Like many of us, I learned as a teenager that voting was the single most important thing a person who cared about creating change could do. In social studies and history classes, protest movements were generally referred to as things that happened in the past, and that today, we could only engage in the political process by casting a vote every few years.
In college, I learned that this wasn’t true. I learned that real change happens because of organized social and political movements on the ground that put pressure on politicians or even work outside existing power structures to create positive, sustainable change. Voting (particularly in a two-party system dominated by corporate money and power) was treated as a distraction, a way for the powers-that-be to co-opt struggles and ultimately weaken them.
Both viewpoints find avatars in this recently-viral debate between comedian Russell Brand and journalist Jeremy Paxman. Brand argues that to vote is to be complicit in a system that does not care about common people, while Paxman continually returns to the point that voting is just how democracy works.
It took a long time for me to unlearn this “either/or” framework. Both sides of the debate are easy to embrace (one is practical and realistic, the other beautiful and revolutionary) and simultaneously easy to denounce (one represents drone-like assimilation into a harmful system, the other pie-in-the-sky abstract idealism). And both sides are flawed.
For me, it boils down to strategy vs. tactics. If you care about, for example, environmental justice, or the prison industrial complex, or combating poverty, “voting for the right candidate” is not a winning strategy. Challenging massive, entrenched systems takes mass movements encompassing an array of tactics—educational campaigns, media campaigns, direct action, marches, rallies, boycotts, canvassing, building trust and community, and much more.
But that doesn’t mean that electoral politics can’t be one facet of this larger strategy. Running for office, attempting to influence people already in power and voting can all be useful tools when incorporated tactically and intentionally into a movement.
Elections represent a few important opportunities. First, they’re winnable. Even small victories are something concrete and energizing, which helps sustain larger movements (when these victories are put in a means-to-an-end context and not treated as ends themselves). Second, they’re a great media force-multiplier: because so many people still see voting as the primary way to “get involved,” a specific candidate can sometimes spread the word about an issue further than a broader activist campaign can; they may even be able to mobilize people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved. Finally, elections can put good people into positions of power. We’re not just talking about the president here—this is about school boards, city councils, state reps and more. Local elections are a power bottleneck, and it just makes tactical sense to take advantage of them.
This year, I’m particularly excited about Ty Moore’s city council campaign here in Minneapolis. Moore is a committed activist, with experience working on the ground with Occupy Homes MN and a wide range of other struggles. He has so much experience, in fact, that when I first heard he was running, part of me asked “won’t this distract from the other good work he’s involved in?” But seeing how his campaign has grown, witnessing the community support that has blossomed around it, and talking to Moore himself, I’ve become convinced that his bid for city council really illuminates a lot of what I’m writing about here.
Occupy Homes MN is one of the most inspiring activist campaigns I’ve ever seen, and in their endorsement of Moore they stated:
“As our movement grows, it is critical for us to transform our grassroots demands into concrete policy change. Having a grassroots champion like Ty on the city council can help us turn Minneapolis into a nationwide leader in policies to ensure safe affordable quality housing is a human right for all and that we have democratic control of our homes.”
Voting can matter. Getting good people into office can matter. Neither Moore himself nor Occupy Homes MN are naïve enough to believe that getting Moore elected will be any kind of magic key; but they can see the possibilities. And those possibilities are worth fighting for.
Voting by itself is never going to change the world, but neither is anything “by itself.” Movements are big, complex, multi-layered organisms. If we care about creating change, we have to reject the narrow views of how change happens, and embrace every opportunity to make our communities– and our world– better.