Voting cannot change the world

Authentic political change only comes out of mass movements.

Electoral politics are overrated – and so is this presidential election.

At a time when the executive branch is being run by such arrogant, superstitious and obtuse men, it is reassuring and convenient to focus on individual personalities instead of the more systemic problems that bring people such as President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft to power.

Contrary to all of the lame platitudes about changing the world with a ballot, voting itself – while somewhat helpful in the short term – ultimately changes very little. Mass political movements (along the lines of the feminist, civil rights or labor movements) have transformed the social, political and economic landscapes far more than any political candidate or party.

This is bad news for many of the idealistic young people who have undergone a political awakening under the reign of Curious George – especially the privileged young people who are probably reading this newspaper. Getting active in genuinely subversive political movements (really, the only kind that matter) is not sexy or comfortable the way working for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry or some other Democratic candidate is.

Grassroots political organizers face the prospect of not seeing their causes make any progress for years or decades. Not only is movement politics frustrating and tedious, but participants in meaningful political movements get jailed, clubbed, tear gassed and shot. People who are active in meaningful political movements often lose their jobs, their friends and their credibility among elites. This is the cost of working for real change.

Arundhati Roy put it best (in a slightly different context) in a speech, “Public Power in the Age of Empire,” she gave last month: Mainstream political activity “threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in, real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.”

Don’t get me wrong. It is a tragedy that Bush is president of the United States, and I would very much like to see him lose in November. It doesn’t follow, however, that because Bush is a terrible president, Kerry will be a good one. Four more years of Bush will be really bad for the world, having Kerry in the White House will only be bad. Think of the presidential election like contemporary Top 40 pop music: If Bush is Linkin Park, then Kerry is Avril Lavigne.

The difference between Kerry and Bush is substantial enough to warrant voting for Kerry – at least in swing states such as Minnesota. Nevertheless, the similarities between Kerry and Bush far outweigh their differences.

The mass sentiment that got many (if not the majority) of Kerry’s young supporters involved in his campaign was opposition to the bloody and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq. But Kerry is promising to escalate the conflict in Iraq by internationalizing it – he is not interested in ending the occupation soon. Kerry has even said that he would have voted to authorize the war on Iraq even if he had known that Saddam Hussein did not possess nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

At a time when mainstream opinion sees swift withdrawal from Iraq as increasingly necessary, Kerry’s position on Iraq is especially dumbfounding. Why, on Sept. 10, even those United States-hating leftists on the Financial Times editorial board called for withdrawal: “Chaos is a great risk, and occupiers through the ages have pointed to that risk as their reason for staying put. But chaos is already here, and the power that is in large part responsible for it must start preparing now to step aside and let the Iraqis try to emerge from it,” they wrote.

Now Kerry can’t even make up his mind on abortion rights – one of the issues he’s supposed to be so solid on: In May, Kerry said he would consider nominating anti-abortion judges,

and he has said he believes that life starts at conception. In 1986, he even voted to confirm the anti-choice Antonin Scalia – probably the most regressive judge on the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Kerry and Bush really do have substantive disagreements beyond Kerry’s modest health-care plan and his desire to make rich people actually pay some taxes, Kerry definitely isn’t articulating them very well. Is there a significant difference between the respective trade policies of Kerry and Bush? Nope. Foreign policies? Nope. Military spending? Nope. The Patriot Act? Nope.

Nothing is more symptomatic of the sorry state of reform-minded U.S. liberalism than the cretinous sport of “Bush-bashing.” Not long ago, people on the left viewed politics as a historical struggle between powerful forces with incompatible interests. Now, liberals head off to “Fahrenheit 9/11” to get dished facile “patriotic” conspiracy theories that attribute the United States’ problems to the Bushs instead of the long-term foreign, domestic and economic policies this country has maintained under both Republican and Democratic presidencies.

Voting is a worthwhile activity, but it gets way more credit than it deserves. Those sanguine Rock The Vote-type campaigns are full of it. Authentic political change doesn’t come out of a ballot box – it comes out mass movements that have grown powerful enough to force it.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]