Why Vote?

Sue Coe, VOTE, 2023. © Sue Coe.

Letter from a friend

My column last week, “What to do about Joe?” elicited many thoughtful replies. Most supported my thesis that whatever Joe Biden’s failures – even his culpability in Israel’s criminal assault on Gaza – the alternative is worse. Election of a fascist means the death of democracy even in etiolated form, and the birth of a regime of generalized violence and oppression.

Some readers, however, took strong exception to my position. Voting for somebody who has facilitated genocide is beyond the pale. Trump may be horrible, they agreed, but it’s impossible to know what his election may bring. On the other hand, we know what the current regime has delivered: two major wars and more oil and gas extraction than ever before. The idea that the election of Biden (however committed he may be to democratic norms) will reduce the risk of more war and lead to meaningful action on climate change, is utopian fiction.

It’s a powerful argument. But before exploring it further, I decided to check in with the artist Sue Coe. As usual, she was a font of wisdom and irony. The following is a lightly edited version of the email she sent me:

“Dear S,

I thought it was a good solid column about American history, but perhaps it’s too soon, amid a genocide, for people to swallow the bile that they will have to tactically vote for Biden whilst he is still supplying weapons to a fascistic regime. Many people right now are awash in the hatred of Biden that is swirling in what passes for the Left cauldron. We understand. But that hatred does not address the dilemma. It was the same with Ukraine, the rush to saturated outrage at Putin’s actions.

Consider the following parallel: I have a horror, like you do, of animals being murdered. Nevertheless, I work with humans who do eat animals, collaborate on projects with non-vegans, and am astonished they don’t see the glaring hypocrisy of valuing their trivial taste pleasure over the torture of other persons. But in every other respect they are well meaning ethical people.

We don’t live in a socialist vegan world, and I have gotten over my infantile dreams (mostly) that we soon will, so I endorse the idea that if we can shift this or that, we may be able to have less violence, so let’s try. That doesn’t mean “happy meat,” (so-called “free range” or “cage free” strategies) either.  No slaughtered animal is happy.

The Social Dems in Weimar and the Communist Party couldn’t manage to unify to block Hitler.  Short-term alliances were deemed distasteful, as their long-term goals were too different. That turned out to be a political failure with devastating consequences for millions, which for as long as humans exist will still be devastating.

So here too, our short-term duty, our urgent imperative, is to block fascism.  Unified front. What else is there?  Did we miss something?  We can chew gum and walk at the same time. Pressure Biden and block Trump. For Schumer to speak up, is going against his funding and must have been hard.  He can’t exactly rely on the gun lobby or Exxon.

 Trump was keeping his mouth shut about Israel until last week, when he told a Fox News reporter that Israel had to “finish the problem.” He didn’t use the words “final solution,” but he came close. He’s no doubt licking his chops at the opportunity to support his fascist pal, and drool over the massacre of brown people. Let’s hope someone leaks his private musings as he gobbles down his corpse steak and Diet Coke.   His reticence until now suggests that corporate interests, who fund Trump, are not aligned with the continuance of Bibi. They have invested in the two-state myth for access to Arab wealth funds.

I couldn’t say if Biden in the aggregate has a better domestic policy than former presidents. His two policies — war making and fossil fuel extraction – make him one of the worst. But he is still not a domestic fascist, and his team is not fascist. He supports the American working class.  He comes from the center right at a time when there is no center right, which is why he is so difficult to evaluate.  Would have to get into the Tardis to travel back to 1970 to measure his domestic policy.

Would be inconceivable for Muslim Americans to vote for Biden again. They shouldn’t have to swallow that rock stuck in their throat. They get a pass for this dirty lesser of two weevils.

Biden has managed to lose the Jewish vote from both ends. He thinks Israel is Paul Newman in Exodus, with a nice theme tune, not a bunch of right-wing armed thugs with dual citizenship from Jersey, bullying Palestinians, pushing them off their land for expensive real estate development and tech startups ups. Israel is no longer the home of Jewish survivors steeped in European cultures, it’s one of the many right-wing states of this world where democracy has withered in exchange for profit.

If Bernie Sanders says not to vote for Biden and there is another road to defeating Magats, we are all ears.”

Sue’s letter got me thinking about the long history of debates about “Why vote?” These have rarely happened within the established political parties or among their apologists in academia, think tanks, and the media. To them, voting is a sacred covenant between the government and the governed; to renounce voting is to renounce democracy itself. Neither does the far right think much about voting. Fascists, Christian Nationalists, and others like them reject it altogether; they prefer the rule of a boss (“you’re fired!”), priest, or Caesar. The constant refrain by Trump and his ardent followers that elections are rigged (whenever they lose) is just their expression of preference for authoritarian rule.

It’s only on the left where the ethics and efficacy of voting have been seriously considered. There, the issues are summarized beneath the rubrics “reform vs revolution” or “parliamentarism vs communism.” During a presidential election year when some on the U.S. left are considering voting for a third-party candidate or not at all, the subject seems worthy of brief review.

Reform or Revolution

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Frederick Engels briefly addressed the role of electoral democracy in the struggle for socialism.

“The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.”

Marx and Engels reasoned that since the proletariat is by far the most numerous class, granting it suffrage – at a time when voting in most countries was restricted to property holders — would suffice to inaugurate a political process leading to working-class empowerment and socialism. There turned out however, to be three problems with this theory.

First, “the state” was made up of much more than just politicians voted into office. It was also comprised of institutions, coalitions, police, and administrators that governed on behalf of capitalist industry. The latter commanded political influence at every level – from minor bureaucrats to government ministers. The state, therefore, could not easily be seized and transformed by the proletariat; it had to be smashed and reconstituted on an entirely new basis. That reality was quickly discerned by Marx and Engels, but most clearly laid out almost 50 years later in Engels’ introduction to the 1891 edition of The Civil War in France, where he wrote:

“The state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat…[which] must lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation raised in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.”

A few years later, the Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, in a pamphlet titled Reform or Revolution, argued in a similar way that that even when governing institutions are popularly elected, they often act in support of the ruling class. That’s proved, she said, by the fact that whenever politicians begin to challenge capitalist authority, conservative forces jettison democratic style and substance.  Capitalist democracy can quickly revert to authoritarianism if its economic foundation is contested.

The second challenge to the idea that a universal, working-class franchise will automatically bring about a progressive regime is the growth or persistence of the ideologies of nationalism and racism. The first divides the working class in one nation from the working class of another nation, and the second divides workers within a single nation. While the capitalist economy during the late 19th and early 20th century became increasingly globalized, the union movement remained mostly national or even local. Labor simply lacked the same financial or political means as capital to operate internationally. Though some U.S. workers joined the International Workers of the World or “Wobblies”, their numbers never reached more than about 150,000 globally, far too small to operate effectively across national boundaries. Their goal – propounded to this day in the preamble to their Constitution — to “do away with capitalism” — is utopian in the face of the overwhelming power of entrenched political and economic forces.

In periods of war, the problem of nationalism became even greater. In the 19-teens, politicians, newspaper writers, educators and employers all urged workers to fight for their country. “King and Country” or “Home and Country” were the two main battle cries in the U.K. and U.S. during World War I. In Germany, Social Democratic support for the war led to splintering of the party, ultimately disabling the left, and preventing it from coming together to defeat Nazism two decades later.

In the U.S., racism has been a particularly effective destroyer of working-class voter solidarity. Whiteness, as Cheryl Harris, David Roediger, and others have argued, grants its possessors a wage – both social and financial — that Black or brown workers are denied. In those circumstances, voting rights can go only so far in increasing the political power of workers at the expense of capital. Still today, racism undermines solidarity.

The third reason that the great expansion of the franchise in the 19th and 20th centuries failed to create democratic socialism is that workers themselves are not a homogenous group. Though the U.S. working class is large – comprising the nearly 70% of people who own nothing but their own labor power – it contains factions with distinctly different life chances and perspectives. (Much of that difference is due, as suggested earlier, to U.S. racism.) Workers’ allegiances, therefore, are not primarily based upon their class identity, but upon ethnic, gender, linguistic, educational, or other professional and cultural markers. Though the working class bands together, from time to time, to champion cherished social or economic programs, it can just as easily join forces to derogate other workers, especially immigrants, or vulnerable minorities.

To summarize, the working class in the U.S. is large but poorly organized. It neither recognizes itself as a class, nor pursues a politics that advances its collective interests. What’s more, the most economically vulnerable sectors of the white working class increasingly support the Republican Party (which consistently passes laws to reduce support for the poor), while the most educated and best paid among workers support Democrats who are more likely to advance social welfare and economic stimulus programs that help the poor. Both groups are acting logically, in what they perceive to be their particular interests: the one because they seek to hold on to whatever advantages they have as whites, and the other because they value education, science literacy and professional credentials, which they often possess and which most Democratic politicians support. Voting today is thus largely a matter of classes and groups choosing who they want but don’t need, or who understands them best, but then betrays them.

Why vote?

Given that the U.S. working class (by far the largest segment of the population) regularly choose the wrong candidate, and that U.S. politicians regularly disappoint the citizens who elect them, why vote at all? Why Biden not Trump, or why Trump not Biden? The answer lies in the cliché my friend Sue deployed earlier: “We can chew gum and walk at the same time,” meaning we can organize and protest with all our strength against war abroad and inequality at home, while still voting for candidates who will advance a progressive agenda, or at least do it the least harm.

Recent history shows that elections have significant consequences, as I wrote two weeks ago, and that some candidates are in fact much worse than others. Though Hilary Clinton was cut from the same neo-liberal, neo-conservative, new-Democrat, interventionist, corporate cloth as her husband, the election of Trump in 2016 (despite his loss of the popular vote) brought about multiple dire and completely avoidable results. Here’s a partial list:

+ The elevation of three, arch conservative Supreme Court justices who rolled back abortion rights, Indigenous rights, workers’ rights, voting rights, the rights of prisoners and the accused, affirmative action, environmental regulations, and the separation of church and state.

+ In the midst of the greatest pandemic in 100 years, Trump’s suppression of scientific data, rejection of testing and mask-wearing, and withdrawal from the World Health Organization, led to at least 200,000 excess American deaths.

+ The passage of a $1.9 trillion tax cut that benefitted the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Trump them proposed enormous cuts in food aid, housing supports and health care in order to make up for the loss of revenue.

+ The emboldening of far-right terrorists, costing hundreds of American lives through mass and targeted shootings. Trump’s racist rhetoric normalizes violence and ethnic hatred.

+ The attempt to steal a U.S, election and aggregate all political power to Trump and his cohorts. He also began but failed to execute a policy of what the Nazis called Gleichshaltung – bringing all independent parts of the federal bureaucracy into conformity with the will of the president. Completion of that project is his stated goal for a second term. He has said he wants to be a “dictator for one day,” though he probably meant “from day one.”

+ The rollback of the modest reproachments with Cuba and Iran, resulting in deprivation and conflict.

+ A set of Middle East accords that increased ties between Israel and some of its neighbors, while marginalizing the interests of the Palestinians, thus setting the stage for October 7, 2023.

+ A set of verbal and trade assaults upon China that have increased the threat of war and made cooperation on vital issues, like climate change, more difficult.

+ Withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and the undermining of federal initiatives on climate change.

+ A relentless demonization of immigrants, including the banning of legal immigration from predominantly Muslim counties (the “Muslim ban”).

No doubt, a balance sheet following the conclusion of a Clinton presidency would also look troubling, at the very least. But would it have been as bad? And would its impacts have been so long lasting as for example, Trump’s Supreme Court appointments? The court’s rulings on environmental regulation alone could doom millions in the U.S and abroad to displacement or even death.

Joe Biden began his term indebted to the Bernie Sanders voters who helped put him in office. Despite his long history of being a tool for credit card companies and other big corporations that make Delaware their home and tax haven, Biden proposed a set of stimulus bills that rivalled or even exceeded Roosevelt’s New Deal in scale. But he did so without a commitment to class politics, and thus without enough energy, ingenuity, or popular support to get them all passed. We’ll never know if another president could have prevailed against Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. But as it was, the Infrastructure Act, CHIPS and Inflation Reduction Act added up to more that $2 trillion in spending. The war in Ukraine however, (egged on by Biden), combined with supply chain snafus, brought Bidenomics into disrepute and now threatens his re-election. Strident divisions within the working class mean that he cannot expect new initiatives for social spending to lift him above his rival. However, it’s Biden’s disastrous support for Israeli retribution against Palestinian civilians for the October 7 attacks, that may prove to be his political undoing. There may be justice in that fact, but the consequences for the U.S. and the world could be catastrophic.

A notable community organizer from New Orleans, Beulah Labostrie, once said: “No matter what, someone will be elected on election day.”  What she meant is that like it or not, somebody is going to win and it might as well be the person you prefer. I hope we don’t wake up on November 6 and find out it’s Trump. But whoever wins, the work of organizing a diverse and divided working class will still need to be done. Otherwise, genuine democracy – a regime based upon the satisfaction of real human needs, not the pursuit of profit – will remain a distant dream.