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Synthesis/Regeneration 30   (Winter 2003)


Exchange: Arguments Against
Voting in USA Elections


Participation in America’s voting process is a crucial plank in the Green platform, as evidenced by Jason Murphy’s “Electoral “or” Activist” article on the inside cover of the Fall Synthesis/Regeneration 29.

He claims that by not “jumping in the electoral arena, activists are dropping the tool that gets to people who others haven’t gotten to yet.” This would have us believe that the millions of Americans who don’t vote are just waiting for a political White Knight, a Ross Perot or Green Party, to follow back into the fray. I’m afraid this optimism has not been tempered by an accurate measurement of the depth of the political disillusion and alienation in America, nor their justifiable causes.

Fundamental to this understanding is deciding whether or not the political game in America is played “on the level” (is a real democracy) or is designed and manipulated to indefinitely maintain the (pro-capitalist parties only) status quo. Jason seems to acknowledge it to be the latter when he writes, “only a hack or cynic would argue that US democracy is anything but a sham.” Yet nearing the conclusion of his essay he continues, “Because Greens prioritize democracy, they don’t want to sit out any election, national or local.” Does this mean that the sham has become a “democracy” or does this mean that Jason is encouraging Greens to participate in a sham?

As soon as Greens join the electoral circus, other Americans, and especially the Republicrats, say, “See, the system works, more proof of our great democracy.”

Back home, folks don’t regard those who willingly participate in a known sham or scam as particularly clever; indeed, those who play in a fixed game receive scant sympathy when they are burned. My grandfather always said, “Never play another man’s game and expect to win.” Greens need to recognize that the scam that parades as “democracy” in America is very much another man’s (or class’s) game. In this game, when change threatens to rule, the rules are changed, to paraphrase Michael Parenti (Democracy for the Few). Running third-party candidates may initially cause some small reform in election laws, as Jason maintains, but if third parties actually begin to threaten to win major elections, the bar will surely be raised to impossible heights. To ignore this is to deceive oneself about the lengths capitalism will go to to retain absolute political control in America. Capitalism will never abdicate at a ballot box of its own manufacture.

Recognizing all this should be enough to make most political activists reluctant to spend their energies trying to beat a crooked game. But there are several additional arguments to consider. I’m not sure what to call the person who participates in a con game, but they are surely useful to the people who control the game, for the “marks” serve to legitimize the process in the eyes of the public and entice other rubes to join in. As soon as Greens join the electoral circus, other Americans, and especially the Republicrats, say, “See, the system works, more proof of our great democracy.” Presto, Greens have turned the sham into a democracy, even though they profess to recognize the difference. This is politically self-defeating for it only strengthens the illusion of democracy.

Let’s take an opposite tack for a moment. As soon as one really admits that the American “democracy” is a sham and becomes a kind of “conscientious vote objector” they immediately join the largest political bloc in America, the non-voters. Instead of being made a minor tool in a crooked game, as part of the political majority they are free to invest their energies in the only political activity that has ever made a profound difference in America, taking to the streets. Think about it. How did workers win the right to organize? Did voting get us out of Vietnam? Did the civil rights movement succeed at the ballot box? Were the sexual revolution, abortion and access to birth control ever on the ballot? Is any American going to get a chance to vote for or against the next Washington war? I think not. If recent American history has taught us anything, it is that political change comes from loud mass actions and disobedience, not meek and approved participation.

And part of the action that non-voters can take is continually collecting evidence that defends their decision not to vote, which I think even Jason and most Greens would admit is all around us (from the pretender in the White House to the New York mayor). This information should be distributed at every opportunity to further expose the sham to those who still cling to the democracy myth. Already voter turnouts are so low in many “races” that even true believers have difficulty in thinking of the results as “the will of the people.”

Under “winner take all” conditions, where a capitalist politician is sure to win, for workers to vote is to serve the interests of the enemy.

One core reason for the huge alienation in the political process in America is that the average citizen has a gut feeling that voting is a waste of time. Are Greens going to convince these people to participate in a sham by (in Jason’s words) “running candidates who lose?” Again, I think not. In urging us activists to vote in the capitalist political system Jason and the Greens are taking the same position as the American government itself, a curious stance for a “progressive” political organization in a “winner-take-all” totalitarian system.

I think it might behoove the Greens and all working Americans to think of themselves as colonized people, as many African-Americans and other minorities have for decades. All US institutions, from educational to entertainment, and especially the political system, are controlled by a colonial power. The voting system is organized and operated to keep the imperialists in power and placate the working masses with the mirage of government representation, nothing more and nothing less. Under “winner take all” conditions, where a capitalist politician is sure to win, for workers to vote is to serve the interests of the enemy. The majority of American workers already instinctively understand this, and hence, refrain.

Once this relationship is recognized, the huge non-voting bloc can begin to organize to resemble the engine in Gandhi’s non-violent revolution, where the Indian masses simply refused to cooperate with the colonial power. If the colonized masses of America want to first shake and then replace the corrupt political process that now reigns over them with a true democracy, then first we must pull the plug on the current sham by refusing to vote. Together we can develop a new type of massive sit-down strike, the kind of non-violent, yet commanding action that bosses, be they economic or political, fear the most.

Duane Sturm,
Tokyo, Japan, US Greens Abroad



Duane Sturm and I agree on more than he thinks we do. For instance, I do view myself and the vast majority of the world’s people as colonized. Also, we both agree that a political strategy must include “taking it to the streets.” He lists examples of important movements (labor, anti-Vietnam, sexual revolution, abortion rights, and Ghandian anti-colonial struggles) that I also endorse. We agree that “political change comes from loud mass actions and disobedience, not meek and approved participation.”

In fact, one of my main arguments is that Green electoral campaigns should be judged precisely by their contribution to such movements. Candidates should use their campaigns to build the organizations that make these protests happen. Green organizations should prioritize turn-out to protest events. That way, electoral and activist work reinforces each other. Sturm and I would say many of the same sorts of things to Greens who think that activist work is a distraction from electoral work. However, Sturm clearly believes that once you urge people to vote at all, this contribution is stunted or annihilated.

Sturm seems to believe that once you say that radicals ought to vote, you are not radical any more, but have signed off on the system. But what about these mass protests? Aren’t they just participating in a scam that gives the appearance that we live in a free society? News reports of anti-war protests often include pious statements about our troops heading out to protect the protestors’ rights. If protest votes are for chumps then so are all protests. But protests do work and they can work on the ballot as well.

If protest votes are for chumps then so are all protests. But protests do work and they can work on the ballot as well.

To call Green electoral campaigns “meek and approved participation” doesn’t take into account the arrest of Green candidates and their systematic exclusion from important public venues. As a candidate, I have been legally harassed and have heard some amazing vituperations. Worse things have happened to Americans asserting their rights, but “meek and approved” we ain’t. These exclusionary tactics do a lot to expose the democratic system as hostage to corporate capitalist interests. This helps build an alternate public sphere less bound by their grip.

I do not think that millions of Americans are waiting for a white or green political knight to liberate them, as Sturm says. It should be said that I’ve met some Greens who sort of see it this way. They think that, if we just had this item on or off the platform or if our candidates had this or that style, there could be an explosion of support. But I believe most voting and non-voting Americans have become very cynical and have very low expectations about what political action can accomplish. The majority of citizens may have always been in such despair. It will take a massive amount of organizing to turn that cynicism into action. Sturm seems to be making the very mistake he accuses the Greens of when he declares non-voters the “largest political bloc in America.” Non-voters are not a bloc at all. Not voting is issuing a blank check to the two-party system. In fact, now it’s so great that both candidates are fine with me. There is nothing so “meek and approved” as this. Those who protest and do not vote are missing a chance to pitch in.

Those who believe that capitalism is the source of many problems should vote for candidates who say so.

Sturm asks if any of our major reforms like those won by the movements mentioned above were won at the ballot box. He says no but I would point out that there has been an electoral component of every successful progressive struggle in American history. There were abolitionist parties, the Socialist Party, the Peace and Freedom Party and many others. In the last election, the Green Party showed that it is capable of getting these same movements the attention that they deserve.

The sham is not declared a democracy by running radical candidates who denounce that system as a sham. Those who believe that capitalism is the source of many problems should vote for candidates who say so. Lets get real for a minute—voting typically takes about one half hour at the most. Take a book. When it falls apart and takes longer, that also helps expose the system for what it is.

Sturm refers to “small” electoral reforms. One of the beautiful features of the Green strategy is that the electoral reforms we seek are indeed relatively simple. Winning these (whether instant run-off voting or proportional representation) will only make Green election campaigns a better component of progressive activist strategy. I admit that this stuff gets sort of technical but we have the ability to drive one of the privileged parties, the Democrats, into supporting such reforms. And this can be done with mere single-digit percentages of the vote. This is a highly feasible strategy and we shouldn’t throw that aside for the sake of any “more radical than-thou” panache.

Jason Murphy,
Green Party of St. Louis


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