The Case for Electoral Politics

Ballot box (photographer unknown)

“Focus on local issues, not electoral politics” is something I see a lot and it’s an outlook that I have a small problem with. I am not an organizer, I’m only a person listening to what they say and watching what they do, so understand that I’m not making a comment about organizing here. I think that retreating from electoral politics is bad strategy and I’ll lay that out here.

I got to this point mainly by thinking through two concepts: first, the structure of power; second, the triangulation of ideas.

On the structure of power: our current conception of the political system we’re living under is very distorted. I’m sure we’re all aware of some distortion but perhaps not its fullest extent. By this, I mean very specifically that the idea that the government is there to serve “us, the people” is not only incorrect, it’s an idea that would run counter to every goal that the current system has. This is entirely a result of hoarded resources, that’s true and obvious. The problem I see in most figurings from that point is that people view the hoarding of resources as the goal of the rulers. It is not the goal: it is the precondition. They are not stealing from the masses, in other words, they are preventing the masses from stealing from them.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that they are right to prevent common people from being able to support themselves. The state and government is very clearly wrong and evil for doing this. However, understanding that the governing class views welfare and other benefits as stealing something which is rightfully theirs is an important angle from which to see this issue.

Further, we need to stop understanding money as being equivalent to an amount of something. Money is not A Thing. Money is an abstraction of influence and power. When the U.S. government says “we don’t have the money to do this” what they mean is “we don’t want to do this”. When another government says that, what they usually mean is “we will get sanctioned, bombed, or possibly invaded by the U.S. if we do this”. They mean “Western companies will refuse to do business with us”. The amount of colored paper that someone has or the numbers in an Excel spreadsheet do not make it more or less possible for you to bring someone water if there’s water around. Money is not a real part of the equation here.

So how does this relate to the structure of power? The reason I bring up money is to illustrate that there are no “legitimate” avenues to building yourself up to the ruling class: that status can only be granted by the existing rulers.

To attack this from the other side, I’ll state a fact: Jeff Bezos cannot solve world hunger. He “has the money” to do this, absolutely. But nobody who would do that would get to be Jeff Bezos. This isn’t because they would spend themselves dry by giving so much. The problem is that the state and societal system that we live under only promotes those who already share their attitudes, or those who can be converted. The status quo says people have to starve, therefore only people who agree with starvation get to succeed. People or groups who try to change the status quo get stopped before they can. It doesn’t matter whether they did it in a “legal” way or not. Many, if not the vast majority of, programs to better communities are perfectly legal yet still become targets. The Black Panther breakfast program is only one of the more prominent examples[1]Of course this was not the only reason or even the main reason the Black Panther Party was opposed by the state, but the BPP worked within the established laws in general. The breakfast program … Continue reading.

In brief, you cannot simply “local issue” your way out of oppression. You must have some way to counter power being used against you. You simply cannot build that by ignoring the state because the state will not ignore you.

All that I just stated was the first point. There I was making a negative case for participating in national politics: the alternative of just ignoring elections isn’t sufficient because national elections have consequences on all local organizing. The second point, which I’ll call the triangulation of ideas, makes a positive case for taking part.

Let me begin with a question: what is conservatism? Is there a workable definition of what “a conservative” is that everyone would support? Or on the other side: what is communism? We’ve had several states attempt communism in world history. Each of them has done it differently and most would agree that none of them has ever achieved “full communism”. Not even among theorists is there anything like agreement.

These ideas, like money, may be intangible but they are still important. But it is important to understand that what an idea is, in its basic ontological sense, is not something that one person puts out. A public idea is one that is shared between the person putting out the idea and the people who think about it.

Triangulation is the metaphor I use because it’s not sharing like we’re both attached to the same thing. It’s more like we are both describing an object in the distance and between our descriptions will come something that’s close enough to accurate. That distance between us as people and the intangible idea is important to keep in mind.

Why is this important? It is because ideas such as “law”, “order”, “safety”, etc. are not set terms. What people think about them can be changed. But they cannot be changed if we refuse to engage in the conversation.

I talked about triangulation between the sender, the message, and the receiver(s). One thing about this conception is that there are many receivers, but the sender is either just one or a group of comparatively few. If we think of the two ends as being weighted, the person giving the message is weighted much heavier than the people receiving it. The sender sets the terms that the receiver then thinks about, agreeing or disagreeing with what the sender said.

In a state system such as the one most who read this live under, the “person” who sends these messages is the government. The government has the most influence on the definitions of these important ideas like “law”, “order”, etc. Even if we say something like “strict curfews don’t improve order”, we’re not making our own statement of what makes order, we’re just responding to what the government has said. Therefore, in order to have a measurable influence on the ideas that are held by society at large, it’s useful to become the side that sends the message. That position can only be gained through national politics.

From what I’ve laid out about the structure of power, an electoral win that reverses every wrong in society is unlikely at best. I agree with that. The state will not allow a group which is outside its current make-up to change what the government’s functions are; and by current make-up I mean “wealthy oligarchs”, I don’t mean “bicameral democracy”, that part’s irrelevant. So don’t take me here for believing that we could simply vote our way into a better society.

However, by participating in electoral politics vigorously, by winning seats where possible and by treating the task of making a radical message work in a public political context as important, it is possible to at least influence the government’s message and thereby help to influence people about these critical ideas like worker co-operation and self-government. The only way to win is to be so overwhelming that you cannot be denied. Confining oneself to local issues that can be easily quashed just cannot achieve that.

Organizing is an important part of making it possible to compete electorally, but don’t discount how electoral results can galvanize participation in organizing as well. This is a cycle that feeds itself. Every person that agrees with you who gets a seat will tell other people that it’s okay to stand up for an issue when yesterday they may have been too scared. Just the act of being competitive or getting elected can be galvanizing. Organizing is the more vital part of the struggle. I would never deny that. I just don’t want people to get so frustrated with the issues inherent in electoral and broad public politics that they totally give it up. To simply abandon electoral politics as the province of the powerful is giving up a vital tool. To make things better, we must make noise in all quarters and that includes in the halls of power.


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1 Of course this was not the only reason or even the main reason the Black Panther Party was opposed by the state, but the BPP worked within the established laws in general. The breakfast program provides a very clean example of this. Exploring the whole of the BPP’s mission and activities isn’t the point of this article.
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