[Editor’s note: The Man from the North is a fictional character from Rivera Sun’s series of novels. She has him offering essays beyond her novels.]
The Vote – the beloved, abused, scorned, corrupted, stolen, hijacked, pointless, profound, hopeful, depressing, hard-won, cherished vote – is not the only way to take action for meaningful change. Currently, the elections operate in our nation like a cattle chute, all too often forcing us back into the deadly, no-win tracks of the two-party duopoly that serves primarily the moneyed class. It becomes a handy device for siphoning off the demand for revolutionary change by giving mostly false hope that elected officials will actually enact their campaign promises once in office.
Instead of taking matters into our own, capable, millions of hands, we vote to let someone else take care of it. And, in large part, these representatives do nothing beyond raising funds for their next campaign. We wind up hamstringing our movements over and over. We vote for Candidate X’s promises of someday guaranteeing living wages instead of going on strike until we actually get them. We vote for Candidate Y’s vow to someday ban assault weapons instead of picketing and blockading arms dealers. Instead of targeting fossil fuel investors, we try to elect politicians to craft legislation that, even if passed, is largely ignored by industry until they manage to get officials and judges in place to overturn the law.
It is maddening and infuriating. We have other – and better – options.
Change happens on many levels: cultural, economic, industrial, social, artistic, personal, psychological, spiritual, and more. We must work in all of them if we hope for lasting, systemic shifts. Don’t be fooled by the annual circus of voting. Go vote, sure, but don’t sit back down on the couch when you’ve cast your ballot. Go out into your community, businesses, churches, colleges, and so on, and work for the changes we wish to see in the world. In truth, no legislation has the power to enact the full scope of change without the cooperation of all those other institutions and the popular support in ordinary citizens.
Want living wages, for example? Change the sickening culture of greed and the hero worship of the criminals at the top of capitalism’s cannibalistic food chain. Challenge the moral “right” our culture places upon exploitation and survival of the fittest. We will never see justice for workers while we salivate over billionaires and laud their “brilliance” (read: ruthless willingness to shove others under the bus) with which they “made their fortunes” (read: stolen from others by means of low wages, high prices, global exploitation, insider deals, destruction of the earth, corruption of democracy, self-serving laws and legislation.)
Elections and politics are the games of elites. We are whipped up each election cycle to serve as their cheering crowds at their jousting matches. It is no better than the feudal days of fighting for this king or that queen when the real struggle is the establishment of “nobles” and the theft of common land from the people. In the 1500s, the real struggle was not whether Queen Elizabeth of England and Mary Queen of Scots would sit on the throne, but rather, how ordinary women were being stripped of rights and lowered into the status of property. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth’s rule stopped the rise of patriarchy into a monstrous beast that still echoes in the policies and practices of today.
History is long; I could go on with examples across nations, class, and creed. The real challenge of our times is not which super-wealthy Democratic or Republican regime gets to hand out sweet deals and lucky breaks to their friends, but how we, the people, wrest the state apparatus from the death-grip of the “nobility” of our times. Just as fighting for this king or that queen was not as vital as defending the commons, so do I warn you, today, about over-inflating the significance of the vote.
The idea is wonderful; our practice of it, deplorable. Never confuse those two. Prize our ideals. Exercise your right to vote – it is hard-won for 75 percent of our populace. But never allow its current, corrupted incarnation to distract you from working on cultural, economic, social, or any other type of change. Measure for measure, pour your courageous heart into all levels of change. If you spend 10 minutes reading a report about a candidates’ forum, spend the same time reading about – and participating in – strikes for better wages or sit-ins to abolish mass incarceration or shut-downs of insurance offices for affordable healthcare. If you go door-to-door canvassing for a politician, spend an equal amount of time knocking on doors to build support for a boycott of exploitative goods. If you’re willing to throw a house party for an election campaign, go to a local organizer and offer to throw a house party in support of their social justice cause. If you donate to a political campaign, donate to a movement, too.
These are just a few examples. Remember that the elections have become a massive industry. Many of our social justice movements remain shoestring, miracle-workers. Your time, skills, and donations are all deeply appreciated by your fellow citizens who are striving for significant change. Don’t forget them during the shouting matches of our election circuses. Without our movements changing the hearts and minds and daily lives of ordinary people, the mere words on paper that make up legislation have no meaning. Laws are irrelevant if officials ignore them, courts reject them, and people disobey them. Do the legwork of making sure that the populace can uphold justice, not merely because it is the law, but because it is our will, our belief, and our sense of justice turned into a way of life. To do this, you must make change in every level of our lives.