Electoral Politics by Itself Doesn’t Work for the Left

By Frances Fox Piven

A good many liberals and progressives are shocked at George Bush’s victory. Republican gains in the Senate and House only make it worse. It is not that we were unaware of the Republican advantages. We knew that the Bush campaign’s constant talk of the war on terror stirred fear and excitement in many voters and that this worked to Bush’s advantage. So did the so-called morality issues of abortion and gay marriage, which evoked the peculiar American obsession with sex. And then there was the Republican propaganda machine, run by skilled and ruthless operatives whose messages were amplified by networks of evangelical churches and dutifully trumpeted by a sympathetic corporate media.

Still, many of us expected the Democrats to win, or at least we expected Kerry to win. We thought we could overcome Republican advantages by bringing new voters to the polls. The conventional wisdom has it that non-voters are preponderantly low-income, minority and young, all groups that favor Democrats. But while that is broadly true, the pool of non-voters is vast, and get-out-the-vote drives inevitably target only specific groups in the pool. So the Republicans could launch a voter drive too, and that they did, targeting suburban and rural areas and drawing on networks of fundamentalist churches to widen their reach. State constitutional amendment ballot measures against gay marriage also helped draw right-leaning voters to the polls. The turnout effort on both sides was remarkable, and in the end, it was probably a draw.

The underside of the voter turnout campaign was the Republican effort to bar likely-Democrats from actually voting by obstructing the registration of new voters, placing challengers at the polls, issuing false warnings of the risks of voting or simply making sure the lines at polling places in Democratic districts were insufferably long. And then there were the efforts by state and local Republicans to distort the vote count. Reports abound of voter registration forms discarded, provisional ballots not counted and suspicious tallies by electronic voting machines with secret codes and no capacity for a recount. We may never know what actually happened in the belly of these machines.

So what have we learned, and what to do now? The usual lessons are that we should try harder next time—or vote harder, as one wag said recently. And we should promote an agenda of democratic reforms that make vote suppression and outright stealing less likely. I am for those things, but we are unlikely to win them unless we first win some elections.

In any case, I think there is another lesson in the failure of our efforts in campaign 2004. The democratic and egalitarian victories in American history were not won with voter guides and get-out-the vote campaigns. Nor were they won by Democratic Party initiatives. When we restrict ourselves to these conventional forms of electoral politics, we cannot match the Right’s money, propaganda, voter guides and get-out-the vote drives.

Electoral politics by itself doesn’t work for the Left. Or rather it only works in the context of great upsurges of popular protest. This is the lesson of the mobs of the American Revolution, of the abolitionist movement that preceded the Civil War, of the labor movement of the 1930s and of the civil rights and poverty rights movements of the 1960s. The drama and disruption created by these movements gave them communicative power to match the propaganda of party operatives. The issues the movements raised also drew people to the polls in numbers far greater than voter drives can do. And because the movements were disruptive—impeding the functioning of major institutions—politicians were forced to respond.

So yes, we should work on our agenda of democratic reforms, including a national right to vote and a national voter registration system, implementing the National Voter Registration Act and making Election Day a holiday and election officials non-partisan. But we have to do more. Everything we know about the Bush regime indicates that they will be reckless and aggressive, in Iraq and perhaps Iran, as well as at home—with their tax and spending policies that threaten dire economic instability and with their social policy initiatives that are both cruel and short-sighted. The time when mass protest is possible will come. We should be ready and receptive, obdurate and bold. The hip-hop voter registration campaign had a slogan, “Vote or Die.” They were on the right track, but maybe now the slogan should be broadened to be “Struggle or Die.”

Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of Regulating the Poor, Poor People’s MovementsWhy Americans Still Don’t Vote and Why Politicians Like It That Way and, most recently, The War at Home.

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