If you weren’t already made excruciatingly aware by the deluge of campaign ads, promotional material, scathing op eds, and speculative media coverage…the midterms are upon us. Historically, far less people vote in the midterms than do in general elections, though this year is likely to prove to be an exception to that rule. This will be the first nationwide opportunity for Democrats to rebuff Donald Trump and his agenda. But do the midterms offer we, the people, a chance to exercise any real power over policy?
The Electoral Release Valve
There’s no doubt that midterm elections, especially those which occur in the intermittent years following a general election, offer the chance for a part of the electorate to reassert itself in the aftermath of having lost a presidential race. In this way, the midterms act as a release valve.
This is especially true in a moment where popular anger has spilled over into the streets in response to actions by the Trump administration. Inauguration day riots in D.C., airport occupations in protest of the Muslim travel ban, the massive women’s march, and the occupations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in protest of the separation of children from their parents at the border — popular movements have sprung up at nearly every turn to frustrate the attempts by the Trump administration to carry out its agenda. In many cases, they have been successful.
There’s no doubt that the Democratic party has seized on the popular energy that has catalyzed these movements. However, it’s also clear that they didn’t do so in a good faith move toward providing resources or backing for these autonomous movements. At best, Democrats have offered passive support in the form of tweets and op-eds. At worst, they have made explicit their desire to redirect the popular momentum from the streets to the ballot box. In doing so, they disarm and demobilize an engaged and impassioned mass — one that they (correctly) fear could eventually turn on them.
The Narrative of Change
If our endeavor is to dramatically alter the political, economic, and social landscape that we find ourselves in, then it is organized mass movements, not the ballot, which must serve as our tool. This history of this country (and the world) dem onstrates that it has always been external pressure applied by mass movements that have forced the hands of intransigent and obstinate elected officials. This is in stark contrast to the existing narrative, which states that those in positions of political authority bestow upon us new rights and freedoms out of the enlightened goodness of their hearts.
This is a glaring falsehood. It was the Labor Movement, not congress who won workplace safety rules, minimum wage laws, and an end to child labor. It was the Civil Rights Movement, not the president, who ended legal segregation, brought Jim Crow to its knees, and won rights for Black Americans. It was the Women’s Movement, not the supreme court, which struggled and continues to struggle for equal protection under the law, equal pay, and dignity regardless of gender. It was the LGBT and Queer Liberation Movements, not the house of representatives, which made available funding for AIDS research and massively changed our cultural perceptions of sexuality.
To rely on a politician or an entrenched government institution to work on your behalf, is to expect something for nothing. It is only through bitter struggle, through fighting and winning, do we gain anything in our profoundly unequal society.
Those who control the levers of political power in this country, no matter their party affiliation, no matter their supposed convictions, are far more loyal to the institution in which they serve than they are to those of us who elected them. They are no more accountable to us than are our bosses at work. The politician, like the boss, is always performing a cost-benefit analysis. The moment that our interests diverge from theirs — that is to say, the moment that they step into the hallowed halls of government — they will renege on the convictions that they had so steadfastly proclaimed during a campaign.
This is not to say that all politicians, even those who come from movement backgrounds, are inherently corrupt. Rather, it is the institutions in which they serve that requires them to fundamentally abandon any conviction that clashes with the interest of the state or the capitalist class, even if their adherence to that conviction had been sincere.
What’s worse is that we, the constituency who put them in power, have next to no means toward redress when those elected officials inevitably drop us like a bag of rocks.
Moving From Subjects to Popular Power
Our movements, on the other hand, can be truly democratic and dynamic organisms. The positions that we put forth are those which we determine for ourselves — and they can change, not out of a desire to preserve our positions of power or to insincerely appeal to the demands of others, but whenever it is truly necessary. In our movements, we are accountable to one another, and none of us are out of reach if accountability becomes necessary. The precise inverse is true in the relationship between us as constituents and our elected officials.
This is why we contend that beyond just winning concessions from power, our movements can constitute a prefiguration of the sort society that we would like to live in. One that reflects values of direct democracy and egalitarianism. There’s no doubt that winning gains in the present is an important step, but we should also be looking to the horizon, to fundamentally changing our economy and politics, if we intend to provide substantial redress to the ills which plague our society.
This is not us telling you not to vote in the upcoming midterms. This is, however, us telling you to hedge your bets against the ballot box and against entrenched political power generally. This is us telling you that if your goal is substantial change, then you must use the proper tool to achieve that goal.
There are revolutionary organizations on the ground, doing work to build popular power aimed at making exactly those systemic and substantial changes. Our recommendation is that you join one of them. Groups like the Los Angeles Tenants’ Union (LATU) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are just two reputable organizations with active campaigns in the L.A. area. If you are a member of a labor union, find and join the radical caucus within the organization. If your job is dangerous, the pay is poor, or you’re mistreated, look into available resources for organizing your workplace. The possibilities abound for those who want to organize outside of the electoral sphere.
The difference between electoral campaigns and the organizations mentioned in the last paragraph, can be summed up simply. Electoral campaigns seek to organize us as constituents or subjects, social movement organizations seek to organize us on the basis of our class position, or as workers. The former reproduces our subjugation, the latter empowers us to make revolutionary change in our society.
Vote or don’t — but always organize and fight.
This article was originally titled “Of Movements and Midterms” and has been edited slightly for formatting.
If you enjoyed this piece we recommend the related pieces “No Time for Patience: Fascism, Climate and Capitalism” by Mark Bray and “The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power.”