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Voting is Essential but Not Enough: We Need Direct Action

Updated: May 12, 2023

by: Barbara Peterson - September 2019

It appears to me that there are three major goals of today’s Resistance. Goal One is to replace Trump and his cohorts with just about anyone because just about anyone is better than he and his gang. From the new non-Trump administration, laws and policies will be enacted that will improve society, at least to the degree that our democracy will no longer be in jeopardy and human rights violations will not receive support from our top leadership.

Goal Two is to vote in progressives in order to effect top-down structural changes in society through government legislation and policies because we cannot trust just anyone to make the changes we need.

Goal Three is to build a people-power movement that, from the ground up, bolsters existing and creates new societal organizations, institutions, structures, and systems that redistribute the loci of power and resources more equitably throughout society so no government, corporation, or industry, regardless of who occupies positions of political authority, have the ability to put their own interests above those of the people. 

The view that many hold is that we should focus mostly on either the first or second option or both. This may indicate a belief many of us have that change comes predominantly from the all-mighty power of the vote. The role of citizens in our democracy is to vote in good politicians and vote out bad ones. When needed, we voice dissent against objectionable policies, and we believe politicians will listen to us because of our power to vote. Sounds straightforward enough. But I have a few concerns.

One concern is that voting in good people and voting out the bad ones is not easy to do, and often times, it’s nearly impossible. First, it’s incredibly difficult to primary an established incumbent. Accepted wisdom in the political world states that the chances of beating an incumbent in the primaries are so low that it’s best for candidates to wait until there’s a vacancy. For example, imagine how difficult it would be to primary either Senators Jean Shaheen or Maggie Hassan. I’m not claiming we ought to; I’m merely asking that we imagine trying to do so. They have the full support of the DNC, which means a great deal of money and influence to advertise, overshadow any opponent with their narratives, and convince the populace that they are the best chance of defeating the Republican opposition. Anyone running against them in the primaries stands little chance of defeating them.

It’s also quite difficult to defeat any candidate, not just incumbents, backed by the party establishment. We saw this just recently in NH when Molly Kelly entered the governor’s race only four months before the primary election and a year after Steve Marchand had been actively campaigning all over the state as a progressive alternative to incumbent Chris Sununu. As soon as she declared her interest in running, she was seen as the establishment choice with longtime party supporters joining her exploratory committee. In addition, she was backed by Senators Shaheen and Hassan and U.S. Representative Kuster. She not only defeated Marchand, she beat him by nearly a two-to-one victory. Whether Marchand could have beat Sununu or not in the general election is not the point here. Instead, the point is Marchand didn’t stand a chance in the primary once the DNC-backed candidate took to the stage.

Additionally, with the corruption of money in elections, voting restrictions, gerrymandering, broken voting machines, and what are essentially poll taxes, the deck is stacked against Democrats. They have to fight twice as hard as Republicans to win in many areas of the country, especially in Republican states and swing states, but also in states that tend to vote Democrat. It’s not a fair fight.

Voting people out, then, is not as simple or straightforward as we may like to believe. But let’s assume we can, as in the case of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. She won an impressive primary against the longtime Democrat incumbent. And she certainly stirs things up with her no-nonsense bold approach, her command of social media, and her willingness to be the voice of her constituents and a champion of those advocating for a greener more sustainable world. She is only one of a slew of freshmen Representatives who have brought a perspective of youth and diversity to our government. Perhaps if we had more of their kind in the House and Senate, we might indeed have true representation in government. But perhaps not. AOC went on record supporting US intervention in Venezuela, a position likely to have angered many of her progressive supporters. Is her decision based almost entirely on her own beliefs and views, or is it based primarily on an understanding of what her constituents want? If it’s the latter, then she is, indeed, representing the people. On the other hand, if it’s the former, what power do the people have in altering her decision? The point here is not to criticize AOC but to show that voting good people in is not the only answer to having a government that truly meets the needs and demands of the people. It is a helpful start, but by itself, it’s not enough, and it's not even essential.

If we believe that the role of people power in our democracy lies almost entirely in voting, then our job is to organize for every election to both get progressives into office and keep those already in office. This is a massive endeavor that, if seen as our most important objective, leaves relatively little time to do anything else. What happens if we don’t get caring, progressive, courageous people into office, in spite of all our efforts? Or, what if we do and they pass needed laws, but then they are replaced in the next election or the one after that when a new mood takes hold and our opposition wins the day by getting their people elected? Do we, again, go on the defensive and put all our energies into voting in better people? Is electioneering the best use of the majority of our time and effort?

Another concern about focusing almost all our efforts on voting is that while legislative advocacy can make positive changes in our laws, it does not do enough to decentralize power structures in society. Almost all of the work being done in today’s Resistance is with elections and legislative advocacy. Both of these are clearly important and it is, therefore, easy to see why people are motivated to put their time into these two areas. Activists recognize that they can affect change not only through voting but also through pushing for the passage of certain laws and the repeal of others. Recently, the repeal of the NH death penalty in the House and Senate was an enormous success for all the groups and organizations that have been working on this for decades. Several other laws that protect vulnerable groups and promote people’s wellbeing have also passed. Legislative changes do make definite and important improvements in our lives. And they can help address some systemic issues like oppression and militarization as when our electeds pass bills protecting women’s reproductive rights and equality measures for members of the LGBTQ community. Also, if our representatives reduce the military budget or refuse to vote in favor of US military interventions, that certainly makes a large impact on militarization.

All of these changes are extremely positive and enormously helpful in creating the sort of society many progressives are seeking. The difficulty comes when our elected officials don’t pass these laws or when they are overturned with the election of new representatives. As this is inevitable, we must again gear up to express our dissent and threaten to use our power of the vote if our needs are not met and then wait until the next election for positive change. Because we see that voting people out is easier said than done, this threat does not carry a tremendous amount of weight, especially when it’s used against established incumbents and party-supported candidates. If threatening to vote people out is not as powerful as we need it to be to get our electeds to act in our interest, what can we do?

A third concern I have about relying too heavily on voting as the way to achieve major change is that if we believe our power of voting and expressing dissent is sufficient to make government act in our interests, we won’t put the effort needed into creating alternative systems and structures that decentralize power. History of resistance movements shows us that there is time to work on elections, legislative advocacy, and creating local organizations and institutions of authority to build a more decentralized power structure. But this won’t happen if we don’t commit to putting a good portion of our energy into this third area. At what point do we focus our efforts on developing a society with genuinely empowered nongovernmental and grassroots institutions, organizations, networks, and systems? I believe that we have not prioritized this enough because of a commonly held misconception: that we must first have massive and united interest in order to succeed.

Some have argued that the only way to get popular support for altering societal structures and systems is by hitting rock bottom. Yet, history shows that nations have not had to suffer dire circumstances before filling the streets in massive protests. We saw this only three years ago in the South Korean Candlelight Revolution. Within months, protesters numbered from the thousands to millions in their struggle to oust President Park Geun-hye from power where she was soon impeached for corruption. Closer to home, it’s difficult to know if we were any more rock-bottom in the 1960s than we are now. Currently, our human and civil rights are under serious attack, women’s autonomy is being continually restricted, democracy is threatened with nearly every new legislation and act from the GOP, and the health of our planet is in crisis, warranting possibly a state of emergency.

In the 1960s, many thought Martin Luther King did not have the united masses in order to succeed. And, indeed, he didn’t. Yet, united mass support is not something that must exist before activists launch a movement. Rather, the work of the activists within the movement is to build this massive support by engaging in strategic campaigns of nonviolent action. Like King, Gandhi, and nearly all people’s resistance movements, they began with small numbers of separate and distinct groups. Part of strategizing for a movement is choosing tactics that not only help it grow in numbers, but also help it connect the different existing groups together in a network of cooperation so they are able to act as a united force of opposition. Gaining popular support is what occurs as a result of active work done by a people’s movement, not what must exist before the work begins.

If we build a people power movement, we can be ready at any time to put enough pressure on our elected officials to hold them accountable to the needs of their constituents instead of their private agendas or corporate interests. Power is the ability to command obedience in one’s followers. Imagine an alien group engages in a coup to take over New York City. Now imagine public transit employees going on strike to oppose this coup. Who can run NYC without having the cooperation of train, bus, and subway employees? No one; the city would grind to a halt. Power, even of ruthless dictators, lies in the willingness of the masses to carry out the necessary tasks of daily living. Without the cooperation of we the people, rulers lose their power.

Mass noncooperation and effective civil disobedience requires a great deal of training, organization, and careful, fulsome strategic planning with a clear leadership and decision-making model. If it’s done without all of this, it may cause more harm than good. Thus, what is needed is a movement with articulated goals, trained and educated activists, an emancipatory democratic decision-making model, and a series of strategies with tactics that escalate over time to increasingly undermine the power-elite’s ability to command our obedience. This is beginning to occur in smaller movements throughout the U.S., and I'm hopeful these movements will grow when people see how effective and powerful they are.

A networked, united movement like this is both very possible and absolutely necessary for the people to have a genuine say in the decisional processes of our democracy. Without it, we are a democracy in name only because those who are elected to represent us are far too enabled, if they are willing, to disregard moral and even legal constraints on their behavior. Once we have a movement made from grassroots groups, organizations, and institutions, we must maintain our connectedness, our network of united communication and cooperation, and our willingness and ability to engage in direct action. If we do this, when we show up at the State House, make a phone call, or call on our representatives to repeal any laws that are harmful or to put into place legislation that the vast majority want and need, we will be heard. Only an empowered people are taken seriously by those in positions of authority, so we the people must become and then remain empowered to hold any and all elected officials accountable.

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