Lately, the phrase "public servants" has struck me as ironic, not because government officials fail to serve the public, but because much of the public serves them. The public is the servants. Activist groups and individuals devote themselves to bettering the fortunes of political parties or politicians, at the expense of pressuring government officials to represent public demands.
Nobody favors eliminating elections, and nobody favors eliminating activism. But there are those who cannot see how prioritizing money-marinated, gerrymandered, cable-news-controlled, unverifiable elections will reverse the train wreck in progress. And there are those who cannot see what it would mean to engage in activism that wasn’t aimed at promoting electoral victories.
Let me try to explain. Richard Nixon gave us the EPA. Barack Obama is giving us a tar sands pipeline, lower air standards, and more nuclear power. George W. Bush took the trouble to lie to Congress when starting wars. Barack Obama goes out of his way to not consult Congress at all. Richard Nixon was impeached. George W. Bush was not. The reasons for these differences have nothing to do with the character or upbringing of the presidents, and everything to do with public pressure, and with the communications and — yes — electoral systems through which public pressure can be brought to bear. Nixon didn’t care more deeply about future generations than Barack Obama. Nixon faced public pressure, in the streets, in the suites, in the news, and in the halls of Congress.
But ultimately, the purpose of public pressure must be to threaten electoral defeat, right?
When individuals and organizations think this way, they plan protests of bad policies, but only in Republican districts. If a Democrat is enacting murderous, destructive policies one must not threaten electoral defeat, and so one must not pressure that Democrat for change. Urging that Democrat to adopt a majority position would harm, rather than help them, and never mind us. It would harm them by criticizing them publicly and thereby endorsing a Republican to defeat them. It would fail to help them because we are all totally impotent, activism is just for show, and there’s absolutely no chance that they would alter their behavior in a way that voters would appreciate. And never mind us because we’re not what matters. The point is not to halt the murderous, destructive policies but to ensure the Democrat’s reelection.
Here are two problems with this approach:
First, it’s going to kill us all. We are making the rational choice for the lesser of two evil candidates, and four years later the choices have both grown more evil. This is a downward slope, no matter how rational our voting decisions.
Second, we cannot elect representatives who will, of their own initiative, reform the electoral system. They won’t end gerrymandering; they just got gerrymandered into office. They won’t create public financing or free media or reasonable ballot access rules or scrap the electoral college. At least they won’t do so simply because someone even more revolting than they are lost to them in the last election.
Note that I am not opposing elections. I want elections. I love elections. We couldn’t live without them. In fact, we do not currently have them and it is destroying us. I want the kind of reforms that would make meaningful elections possible.
But what if we had non-electoral politics? What if we primarily, but not exclusively, engaged in activism that wasn’t electoral? What if we had events that were not designed to serve as promotions of candidates or parties? What if labor unions that favored single-payer healthcare didn’t ask the Democrats in Washington what they, the unions, should favor and then ban the mentioning of anything other than "the public option" at their rallies? What if we treated government officials who enact cruel policies in the same way regardless of what party they belong to? What if we didn’t denounce everything Obama and his followers are doing but promise to work for their reelection, and instead denounced everything they are doing and committed to nonviolently bringing it to a stop?
"Oh no! Then you’d just elect Republicans!"
Why in the world would we do that? We want major increases in taxation of the rich and corporations. If we bring public pressure to bear on Democrats and Republicans alike with that demand, if we force that demand into the public discourse, if we leave the corporate media no way to avoid reporting it, if we make life miserable for members of our government who are failing to take every step possible to enact those policies, if we make plutocratic policies shameful and reprehensible, do you think more Democrats or more Republicans are going to come around to our position first? Frankly I don’t give a rat’s ass which it is, and if it’s the Republicans I’ll vote for the Republicans. But most of you will be quite confident that it will be the Democrats, and that seems most likely to me too. Perhaps it will be a combination. The point is that enough pressure on the government and society as a whole will change people’s behavior without changing their identities. The same politicians will behave better than they used to. This is a very common phenomenon through the history of this and other countries, even if we haven’t seen it much lately. When ACORN existed, we used to force George W. Bush to change his positions on things like funding for low-income home energy assistance through nonviolent direct action without every converting him to a different party or unelecting him. Now Obama cuts the same funding without public pushback.
With enough public pressure, we’ll also see electoral challenges from candidates willing to tax the rich, we’ll see the issue become part of campaign debates, and so forth. But don’t imagine for a minute that politicians only care about winning elections or landing that million-dollar lobbying job. They also care about whether they become laughing stocks and figures of public derision and revulsion, or whether they become widely respected as honorable and heroic. The trouble is that hundreds of them are able to do everything their constituents oppose and still be cheered for and fawned over because they’re in power and because they belong to the Democratic Party.
If we want to end wars and cut military spending, will we accomplish that by changing the faces of the military industrial complex’s representatives in Congress and the White House or by educating the public about the human costs, financial costs, environmental costs, civil liberties and democratic costs, and the endangerment of us all caused by dumping 65 percent of discretionary spending into the war machine? Will we get further by funding candidates or by using civil resistance to disrupt the work of the makers of war? We can do both. We must do both. But which should we prioritize? Which should we make subservient? Do we want a culture passionately demanding peace and compelling all elected officials to work for it, a culture we approached, for example, in 1928? Or do we want a country in which loyal Democrats denounce Republican war funders, but nobody at all denounces Democratic war funders?
Should we be dumping what resources we’re left after paying our war taxes into electoral campaigns or into independent activism? I don’t think this is a difficult question.
"Oh no! If the good people stop funding elections, only Republicans will have money!"
Well, you know, only Republicans do have money; some of them are just called Democrats. Well-run independent principled organizations working for peace and justice do influence our society right now, but if they had a fraction of the funding routinely dumped into lesser-evil electioneering, this would be a country dominated by a ringing demand for positive change. There’d be no more need for, and no more time wasted on, hope. And don’t talk to me about the media; with the kind of money good people dump into elections we could create a new people’s media.
Republicans are pushed in the directions the tea partiers want, not because the tea partiers politely criticize them and swear to work for their reelection no matter what, but because tea partiers often denounce them without any self-censorship and threaten to toss them out of office. Nobody does that on the left. There’s a whole industry working to imitate the tea party from the left that completely misses this central point. An example of this is Van Jones’ October 3, 2011, speech at the Take Back the American Dream conference.
As we watch electoral-political groups swoop in to join Occupy Wall Street, you’ll notice attempts to label this Occupation movement the anti-teaparty, followed in the next breath by attempts to define the duty of the anti-teaparty as electing Democrats. No matter how well-meaning this may be, if you agree with me that what we desperately lack is non-electoral politics, then you have to see this "support" as an act of betrayal. If the energy of independent outraged activists too young to have been properly corrupted is redirected, as it was in Wisconsin, into electoral politics, a movement will have been betrayed.
If you want to understand the motivations of this bandwagonism, pay close attention this Thursday when an occupation begins in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. Will organizations that jumped on board with protesting wealthy interests on Wall Street who corrupt our government be willing to protest the government itself? In recent years, the obvious answer would have been "Yes, if the president is a Republican at the time." This reflects an obsession with presidents over Congress or cabinet departments, etc., but that’s another story. The answer now is a definite maybe.
If the results of the democratic process in Freedom Plaza are as I hope and expect they will be, then there will be a rule established to discourage any advocating for any party or candidate in the plaza or as part of the occupation wherever it may take us. This will, at least in theory, mean that individuals and groups that favor the Democratic Party, or the Green Party, or any other party, should be able to come and participate as long as they leave their electoralism at home.
If the collective decisions again go as I hope and expect, the activities of the Washington Occupation will not include cheering for events or to any great extent demonstrating against events or institutions or individuals. Rather we will focus on actually nonviolently preventing the ongoing activities of those working against majority positions on these demands:
- Tax the rich and corporations
- End the wars, bring the troops home, cut military spending
- Protect the social safety net, strengthen Social Security and improved Medicare for all
- End corporate welfare for oil companies and other big business interests
- Transition to a clean energy economy, reverse environmental degradation
- Protect worker rights including collective bargaining, create jobs and raise wages
- Get money out of politics
Bringing these demands as we the people to them the government ought to be as separate from electoralism as from religion or sport or sex. Elections have their vital place, but this is bigger and far more serious.