In the elections of 2016, Americans have run out of options. During one of the most money-saturated elections in history, voters have been left to choose between two candidates who, in spite of their rhetoric, have far more commonalities than differences.
On November 8th, the US electorate will go to the polls without any way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. They will pull levers and scribble in bubbles, without ever being able to voice their opposition to fracking, mass incarceration, US support for Israel, police violence, or mass surveillance. With little enthusiasm, they’ll cast their ballots knowing what’s become so obvious – that whoever wins, we all lose.
Whoever wins, the wealth gap will continue to widen. Though both Trump and Clinton have expressed some support for raising the minimum wage, both have also promised to oppose the $15/hr wage that has been the central demand of much of the country’s low wage worker movements.
Whoever wins, the United States’ imperialist ventures in the Middle East will continue. Both major candidates have made clear their plans to implement an increasingly hawkish foreign policy abroad. Both have promised to resume or expand targeted drone strikes, which to date have killed an estimated 1,000 or more civilians, many of whom are children. If those plans take effect, we can assume that at least as many will die over the next eight years regardless of who wins the presidency.
Whoever wins, the US will continue to provide unwavering support to the Israeli occupation. In spite of Obama’s condemnation of Israel’s ever-expanding settlements in the occupied territories, Clinton and Trump have both promised to continue or increase military aid to Israel, currently valued at $30 billion. Both candidates have likewise expressed opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, which has spearheaded efforts to pose an economic challenge to Israel’s illegal occupation.
Whoever wins, the New Jim Crow will continue. Both Clinton and Trump, while differing in their rhetoric surrounding private prisons, have both accepted campaign contributions from the GEO Group, a US-based private prison corporation. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton was instrumental in helping to inaugurate the modern era of mass incarceration, while Donald Trump has recently called for the implementation of Stop-and-Frisk at the national level.
Whoever wins, the United States will remain the world’s leading contributor to the climate crisis. Though their opinions on climate change vary dramatically (Trump is an open climate change denier) both support fracking, both favor domestic oil drilling, both have received funding from the fossil fuel industry. While Trump has supported the Keystone XL pipeline from the start, Clinton remained silent on the matter until it became politically damaging to do so. She has taken a similar approach to the Dakota Access pipeline, unlike teenage Green Party candidate Jill Stein who recently went full punk rock, appearing bandana-clad at the Dakota Access encampment while vandalizing a bulldozer with spray paint.
No matter who wins, the sad trajectory of American politics will remain unaltered without movements powerful enough to stop it.
“But there are other options!” some on the fringes of party politics will contend. Third-party candidates Jill Stein and Gary “What is Aleppo?” Johnson are invariably thrust into the conversation whenever the hopelessness of party politics is raised, their supporters seemingly unaware that their candidates-of-choice are unwittingly demonstrating the farce of electoralism through their petty tactics and ridiculous policy positions, such as Jill Stein’s recent “Statement on the Killing of Harambe.”
Her appeal to the much-coveted Harambe vote may make sense, however, in light of the fact that Stein and Cincinnati’s beloved gorilla were tied in a recent poll conducted among Texas voters, trailing closely behind independent front-runner, Deez Nuts.
Unlike the third-party stalwarts behind Stein’s campaign, most Americans have few illusions about the way that politics work in America. Elections are bought and sold. Money determines, to a great extent, both the outcomes of elections and the policies those candidates enact. State institutions are bankrupt, and everyone knows it.
This perspective will be met by claims from the defenders of state-centered politics that the system can be repaired and made to serve the interests of the people. Calls to “overturn Citizens United” or “publicly fund elections” are raised whenever one dares criticize the US electoral system. All of these proposals assume that our way of doing elections simply needs some patching up. But the system isn’t broken – it’s operating exactly the way it was intended.
During the First Continental Congress, President and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay made this point abundantly clear when he said that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” His attitude was then echoed by another founding father, Alexander Hamilton, who referred to the public as a “great beast” that needed to be tamed by men of higher character. Countless statements like these can be found among the men who designed our political institutions, reflecting a consensus that The People are barely capable of tying their own shoes, and that politics should be left to the big boys.
Preventing the “bewildered herd” from getting carried away during elections is of primary concern to those men of “higher character,” and they’ve mastered the art of doing so. Look no further than the Bernie Sanders campaign to see how. The Democratic National Committee, which oversees the primary and is supposed to remain neutral, not only had a clear favorite during the election but actively conspired to make sure that Clinton won. Internally, they crafted public ‘narratives’ to undermine the Sanders campaign, talked about using his Judaism against him, and even leaked his campaign information to the Clinton campaign.
Given all this, it’s no wonder that the public is generally disengaged from the election, with only 36% of registered voters saying they’re enthusiastic about voting this year according to a recent CBS News/NYT poll. However, these attitudes are not unique to this election.
The public’s distrust in elections has been demonstrated consistently in election cycle after election cycle. In 2008, Barack Obama’s election broke the record for the greatest voter turnout in history and yet, despite this, Obama was still only elected by a minority, with almost 60% of the population staying home on election day.
Locally, the public’s disdain for elections runs even deeper. The general elections of 2015 saw an abysmally low turnout in city and county races, with only around a quarter of eligible voters turning out to cast a ballot.
In the 2016 election, we find that 60 million people participated in Democratic and Republican primaries (about 30 million each). Half of those primary voters chose other candidates. Only 14% of eligible adults, representing 9% of the US population, picked either Trump or Clinton. About the same percentage of the population that thinks that HTML is a sexually transmitted disease.
The public’s electoral apathy should hardly come as a surprise, however, when we consider that most in the US are raised from grade school to believe that the way to change things is by electing the right candidate to office. When those strategies fail year after year, it should be considered fairly rational to conclude that change simply isn’t possible.
Indifference is the predictable response to living in a country that constantly talks about freedom, while affording the vast majority of the population very little actual freedom in their daily lives.
In a climate of apathy at the polls, recent social movements have offered other strategies for social change – strategies that reflect society’s distrust in elections. In an interview with The Guardian in the fall of 2015, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza said, “What we’ve seen is an attempt by mainstream politics and politicians to co-opt movements that galvanize people in order for them to move closer to their own goals and objectives,” flatly rejecting the notion that Black Lives Matter might endorse any candidate in the 2016 presidential election. “We don’t think that playing a corrupt game is going to bring change and make black lives matter.”
Like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15 has also refused to exhaust movement resources on elections. Rather than endorsing any candidate, Fight for $15 activists have demanded that the candidates endorse them. Major presidential debates and campaign stops have been met by strikes and pickets rather than rallies for one candidate or another. In an interview with The Progressive, fast food worker and Fight for $15 National Organizing Committee member Quasia LeGrand said, “We want to use our voice to get what we want… You’re not going to get our votes just because we see you out here on the line with us. You actually have to state that you’re for $15 and a union. That’s why we don’t want to endorse anybody.”
Just before the elections of 2012, Occupy Wall St. also ignited a nationwide movement while expressly rejecting elections as a means for social change. Many Occupy General Assemblies passed resolutions similar to the one released by Occupy Washington DC, which stated: “We believe… that elections alone cannot accomplish what is needed. We cannot ‘vote’ against the disastrous influence of Wall Street or war profiteers by backing either of the two major political parties… We will not divert our energies into electoral work. We will not identify with or begin to make compromises and apologies for any party, political candidate, or elected official.”
Yet, without electing any candidates, these social movements have had an undeniable effect on both public consciousness and actual policy at local, state, and national levels. Every candidate has had to address the concerns raised by these movements, regardless of their opinions of them. All of them, with the exception of only the most reactionary candidates, have had to pay lip service to the aims of these movements. And in many places, specific policies have been enacted as the result of the struggles these movements have waged.
Here in New York State, fast food workers did what seemed unimaginable even a few years ago – they won a path to $15/hr. California, Washington DC, and Seattle have also won a path to $15. Since the movement began, more than 29 states in total have seen their minimum wage levels rise, no doubt as a result of worker movements across the US. These wage increases weren’t simply gifts from benevolent state and city governments. They were hard-fought concessions won through direct action by thousands of fast food workers who had the courage to strike against some of the wealthiest corporations in the world. These victories were won without endorsing a single candidate.
While refusing electoral politics, the Black Lives Matter movement has garnered a string of victories. In Maryland, the movement won a statewide ban on racist and discriminatory profiling – just six months after Baltimore erupted in rebellion over the death of Freddie Gray. In Cleveland, a series of reforms were made to the police department, including appointing a civilian to head the department’s internal affairs shortly after nationwide protests brought the police murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice into the national spotlight.
If our aim is to change the world, our only hope is each other. There is no electoral strategy that can end poverty, that can solve the climate crisis, that can shutter the prisons and disarm the police. There is no candidate that can uproot white supremacy or liberate trans people. There is no politician that can halt the march of imperialism. None of them can give us the world we want. Only strong movements of the people can do that.
Organize, build community, take action. We have a world to win.