Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Dangerous Deification of Voting

From the time Americans begin school,they are taught that their civic duty is to vote. The message is reiterated in every public school social studies course, and amplified further once you take civics or government. Outside of school the same message continues to reverberate. At concerts you encounter Headcount, working to register others to vote. Tune into comedian Craig Ferguson, and you just might find him excoriating nonvoters as "morons." And when presidential elections happen, you would think that important events ceased to occur, as the media drops everything to focus on every word and scandal surrounding the leading candidates. The message is not that electoral politics is one way to influence the policies of your government, but that it is the way to influence the policies of your government.

Recently I have seen this attitude illustrated on both sides of the aisle. Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times op-ed column: "Just to be clear, progressives would be foolish to sit out this election: Mr. Obama may not be the politician of their dreams, but his enemies are definitely the stuff of their nightmares." From an admittedly far less influential right wing figure, a friend of a friend on Facebook who claims to be a "freedom lover" wrote of neocon airhead Sarah Palin, "I would pick her over Romney in a heart-beat. Other than Ron Paul and maybe Christie, who is there for 2012?" And just yesterday I saw it on the left again, with an Obama supporter brushing aside my list of Obama's war crimes and civil liberties violations on the grounds that Republicans are worse.

These figures of the left and right strike me as obsessed with which flavor of corporatist warmonger holds power, and unfortunately, the attitude that this is all politics is leads most people to either embrace the partisan pursuit of power or become utterly apathetic and inactive.

But most of the great achievements in our country's history have been made through non-electoral means. The era of Jim Crow did not end because some Democrats were elected, it ended because of civil disobedience, boycotts, sit ins, and court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education. Women won the vote through the courageous civil disobedience and demonstrations of the suffragettes. Women have choice on abortion not because of Democratic lawmakers, but the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade. And the relevant public opinion change that made that ruling possible was again not a result of elections, but the activism of the likes of Moses Harman and Margaret Sanger, who were often jailed for their "obscene" writings on birth control.

It's these non-electoral approaches which have the potential to solve the most pressing problems identified by the left and the right (Although I will ignore the cultural right's concerns with "moral values" and immigration, as I deem these non-issues).

Having just insulted the right, I suppose I should address their legitimate concerns first, and why I feel they can solve them through non-electoral methods. Let's talk free markets. Property rights are under assault in this country. Licensing laws, regulations, and other bureaucratic red tape make it difficult to run a business, particularly a small business. So, should we vote Republican? Certainly not if your goal is economic freedom. Even most conservatives today acknowledge the government expanding nature of the Bush Administration. But what about Ronald Reagan, the hero of the limited government right? The website of The Ludwig von Mises Institute, a free market think tank, has several articles documenting the protectionism, deficit spending, regulations, and other big government policies that belied Reagan's free market rhetoric. My two favorites are Murray Rothbard's The Myths of Reaganomics and Sheldon Richman's The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan. But Democrats don't even pretend to support free markets. So what can be done?

Some of the best advocacy of economic liberty is currently being done by The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. They file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of superfluous licensing laws (Seriously, why the fuck should you need a license to be a florist, train yoga teachers, perform cosmetology [even if your type of cosmetic work is never dealt with in the licensing process], repair computers, or call yourself an interior designer, just to name a few). They fight for property rights in cases of eminent domain abuse, and while they lost the infamous case Kelo v. City of New London, the awareness they've brought to the issue through their Castle Coalition has led to meaningful reforms, as explained in this video. Other economic liberty cases fought by the Institute for Justice may be found here.

Another concern frequently brought up by the right wing is the threat campaign finance law poses to free speech. Contrary to the opinions of some of my fellow leftists, such laws do pose a very real problem, as left wing blogger Glenn Greenwald explained here. But the 2008 Republican candidate for president, John McCain, was a co-sponsor and has his name in the title of the most infamous campaign finance law. How were these laws changed on a national level? Through the masterful arguments of attorneys like Ted Olsen and Floyd Abrams before the Supreme Court in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, as well as briefs by groups like the Institute for Justice, the ACLU, and the Cato Institute in that same case. And who challenged (And continue to challenge) local threats to free speech from campaign regulations? Again, public interest legal groups like the ACLU and the Institute for Justice.

Another very legitimate right wing concern (Which many on the left care about too) involves politically correct universities squelching the academic marketplace of ideas through unconstitutional speech codes. The only people solving this problem are the civil liberties activists at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In addition to litigation they draw awareness to these issues through a YouTube channel and a Speech Code of the Month award.

While right wingers do have other legitimate concerns, it's time to talk to my allies: The left. Comrades, we agree on a hell of a lot. Whether it's war, classism, corporatism, immigration, queer rights, misogyny, the prison system, racial privilege, or the Bush administration's abuses of power, I'm probably left of you.

So, let's talk the war crimes and power grabs that characterized the Bush administration. Have Barack Obama or the Democratic Congress reversed the tide on this? Hardly. The Democratic Congress has re-approved the PATRIOT Act, granted immunity to telecom companies for spying for the government without a warrant, continuously renewed funding for the futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and amended FISA to weaken privacy rights. Barack Obama now claims the authority to assassinate an American citizen with no legal due process, his Justice Department has won him the power to detain people without even minimal habeas corpus protection, and he has increased the use of drone bombing campaigns, even in countries on which we have not declared war.

What are the non-electoral methods for dealing with this dire despotism and senseless violence? The bravest among us may choose to follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes in protest of the Mexican American War. But for those who prefer a route less guaranteed to lead to incarceration, there are still many solid options. The ACLU and the lesser known Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) have filed lawsuits addressing most of the worst civil liberties abuses started under Bush and expanded under Obama. Most of what we now know about the brutal Bush torture programs comes from documents released due to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests filed by the ACLU. On the other hand, Barack Obama has sought to block the release of such information. The other major force against war crimes and related human rights abuses is Wikileaks, a website which analyzes and releases classified information from governments, corporations, and church hierarchies, and protects the whistleblowers who provide the documents. Two leaks which have catapulted the site into the public eye are the Collateral Murder video, and over 90,000 pages of documents known as the Afghan War Diary. Both leaks reveal the brutal, cruel, counterproductive, and often criminal nature of U.S. wars abroad. Both contradict a narrative of American Exceptionalism which has been propped up through secrecy, censorship, and propaganda. So, of course, the United States government wishes to destroy Wikileaks. A classified document detailing this desire and plans to bring it about on the part of U.S. intelligence was released by Wikileaks in March 2010. Bradley Manning is currently being prosecuted by the United States government for allegedly leaking the Collateral Murder video and other classified information to Wikileaks. Why does Wikileaks arouse such fear, loathing, and action on the part of the military industrial complex? Because, like the ACLU and CCR, they do more to counter the America's imperial hubris than any politician ever would. And unlike those civil liberties law firms, Wikileaks can't be stopped by courts.

Another key left wing issue, and one which hits me closest to home, concerns LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer [or Questioning]) rights and equality. While the Democratic Congress passed the Matthew Shepard Act, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to hate crimes law, some queer activists rightly ask whether hate crimes laws work and whether any principled leftist can respond to a problem by granting more power to our racist, classist criminal justice system. The two greatest queer victories on a national level have happened in, you guessed it, the courts. Both the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8 have been found unconstitutional this year. And on a local level, positive change often comes from outside government entirely. In my own state of Utah, the moralistic Mormon majority has not stopped the Utah Pride Center from making this a better place for queers. The Center runs an LGBT youth center, where young adults whose identities are often reviled by their parents and communities can truly be themselves. Support groups abound, including for identities often misunderstood and feared even in the LGBT community, such as transgender individuals. One Pride Center group, TransAction, engages in activism for Utah's trans community. One event I found particularly inspiring was our pool party and barbecue. For obvious reasons, many transpeople are uncomfortable using pools and locker rooms. At this event, I saw one transwoman swim for her first time in about a decade. The importance of organizations like the Utah Pride Center is obvious: They allow often marginalized queer individuals to function among like minded people, and be treated as full fledged human beings rather than second class citizens and freaks. This certainly beats occasional pandering by politicians.

In just about every other case of bigotry the non-electoral approach continues to prove its superiority. Feminism and African American civil rights were briefly discussed at the beginning of this post, but what about the rights of Latin Americans, and undocumented immigrants in particular. In spite of all the hullabaloo surrounding Obama's plan for immigration reform and opposition to Arizona's SB1070, deportations have increased under Obama. The real groups fighting for the rights of Latin Americans and immigrants are grassroots organizations like the Brown Berets, United Farm Workers' Union, Alta Arizona, and (Yes, I'm sure by now I sound like a broken record) the ACLU.

Another key issue for the left is corporate power. But the mainstream progressive reforms tend to support corporate interests. The corporatism of health care reform has been thoroughly documented by Glenn Greenwald in articles like this. Timothy Carney's column provides some of the best analysis of the corporatist nature of progressive legislation around today. In addition to fighting anti-competitive regulations as the Institute for Justice does, one can bring awareness to often secret corporate misconduct, as Wikileaks does, or lead workplace activism, as the radical union Industrial Workers of the World does.

The best ideas of the left are predicated upon the fight against violence and hierarchy, and thus cannot be achieved by voting particular leaders into an intrinsically hierarchic and violent organization. The best ideas of the right are built upon principles of individualism and emergent economic order, and thus cannot be realized by voting different leadership into a centrally planned collectivist institution. In order for the best ideas across the political spectrum to realize their true potential, they must realize electoral politics for the distraction it is and focus their energies in real, meaningful activism.


  1. Wonderful article!

    Even when Thomas Jefferson was president, one of the great heroes of libertarianism, his presidency still had its problems. At best, our preferred elected might resist things from getting substantially worse.

    What do you think of the nullification movement? It involves voting people into office but focuses on a much more realistic, local level.

  2. Well Bryan, I do find nullification to be a very interesting tactic, and was debating whether to mention it in this post. It was very effective in combating what could have been a very dangerous development with REAL ID, has made some real progress with medical marijuana in some states, and is overall quite a promising tactic for liberty. One of my paleocon libertarian contacts in Utah, Connor Boyack, is spearheading a campaign to get every Utah legislator a copy of Tom Woods' book on the subject.