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Should Progressives Boycott The Presidential Elections?

This article first appeared in POLITICAL CONTEXT. The interview  was conducted by Matt J. Stannard with Terri Lee, here:

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” This quote, attributed to Emma Goldman, implies a much more sweeping indictment of the electoral process, in the most generic sense, than that espoused by proponents of boycotting the U.S. Presidential elections. The current movement seems focused on the corruption of major party politics by big money, voter suppression, and electoral fraud. Two current sources of arguments against participating in elections are the “Vote for Nobody Campaign” and the Facebook group “Boycott the 2012 Presidential Election.” The former site is light on content, and seems largely designed around the sale of Gary Chartier’s book The Conscience of an Anarchist: Why It’s Time to Say Goodbye to the State and Build a Free Society. The latter group explains:

Whereas both major political parties have sold out to the Wall Street banks and multinational corporations with no allegiance to the Nation or the people, Whereas third parties have no possibility of winning the Presidential election due to corporate control over the media and the electoral process, Whereas three decades of solid efforts to reform the electoral process have been subverted by the corporate state, Whereas participation in this process lends legitimacy to a system that has lost its legitimacy, We hereby refuse to vote in the 2012 Presidential elections.

So it seems that the substance of the anti-electoral position is limited to (1) bourgeois, major-party candidates, in (2) the Presidential (as opposed to more local) elections. The question is whether boycotting the elections is a viable alternative political strategy. In order to explore this question, I talked to Terri Lee, a veteran activist for economic justice and co-administrator of the group “Declare Your Independence from the Democrats!” Terri is also a member of the Boycott Elections Facebook group mentioned above.

POLITICALCONTEXT.ORG: Why should American citizens boycott the 2012 Presidential elections?

Terri Lee: Boycotting the presidential elections would be a notable act of rebellion and defiance. The Establishment effectively draws in the public and engages them in the ‘horse show’ and political theater of elections. Voting serves them, not us. They work and invest millions to keep us attached to an immoral, rigged, corrupt, electoral process which is both a scam and a sham. I support Wally Conger’s Anti-Electorate Manifesto: “We, the Anti-Electorate, do not believe there is a need for “strong leadership” in government. We are not drawn to ‘intellectual’ authorities and political ‘heroes.’ We are not impressed with titles, ranks, and pecking orders – politicians, celebrities, and gurus. We do not struggle for control of organizations, social circles, and government. We do not lobby the State for favors or permission to control those with whom we disagree. Rather, we advocate freedom. By its very nature, the State does not. Exercise your right to say ‘No’ to the warfare-welfare system. Refuse to vote. Then tell your friends why.”

PC: Should citizens boycott only the Presidential elections? What about candidates down ballot? Senators? Representatives?

TL: Well, the presidential elections garner a lot of attention and so it could be very effective if registered voters resisted going to the polls as a loud, clear form of protest. Voters could publicly burn their voter registration cards and expose the system for the corrupt system that it is. We can deem it unworthy of our participation. We could demonstrate the integrity of the collective by refusing our participation and resist.

PC: Even more to the point: Should I vote for my city council candidates, local judges, public hospital board members, and school board members? Why them and not the President of the United States? What’s the bright line?

TL: Here’s something to consider. Let’s take electing your local mayor. The mayor lives in your community. You may see him or her at your local grocery store, gas station, post office, school or park. You live and work with one another and you share a community. It’s easy to have access to your mayor — you can go to his or her office. If residents are upset, the mayor has to face the outraged citizens rather directly and intimately. The farther out you go the more distant, detached, insulated the elected official is. Citizens have to use their own judgment on this, of course, but it seems to me that for where we are now loud public resistance to the presidential elections is a good place to start.

PC: Let me play devil’s advocate: The Obama administration will not enforce the Defense of Marriage Act. A Republican administration would. Under Obama’s health care reform, a few million people might have a better chance of accessing life-saving medical treatment. Under a Republican administration, that won’t happen. Aren’t you sacrificing gay rights and sick people on the altar of political purism? Aren’t you saying “sure it’s okay if a few hundred thousand people die, or there are fewer civil rights for gays, as long as I make my politically purist point?” How would you answer arguments like that?

TL: Well, I don’t agree with the premise of your question regarding the Democrats and the Republicans, but I understand your point. It seems to me that you are suggesting that it is slightly more important to vote Democrat than to vote Republican due to that thin bit of difference — so, why not just go to the polls and pull the lever for the Democrats because it could do ‘some good’ for ‘some people’. So if you calculate a ‘least harm’ and ‘most benefit’ ratio, hold your nose and just vote Democrat, yes? I turn to journalist Glenn Greenwald who most eloquently expresses my view on this (not about not-voting, but rather about the point that it’s ‘slightly better to vote Democrat than Republican so be a reluctant voter and vote Democrat’):

GREENWALD: You know there’s abeen lots of people who make radical critiques of hte government who — like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and others — who have said ‘as horrible as the Democrats are the fact that they are even a little bit better than the Republicans means that it’s important that they win and not Republicans because with an entity as powerful as the United States governmetn even small differences can make meaningful differences in the lives of millions of people.’

And so even though there’s tiny little differences between Democrats and Republicans — and they’re both evil and corrupt in their own ways — that it’s important to continue to elect Democrats, they’ve argued.

That to me was an argument that was somewhat persuasive — for awhile.

And what I’ve actually decided and concluded instead was that even if there are short-term benefits to electing Democrats — as opposed to Republicans — so you get a Sonya Sotomayor on the Supreme Court instead of an Antonio Scalia, for example — something like that.

That’s a benefit that’ll sway some case and it’s bettr [inaudible]….um, there’s also experent costs to pledging your loyalty to a political party and to contine to support it even though it’s in this extremely corrupt and destructive expression.

And so it’s not just the benefit that needs to be weighed, it’s the cost as well, knowing — as party leaders do — that many liberals are convinced (and that many people on the left are convniced) by this reasoning [the Democrats] can continue to ignore people on the left, because they know that at the end of the day they’ll scare enough of them to with scary images of Michele Bachman or Newt Gingrich or whomever…they’ll continue to support [the Democrats] even though they’re ignored adn they get nothing.

And they’ll be ignored and get nothing forever.

That’s a huge cost.

Another cost is the opportunity cost of doing activism for a political party that doesn’t care at all about you.

Instead of using your money and time on more meaningful changes.


So that, I think, is the ultimate formula that needs to be evaluated. The ultimate weighing of costs and benefits that needs to be assessed — not just ‘well, there are some beneifts to the Democrats, therefore let’s vote for them.”

[Ask, too] what are the costs from continuing to support and prop up this party and having them know that they can take the support for granted and putting our time and energy into that rather that something more significant that can achieve something more enduring and more fundamental with longer-lasting benefits.

And so that’s the calculation that, to me, has swayed me away from that view [of Zinn and Chomsky].

PC: What about third party candidates (e.g. the various socialists) who admit the Presidential elections are largely meaningless in the substantive sense, but who run candidates for President in order to take advantage of the electoral process in order to get the message out about their party, their beliefs, the crisis of capitalism, etc.? In boycotting Presidential elections, are you also “boycotting” the way in which those third party candidates use the elections as a platform for their message?

TL: The third party candidates can still campaign — in fact, that’s their function in this scam of a system: to simply run. In their campaigning they expose the injustices in the system and the seriously flawed positions of the candidates. And, at the end of the day that’s about it. Inherent in the system design (including the domination of corporate monies) third parties and third party candidates are unable to establish an alternate party or see a candidate to victory. We know it, the third party candidates know it and The Establishment knows it too. Boycotting presidential elections does no harm to them because there was no chance for victory from the onset.

PC: What reforms of the electoral process, specifically, would have to happen before you’d stop calling for the boycott?

TL: We would need to take out all the elements referenced by Noam Chomsky when he speaks of presidential politics (paraphrased) as: “the big-money big-media candidate-centered narrow-spectrum electoral extravaganza the masters stage for us once every four years”. Simply put, we have to get the corporate money out of elections, level the playing field, implement publicly-funded elections, and institute Instant-Runoff (IRV) voting. (And while we’re at it and dreaming a bit, a parliamentary government with proportional representation would certainly be a step in the right direction.)

PC: If voting makes no difference, why does refusing to vote make a difference? How is your gesture any less symbolic and meaningless than voting?

TL: Excellent question! Voting is the status quo. It’s desirable to The Establishment to have us follow these silly elections, to have us believe in the illusion of choice, and to have the public think “that’s politics” and busy ourselves with phone banking, fundraising, canvassing, etc which is all FOR THEM! Intentionally, purposefully, and loudly not-voting is an act of defiance. A refusal to partake in the immoral, illegal, corporate dominated, money-serving system in which voters are pawned.

Refuse to partake. Refuse to vote. Declare abstinence from the corrupt system that they designed and want to draw us into. How liberating! Let there be a ballot-box revolt in which all the polling stations are empty and quiet on Election Day 2012!




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