seize the time.

The fact that this fall is the system's official political season represents a challenge--and an opening--for the voices of resistance to be heard. Even as the system urges people to participate, there are millions of people who feel shut out by the official non-choice--Dole vs. Dole Lite. And there is a growing sense that relying on political candidates and elections will not bring change.

Katha Pollitt spoke for more than herself when she wrote in The Nation about her bitterness at seeing congresspeople she once supported voting for brutal welfare cuts. After the Clinton signature on the welfare bill, she writes: "Advocacy politics can't turn this around, because advocacy is based on speaking for people rather than those people acting on their own behalf. Enormous demonstrations around the country, with strikes by S.E.I.U. and A.F.S.C.M.E., sit-downs in welfare offices and 100,000 homeless people camping out on the capital might have affected the debate. [liberal children's advocate] Marian Wright Edelman issuing a press release no longer can. Indeed the media didn't even pick up the most recent one, eloquent as it was."

There are literally millions who feel an urgency to oppose the official policies of the last years and who want their voices heard. We know that many of these same people will still go ahead and vote--even if more of them are embarrassed to admit it afterwards. But there is a real necessity for all kinds of people to participate together in something real that can actually change the political landscape...something that will challenge and even rupture the smothering blanket of official politics...something that will confront the system with a real "October Surprise" and light the sky with resistance.

How Things Really Change

In order to build our resistance more powerfully, it is also important to explore some realities about the political process--and to deepen our understanding about how things really change. The official mythology says that elections are how change is made in this country. But the truth is that the important transformations and changes in history--including the history of this country--were never settled through elections.

For example, the early United States was filled with conflicts over slavery. But in order to run in national elections, the major political candidates (even Abraham Lincoln) still had to swear they wouldn't abolish slavery or radically change the society.

The end of slavery took a great struggle of millions of people--including revolts and resistance by the slaves themselves who were not allowed to vote. Ultimately, this struggle developed into a civil war where Northern armies--including nearly 200,000 former slaves--shattered the armed forces of slavery and overthrew the social system of the Deep South. Voting and elections had little to do with it.

Or take the example of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Before the 1950s, Black people were kept strictly segregated in the Deep South--with separate, grossly inferior schools and separate entrances and bathrooms in official buildings. Black and white were forbidden to date or marry. Black people had to address all white people as "sir" or "Ma'am," while even white children were expected to call adult Black people by their first name. These hateful inequalities were enforced by the lynchings of the Klan and the legal lynchings of the southern sheriffs.

Jim Crow wasn't abolished at the ballot box. Jim Crow was destroyed because changes in the economy and the world situation weakened this system of oppression--and because the masses of Black people fought to destroy it!

Southern agriculture mechanized in the '40s and '50s. And millions of Black farm laborers and sharecroppers moved out of the slow, dusty, southern farm towns to the northern cities.

In those same years, the old European colonial systems were breaking down in Africa. And the U.S. imperialists wanted to expand their influence in the new governments coming to power there. Jim Crow became an international embarrassment that got in the way of U.S. plans. It was hard to portray the U.S. as "the friend of de-colonialized Africa" when everyone knew that Black people in Mississippi couldn't hold office or sit on juries--and could be lynched for not stepping off the sidewalk when a white person passed!

Jim Crow was destroyed when, in the '50s and '60s, Black people rose up in revolt--staging sit-ins and boycotts at segregated lunch counters and bus stations, demanding an end to special "poll taxes" and rigged "literacy tests" that denied Black people equal political rights. Southern jails were filled and major cities started to burn from the rebellions of Black people as the Civil Rights movement segued into the Black Liberation movement.

The U.S. system was forced to grant major concessions by intense struggle of the people. And at the time, the system was inclined to grant certain concessions because the old semi-feudal basis for Jim Crow had been fading away in the southern farm areas. The people wanted liberation--and at the same time the oppressors for their own purposes found it necessary to move toward new ways of controlling Black people--new ways that were not so crudely based on Jim Crow segregation's open and legally enforced inequalities.

The change was forced through by struggle, not by voting.

Another example: Women did not win the right to abortion through elections. There was no wave of boozhwah congressional or presidential candidates who swept into office declaring support for abortion rights. That's not how this legalization happened. The legalization of abortion was forced from a reluctant Supreme Court at a time when millions of women were entering the workforce--and rebelling against the system. And only after the system legalized abortion did a section of the system's politicians openly declare their support for this right.

Take a more recent, and less significant change: Bill Clinton defeating George Bush in the 1992 presidential election. Here's the truth: it was the L.A. Rebellion of 1992 that put that "hang-dog" look on George Bush, as powerful forces in the U.S. ruling class decided it was definitely time for a change of presidential face. So in that case, even the system's own change of presidents had more to do with uprisings in the streets than it did with any voter registration campaigns.

Reality is that no positive or liberating change ever happened in this social system because of voting or elections. How does real change happen? It comes through struggle: through uniting people--from their different points of view--to do what needs to be done for the people...through creative exposures of those who abuse the people, through diverse forms of resistance. And at its most thoroughgoing, change comes when the crisis in society is so deep and the struggle, organization and consciousness of the people is at the point where a real all-the-way revolution is possible--when power is seized and old structures are torn down and uprooted and something new and truly liberating can be born. So there is a lot of history and understanding behind our viewpoint that: "Elections are the wrong arena. It's going to come down to revolutionary war."

Voting Is Not a Powersource

Another look at history: Jesse Jackson got millions of votes, and registered millions of new voters when he ran for president in the 1980s--and as a reward, he was rudely dissed by both Dukakis and Clinton. Unions and Black Democrats have run decades of voter registration campaigns--and the interests of oppressed people are more crudely ignored than at any time in the last 60 years of U.S. politics.

The fact is that the system and its political leaders are not fundamentally controlled or even particularly influenced by the desires of voters. It is the other way around: the election season is the time when the broad population is trained to accept and support those policies that the ruling class intends to carry out. For example, after the 1992 race, the public was suddenly supposed to support massive cuts in social services so the budget deficit could be reduced.

In 1992, the ruling class installed Clinton, the candidate of "CHANGE," as their next president. And many people voted thinking that Clinton would bring "changes," and would create "space" for progressive ideas and movements. It is worth summing up: did those votes for Clinton bring any positive changes? Don't more homeless face a homeless winter? Haven't more working people been laid off, and more office workers been "downsized"? Don't police patrol and kill on ghetto streets like an occupying army? Haven't the border forces grown even more--and intensified their persecution of immigrant proletarians? Has there been any easing of the male supremacist ways this society keeps women down? Doesn't fabulous wealth created by people living in intense poverty around the world still flow disproportionally to the United States? And hasn't that domination been intensified by Clinton's support for the NAFTA and GATT treaties?

Both parties insist "this is the era of lean and mean" and that "big government is dead." By this they mean that the system no longer guarantees the "social contracts" made with various sections of the population--stable union jobs, living wages, benefits, or even basic safety nets like welfare, medicaid, social security, and food stamps. Instead, the only guarantee offered these days is more prison cells for people who step out of line. They demand that the people give up their hopes and expectations, they demand that people live with fear and insecurity.

The reason the major candidates seem dead-set on launching these attacks is not because there is some huge groundswell of meanness among "the voters." It's the other way around--because the system has decided to launch such cutbacks, they have mobilized, financed and unleashed forces--through a combination of lies and appealing to prejudices--in order to create political support for these policies.

This war on the people emerged because it reflects and serves the current needs of the monopoly capitalist class who control this system. All kinds of changes--including the collapse of the Soviet Union, restructuring in the world economy, the increase of U.S. government debt--is leading the power structure to insist on a wholesale "downsizing."

The ABC's of Power

Some voter registration organizers insist: "The fact that they ignore us just shows we need to get even more actively involved in the election process at the local level." But this approach completely falls for the official myth that voters have any real power in this society. And therefore, the story goes, if you have voters for your cause, you will have power.

Over the last two centuries, the people who run this country murdered millions of Indians, enslaved millions of Africans, sent armies of cops and soldiers against rebelling workers, crushed thousand of small farmers, and drove millions of people out of business. They invade foreign countries almost yearly. They use their power structure to control, brutalize and kill people every single day of the year. They do all this to preserve their power and wealth. So isn't it strange to think that these same bloody rulers suddenly turn around and hand over power to people every November?

Climbing into a voting booth doesn't make you powerful--any more than climbing into the back of a squad car makes you a cop. If voting gave people real power, the system would make it illegal.

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, summed it up this way: "Many will say: how can the political system in a democratic country like the U.S. `serve to maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat' when everyone has the right to choose the political leaders by participating in elections? The answer to this is that elections in such a society, and the `democratic process' as a whole, are a sham --and more than a sham--a cover for and indeed a vehicle through which domination over the exploited and oppressed is carried out by the exploiting, oppressing, ruling class. To state it in a single sentence, elections: are controlled by the bourgeoisie; are not the means through which basic decisions are made in any case; and are really for the primary purpose of legitimizing the system and the policies and actions of the ruling class, giving them the mantle of a `popular mandate,' and of channeling, confining, and controlling the political activity of the masses of people." (from Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, p. 68)

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