I just found out that James Kochalka ended his American Elf series after more than 14 years. I can only imagine what that’s like.
Or I should say, I can only imagine 1/14th of what that’s like…
Listen to I Hope You Like it by Jonny 5.
In the last few weeks, I have observed and participated in a number of conversations related to the election, all of which seem to boil down to two questions.
1. To vote or not to vote?
2. To vote for Obama or not to vote for Obama?
I think these discussions themselves are incredibly valuable, because they are rooted in vital critiques of both the Obama administration and the limits of electoral-based change. I have found it incredibly useful to flesh out my rationale on these questions, and thought I might as well take the time to do so in writing.
Where does change come from?
My core assumption and belief is that it is social movements, not political candidates, who bring about political change. Movements- through organizing, outreach, direct actions, and smaller victories- change the conventional wisdom about an issue, which means the political reality for whomever in power is that they must address it.
The most effective movements are able to steer the conversation.
Recent examples include Occupy Wall Street, LGBT equality, and DREAMers. Terms like “the 1%”, “marriage equality” and “undocumented American” represent a successful reframing of the issue that reflects a new conventional wisdom which requires politicians to respect the new reality. Thanks to these movements, political candidates have to speak to these issues.
Where social movements have had less momentum, candidates are more free to ignore the issues. Drone attacks, indefinite detention, targeted assassination, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, the death penalty, NDAA, Bradley Manning, Palestine. Why aren’t these issues in the public conversation? Is it because they require more courage to speak about? Perhaps. Is it because they require a deeper critique of the system? Perhaps. But I would argue that we, the community of people who care about these issues, simply haven’t yet manifested the movement(s) necessary to put and keep them on the front burner.
What is an election?
So, if movements are what really lead to change, why bother with elections? There are several reasons, each of them related to the question- what is an election?
Many point out that elections have become a public spectacle, all media pageantry and no substance. This is certainly true in large part of the Presidential race. But to simply say this and conclude that all voting is pointless is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Elections are a certainly a public spectacle. But is that all they are?
Sometimes, elections are, quite simply, a straightforward means of making a collective decision. In Colorado, for example, we will decide whether or not to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In Washington, voters will be asked to affirm (or reject) a bill guaranteeing marriage equality. After decades of struggle around drug policy and LGBT rights, the people of these two states now have the opportunity to make the conventional wisdom a reality. Does anyone argue against voting in these cases?
If I were merely trying to demonstrate that voting has value, I would stop right here, because I believe that local/state issues are actually the most important. Not only do our votes and our organizing efforts have a much larger impact, but the campaigns themselves are more likely to work in sync with movement-building. For example, when voters reject an anti-immigrant car impound initiative, or vote to raise their own sales taxes to pay for education, the election results reflect a newfound consensus about our values. These are victories we can build upon!
But what about candidates? Why vote for them?
I see two reasons. Again, each reason relates to the question of what exactly an election is.
Choosing your Negotiating Partner
From the perspective of a social movement, an election is a practical chance to choose the person with whom you will be negotiating.
Consider the Keystone XL Pipeline. If Bill McKibbon and 2,000 others had not participated in a direct action encircling the White House, would Obama have delayed the construction of this pipeline? No. It was direct action that brought about the change in political reality. But I also think Obama is in fact pre-disposed to support environmentalist causes, both because of his personal values and because he sees environmentalists as his constituency. As Presidents go, he has been a decent negotiating partner.
Consider how much more difficult this struggle might be under a President Romney, who has pledged that the pipeline will be built “on day one… if I have to build it myself”. What took 2,000 arrests under Obama might take 20,000 arrests under Romney.
Does this mean we can sit back and let Obama steer the ship? NO. Stopping Keystone is going to require th continued activism already underway (in Texas right now!) And this should be the core lesson for progressives from the last 4 years. Obama’s personal beliefs are not going to translate into policy. He is going to act on his political realities. It is our job to create those realities. We have to “ go out there and make [him] do it” to quote FDR (and Obama himself, I believe). We have to keep steering the ship.
But still, why pass up a chance to affect the terrain? Why pass up a chance to determine who is on the inside the halls of power as we demonstrate outside? (Remember- this applies not only to the people we elect, but the people they appoint once they are elected. And once again, I think this logic holds up even better locally, where it’s easier to get allies and movement candidates into office). I see no reason not to stack the deck in our favor.
A quick sidenote. I often hear the argument that essentially “things have to get worse for them to get better” or that its easier to organize under a Republican because people are more willing to protest, while under Obama people become complacent. For this reason, Glenn Ford of the Black Agenda Report called Obama “The more Effective Evil.” I think this critique of liberal passivity holds great value (and leads back to the truth around movements as the impetus for change), and when it comes to foreign policy I see some truth to this argument. But ultimately, Romney is not the more effective evil, (unless you believe that Romney would actually order fewer drone strikes or be more respectful of the rights of Palestinians). The solution to complacency is not to allow conditions to worsen, but to address the complacency.
I’m also reminded of an epiphany I had during the Bush administration. I realized that more and more outrageous actions on Bush’s part did not necessarily lead to more and more outrage. Instead, those of us who were organizing simply got spread thinner and thinner, making all of the movements weaker. We found ourselves playing defense in more games with the same amount of players. With Obama it does at least feel like there are some opportunities to play offense.
Engaging the Spectacle
These first two reasons are my primary reasons for voting. But there is one more.
As I mentioned before, an election is indeed a spectacle. But what is a spectacle? Dictionary.com says it’s “a public show or display, especially on a large scale”, “anything presented to the sight or view, especially something of a striking or impressive kind”. A national spectacle means something to which the entire country is paying attention. A centerpiece and reference point for public conversation. If our goal is to affect public opinion, why in the world would we ignore a spectacle?
My friend Eric Byler, of the Coffee Party, compares the state of media and politics to professional wrestling, where people root for winners and losers based on what they know about the fighters. Viewed through that lens, what is this election? Who are Romney and Obama IN THE PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS? How are they UNDERSTOOD? As it is currently framed, I would say that Romney is understood as an unapologetic advocate of the 1% and a cheerleader of American belligerence, while Obama is cast as a protector of the 47% (whom Romney vilifies) who wants millionaires to pay more taxes, a supporter of “gay marriage”, DREAMers and Muslims. This is the spectacle the public is watching. This is the fight as it is being presented to us. What would it mean if the public were rooting for Romney? What would it mean for Obama to lose this fight?
It would not mean a rejection of indefinite detention, drones, targeted assassinations, NDAA, etc, because those things are not what “Obama” means to most people. It would mean a rejection of Obama’s “weakness” overseas, a rejection of safety nets, a rejection of regulation and taxing the wealthy. A victory for Romney would mean a victory for the 1%. It would be interpreted as a vindication of right wing arguments, signaling a desire for Americans to return to trickle down policies. In the realm of spectacle, a Romney victory (just as statewide votes against gay marriage) would establish a damaging consensus around retrograde values.
The challenge for progressives is how to enter and expand the parameters of the spectacle so that it includes issues that have been left out. I think this is a great place to invest energy in the next few weeks. How do we introduce questions into the debates about the epidemic of police violence? How do we publically object to the celebration of targeted assassination by the Democratic Party? How can we leverage the campaign of Green party candidates to force such issues into the conversation? What questions do we ask Obama and Democratic staff people when they call our homes? I think this line of thinking is rich with possibility. The election season is a fertile time to plant new seeds and grow our movements.
To vote or not to vote?
Easy. I’m voting. For all three reasons.
In straightforward terms, I’m voting to decriminalize marijuana in the order to decriminalize marijuana.
In practical terms, I’m voting for Democratic candidates in Colorado because I want to see Civil Unions (among other things) pass next year. And I’m voting to make sure that Mitt Romney is not our next President
In terms of spectacle, I’m voting for to tell the best story about the election. Does that mean a vote for Obama? If Colorado looks decisive, then yes, probably, because I want to avoid all else the story of a Mitt Romney victory. But if Obama is already winning, I’ll probably vote Green party, to try to inject the story that Obama’s militarism is losing him voters, to reject the story of liberal complacency.
Most importantly, I’ll do my best to remind people that voting is but one tool of social movements, and that social movements are the real determinants of the direction of this country. And I’ll thank all those people who question voting for keeping this very conversation alive.
I was very interested to see this. Being a full time performing musician is a weird job. It’s a great job, and one for which I am incredibly grateFUL, but is is also weird. Hard to explain to people what it’s like, and even harder to complain about. (For example, having no control of your schedule because you’re going to be indefinitely touring the world can be genuinely difficult, but I always assume that if I share this with people the response will likely be “Cry me a river!”) Sometimes you forget that there are other people out there having similar experiences, so it was cool to get to read Astronautilas’s take on things.
Excited to talk more when we go on tour with this guy.
in regards to the confusion as to if i will be at the DeLuna Fest or in Los Angeles on the 21st: HAVE PATIENCE. a tour is malleable thing. i am not keeping anything from you…it is all getting worked out. take three deep breaths and trust that it is. Chances are, i will play both DeLuna and LA…but…
A dog barking in my backyard. I’m told that this must have been when I was 6 months old, based on the dog. That seems early.