Vote, Organize, Vote, and Win - To Create a Progressive Society
by Rob Arnow & Paul Platt
In 1960s America, progressive activists made huge strides forward and secured major victories from the ruling class. These victories were due to several forces, but primarily to effective use of the media, especially television. Massive organizing was important, but without the coverage of the media nurturing and sustaining the movement, it would have required much more effort. With scenes from the Vietnam War and the brutal crackdowns on civil rights activists in the South on television, the nation awoke to injustice; Americans began to change their opinions about social justice issues and to reconsider their trust of the Government. It was this change in public opinion, coupled with continued media coverage, that forced elected officials to concede to the demands of the public.
As media coverage of progressive issues tapered off in the early 70s (no doubt due to a growing awareness among the ruling class of its effect), so too did the movement. Burnout and other issues that commonly face grassroots movements with limited resources also contributed, but most of all it was because the movement had gained only concessions rather than an actual transfer of power - people who represented primarily corporate interests remained in control of the government - that the movement found itself without sufficient resources to perpetuate itself. Instead the government provided itself resources to destroy the movement (i.e. COINTELPRO).
Consequently, the past 30 years have seen the major rollbacks that readers may not need me to enumerate: wages for the bottom 60% of the population have stagnated or even declined while Americans are working about 160 hours more per year (we recently edged out Japan as the hardest working country in the world), the prison population has grown to almost 1% of Americans (and 13% of African Americans), our educational standards have drastically declined, roads and strip malls invade even very remote reaches of the countryside with rampant development that is causing the temperature of our planet to rise and the polar ice caps to melt. All of this stands against a backdrop of incredible technological advances that have more than doubled our productivity - and that force one to wonder why society itself, and our quality of life, haven't advanced along this same trajectory.
How to Effect Real Progress for Everyone?
Power in any society is basically determined by the psychology of its population. Sometimes power is determined by fear, sometimes by consent, and sometimes by both; in our society consent dominates. Most everyone believes in the validity and fairness of democracy to determine power - and that the essential element of democracy is elections. This does not mean that people necessarily believe in the particular policies of any administration or elected official, but merely that they accept the outcome of elections as reasonably fair. In practice, no one can ascend to an elected position in government without winning an election. Of course, as we've seen recently, election fraud can sometimes award an election to a candidate who didn't win. In these cases the perceived fairness of elections evaporates, but in the vast majority of elections fraud does not determine the outcome; unless the margin is extremely close, the scale of a fraudulent operation is too large to avoid public scrutiny. Thus candidates who challenge the dominance of the ruling class can (and have) laid claim to real power through the electoral process. Yes, when they do they can be assassinated, but like fraud, assassination can only occur in a limited number of cases before public scrutiny and awareness undermine government legitimacy.
Thus it is winning elections that grants power in the government, and one need only look briefly to see the vastness of government power: the power to imprison, the power to tax, the power to spend taxes, the power to police and command the military, the power to regulate media, the power to protect the right to assemble, the power to serve as a respected and trusted leader even if that trust and respect is undeserved, and the power to make laws regulating capitalism and corporations and other societal institutions.
How to Recapture the Power of the Government?
While corporate interests control the government we will live in a corporate society -- even if our movements gain concessions on particular issues. It will be by gaining control of the government that we will be able to effect progress and move towards a better society.
Single-issue activism is unfortunately a one-step forward, two-steps back struggle. While expending great amounts of energy to gain even the most minor of victories, the ruling class simultaneously advances on several fronts at once. This is due in large part to a media that refuses to adequately cover progressive issues and a population that is too busy, too distracted, too isolated, too uninformed, and feels too powerless to do anything. A continued focus on single-issue activism may fend off some of the worst abuses at times, but if this atomization becomes the primary focus of activism, we will eventually be beaten on all the issues.
While millions upon millions of dollars are spent annually on progressive nonprofit organizations that focus on single issues or a small range of issues, most of these organizations lose on the major issues, especially without allies in elected office. Then there are the tens of thousands of committed grassroots activists who also use their energy in this fashion, and the millions of occasional activists who do the same by, for example, attending a protest on a single-issue. Numerous huge protests along with savvy media activities are the minimum for any hope of success on a single issue, and often still are not enough.
Imagine if those millions of activists could be mobilized to put up posters, drop literature, make phone calls, go door-to-door and speak to people face-to-face for electoral campaigns. With this kind of mobilization, grassroots activists could make a huge impact on campaigns. Those who don't believe that grassroots efforts can have a huge effect on the outcome of an election have not witnessed first-hand the effect of a major grassroots campaign; they base their opinion only on elections in which people decide whom to vote for based on information disseminated by the corporate media - where a grassroots campaign is the rare exception rather than another regular source of information. The definition of a "major" grassroots campaign varies by the size of the race, but in San Francisco, with 800,000 residents (but less than 250,000 regular voters), a citywide campaign with 100-150 volunteers qualifies as a major grassroots effort, which can swing tens of thousands of votes in either direction.
Vote, Organize, Vote, Win
The only thing a self-serving politician cares about is votes. If your organization has a demonstrated ability to bring in votes, your clout will be much greater than if you simply make the public aware of an issue but don't tie it to a particular politician.
Of course, some will claim that all politicians are the same, that they are all corrupt, that they care only for personal gain. Although this is demonstrably true of many politicians, it is not true of many others who enter politics out of a sense of civic duty and a desire to improve conditions; the latter are potential allies in a campaign for electoral reform and progressive legislation.
If you are working on a single-issue campaign right now, consider working instead on something that will continuously pay dividends to the entire system over the long run. Public financing, instant runoff voting (IRV), and proportional representation (PR) are a few electoral reforms that will completely change the political structure. If you are not interested in these reforms, form coalitions with other progressive groups based on electing candidates that share all of your ideals. Then you will win on every issue, not just one.
While an anti-war movement may stop a particular war in Afghanistan or Iraq (and only after a massive show of grassroots support), it will not stop the war machine in the long run. Traditional protest techniques are important and effective, but they need to go hand in hand with electoral reform to maintain an effective movement. It's simply inefficient to expend so much of our activist energy again and again on one issue after another, when we can fight to change the system and have our voices heard and our demands met. Democracy is an extremely powerful tool for social change and should be respected as such.
Can It Work?
We live in a much more progressive country than our voting records now indicate, and the voting population does not reflect that for several reasons. People aged 65-75 vote in percentages twice as high as those 18-24, and many progressives forsake the electoral process altogether because they see it is as corrupt (only 45% of the eligible population votes at all). Corporate media ignores progressive candidates and even shuts them out of debates, then portrays corporate candidates as progressive and the electorate as 'centrist'. You need only look briefly at the progressive themes that the corporate media uses to manipulate people to see what the population actually responds to: education, healthcare, democracy, peace, justice, better environmental protections, equality and respect for diversity, etc. With enough grassroots electoral activity, we can get our message out, and once we do that, we'll win elections. It's that simple. It doesn't need to be the Green Party - it can be any party or organization that uses democracy to fight for the common good.
And if the government rolls on towards fascism and doesn't honor elections or uses fraud to fix outcomes, they will be forced to rule through intimidation and violence, which is inherently unsustainable. At that point the American people will take to the streets to reclaim democracy.
Rob Arnow and Paul Platt are on the Green Party County Council of San Francisco. Arnow chairs the party's Media Working Group.
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