Earlier this year, I said that I would only write one post about the 2016 U.S. election cycle. Ultimately, I decided to split my commentary into two posts. The first post, which you’re reading now, is called Don’t Just Vote. The second post, which I invite you to read next, is called Don’t Vote For Evil.
These two posts are closely related. They both talk about politics in the United States. In the first post, I talk about non-electoral politics, which includes any political activity other than voting or campaigning for a candidate. In my second post, I discuss my ethical and strategic perspectives on U.S. electoral politics and the 2016 elections.
Both posts talk about strategies for creating positive change in the United States. I see an important relationship between these two conversations about politics, and I believe that we need to be having both conversations about the state of politics in the United States. However, I’m presenting these two posts separately because I want you to consider them separately.
In other words, even if you disagree with the content of Post #2, that should have no bearing on your thoughts about Post #1. [The reverse is also true, but I expect much more disagreement and hostility in response to Post #2.]
Now, for Post #1, let’s talk about Don’t Just Vote.
During the 2004 election cycle, CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective launched a national campaign called Don’t Just Vote, Get Active [PDF]. It was also known as Don’t Just [Not] Vote. The basic premise of DJV was simple. Voting is just one of many types of political action. Regardless of who you vote for, or whether you vote at all, it’s important to be active politically throughout the rest of the year. What you do on a day-to-day basis will have more cumulative impact in your life, your community, and your society than what you do for a few minutes in a voting booth every two to four years. This important “day-to-day” activity includes both direct action on political issues and direct action to address major problems with the U.S. electoral process.
Back in 2004, “Don’t Just Vote” was no minor insight. George W. Bush was campaigning for a second term in office. Many people with a broad range of political ideologies were determined to stop him. There were endless and often vicious arguments about how to get Bush out of power. Almost all of these arguments focused on the upcoming 2004 election [and the controversies of the 2000 election].
Should we back a Democrat? Which Democrat? Should we back a third party or independent candidate? Which one? Did a thirty party candidate spoil the 2000 election? Should we not even vote at all in such a corrupt and authoritarian system?
The DJV campaign emerged in the midst of all of this combative rhetoric among people who might otherwise consider themselves allies on many important questions of public policy. It offered a simple yet powerful way to cut through all of the in-fighting and find common ground for dialog and action.
Do you have a really strong opinion about who to vote for [or who not to vote for]? That’s great. Vote [or don’t vote] accordingly. Now that that’s settled, it’s time to ask yourself a very important question.
What are you going to do on the 1,460 days between presidential elections?
There are many different ways to answer this question. The original DJV campaign was intentionally broad so as to include all means of applying political power outside of the voting booth. The strength of a broad approach is that it can be very inclusive of many important types of politician action — meetings, petitions, marches, sit-ins, shutdowns, culture jamming, monkeywrenching, even other acts that we don’t think of as political, like gardening (reclaiming power over our food systems). The weakness is that it lacks focus and might just lead to a bunch of isolated personal actions that don’t work together to create a deeper change in our communities and society.
Out of all of the non-electoral actions available to us, there are a few that I highly recommend for as many people as possible take action on as soon as possible. I’ve listed these actions below, followed by a brief conclusion.
(1) Grassroots Democracy
This is arguably the most important and most direct political action of all. We currently live in a plutocracy, not a democracy. Political decisions are made by a handful of rich and powerful people who are far removed from the interests and concerns of the other 99.9% of the population. The higher up you go in government and corporate hierarchies, the worse it gets. It’s virtually impossible for any politician to reach the upper echelons of state and federal government without selling out to campaign donors and lobbyists who dictate their policy choices. And the decisions that they make have a dramatic impact on every aspect of our lives.
We the people should be making political decisions for ourselves. At a bareb minimum, every community should have frequent town meetings or popular assemblies or similar public gathering where everyone in the community gets to deliberate and decide on matters of public policy. Since we live in an age of advanced digital communications, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we all have to transport our slow-moving physical bodies over to City Hall once a week in order to participate in a long-winded town hall meeting. That would make for a very robust participatory democracy, but it’s not the only way to do it. Instead, we could have digital discussions in a public forum from the comfort of our own homes. We could vote on minor matters of public policy on a weekly or even daily basis, then meet up at City Hall [or somewhere else] for major decisions at monthly or quarterly assemblies.
One of the wonderful things about this strategy is that there is absolutely nothing stopping us from making it happen immediately. Anyone can call for a public meeting. All that you have to do is reserve a meeting space, invite as many people as possible, and see what happens. In many cities, you can even rent a room in City Hall or another public building. This helps convey the idea that this is a public town meeting rather than some private club. Scheduling it shortly before or shortly after the “official” city government meeting can give people an opportunity to discuss items that are on the other meeting’s agenda — or should be, but aren’t. And if some problem comes up that community members care about but city government isn’t responding to, then these community members at the town meeting can discuss the problem and decide what they themselves can do about the problem, with or without the city government’s help.
If we want these town meetings to have any real decision-making power over local public policy, that’s going to take time. But we can start today and build these town meetings into a real force for positive change in our communities. You might be surprised what a large group of people can accomplish when they put get organized. These town meetings can fulfill at least three important roles: applying pressure on city government to address issues that are important to community members; organizing any forms of citizen action that don’t require the involvement of city government; and building working relationships with people in the community. The long-term goal is for these public meetings to become the official decision-making body of your community.
(2) Electoral Reform
Electoral reform can be a non-electoral political action. It involves applying political pressure to the current set of elected officials rather than waiting for some new pro-reform candidate to get elected.
We can demand that legislators currently in office immediately enact reforms that will change the way all future elections are conducted. Here are a few basic suggestions:
In the long run, I also strongly recommend transforming our government from a trustee-based system to a delegate-based system. In other words, our elected officials should be public servants who enact the will of the people rather than making their own unaccountable decisions based on the will of their campaign donors or other outside influences. If they go against the will of the people, delegates should be recalled. And recall petitions shouldn’t need to be signed by legislators, which is the current unfortunate reality in Illinois. Recall petitions should only need to be signed by the people. Otherwise, corrupt politicians can protect one another from recall by refusing to sign the petition.
This is a major — dare I say revolutionary — change in the way that we run our government. It will become increasingly difficult to enact this change the higher you go in the institutional hierarchy. The relatively small number of people who currently derive great power and wealth from the system as it is organized today will actively resist any efforts to change this basic feature of our government.
I’m open to other suggestions about electoral reform. The basic principle is simple and crucial to the success of any effort to create lasting change in our society. But the logistical details are open to discussion and may vary from city to city and state to state. The important thing is to recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that we currently choose our elected officials and do something right now to change the process.
(3) Correct Fundamental Injustices
We live in a society that speaks loudly and proudly about noble concepts of liberty and justice for all, yet does not live up to its own hype. Popular movements have forced government and corporations alike to make some concessions in the name of human rights and human dignity, but there is still a long way to go.
Creation of town meetings and electoral reforms would help this problem, but they aren’t enough. Since our social, economic, and political institutions are engaging in systemic violence and oppression against certain types of people, we have to go out of our way to advocate for their rights and needs. If you feel like you personally haven’t been affected by any of this violence and oppression, that’s no reason to ignore the problem or pretend that it isn’t a problem at all. In fact, it’s all the more reason to get involved as an ally to the targets of institutional violence and oppression.
Rather than carry on at length about the many injustices in our society and the various ongoing struggles against them, I will share the following links to more information about a few of the struggles that have been weighing heavily on my mind. That way, you can read about them in the words of people who are doing the work to create positive change.
- Black Lives Matter
- LGBTQ Rights
- Immigrants’ Rights [see my blog post, No One Is Illegal]
- Indigenous Rights
- Environmental Justice
- Climate Justice [more on this below]
These are all life and death struggles. People’s quality of life — and in many cases, whether large numbers of people live or die — will be determined by the outcome of these struggles. Volunteering on a regular basis to work on one or more of these struggles for justice is an incredibly powerful and important form of political involvement
You don’t have to wait until election day to do this. You can start educating yourself and showing your support today. Pick one or more of these topics that resonates with you and throw yourself into the work. Find other people who are already involved and do what you can to help. Even if you feel that you don’t have much time or energy or resources to dedicate to the work, give it a try anyway. See what you can do. You may be surprised by the results.
Regardless of who you do or don’t vote for, volunteering to participate in these struggles for justice has the power to make a tremendous difference in your community and in our society.
(4) Respond To Existential Threats
I saved the best one for last.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about politics. At the end of the day, though, our long-term efforts to create political change won’t have time to come to fruition if we render our planet dramatically less habitable for human life.
Global warming is happening, humans are causing it, and the net results will be bad. Very bad. Bad in a lot of ways. Global warming is already killing hundreds of thousands of people per year. It disproportionately harms poorer households and nations who had little to do with causing it. It’s costing the global economy trillions of dollars. By acting as a threat multiplier, global warming also increases and exacerbates the presence of war, famine, mass migration, and other humanitarian crises. Consequently, global warming helped push the infamous Doomsday Clock to 3 Minutes to Midnight for the first time since the Cold War . The Pentagon views global warming as a threat to national security. President Barack Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders, and many others have acknowledged global warming as the greatest threat to our national security. Many religious leaders — including the Pope, Evangelical Christians, Other Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and many others — have also expressed their concern about the crisis and stated that there is a moral imperative for people of faith (and everyone else) to take action.
In other words, global warming is an existential threat to the United States and modern human civilization in general, and we must do something about it.
I could write about global warming all day. To make a long story short, we need to take immediate and decisive action in support of global warming solutions. We need to support strategic efforts to slow or stop our fossil fuel use through various forms of economic action, legal action, and direct action. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that other people and nations do the same. If we don’t get global emissions under control, the consequences of global warming will cause a global economic and political collapse, likely tearing down any progress we’ve made toward creating a more free, more democratic, and more just society.
There are also a few other possible existential threats to the United States and life on Earth in general that we should be concerned about — for example, nuclear weapons and autonomous weapons. However, I am thoroughly convinced that global warming is currently the greatest of these threats.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize once again that we can take action on all of the above concerns [and more] without ever setting foot within a voting both. We can also work together on many of the aforementioned types of political action even if we have passionate disagreements about who we should or should not vote for.
This is not to say that I am opposed to voting. In fact, I do vote in every election and highly recommend that other people do the same. I will also gladly tell you my thoughts on which candidates I plan to vote for in this and future elections.
However, regardless of who you do or don’t vote for, remember that democracy is a participatory practice that takes more than five minutes of your attention every four years. Democracy is a means through which we the people govern ourselves. If we don’t take the time and energy to participate in our democracy on a regular basis, then we will be governed by whoever has the money and the power to usurp our rightful place at the heart of the political sphere.