Note: the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors only, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the members and Board of the Wesleyan Democrats.
“This is the most important election of our lives.”
“If you don’t vote, you’re essentially voting for Trump.”
“Not voting just shows how much privilege you have.”
As board members of the Wesleyan Democrats, we have heard those refrains all too often during this election cycle. Many students are preoccupied with the idea that people must vote in this specific presidential election. The near-obsessive focus on this election, in particular, ignores the deep-rooted white supremacy and settler-colonialism in this country that has existed for centuries, and that will persist without radically changing the dominant structures and hierarchies of our society.
These issues have not only led to violent racism here at home, but also a vast empire of endless wars and exploitative agreements for plundering developing nations across the globe, something that many Americans, and politicians in particular, have refused to acknowledge.
Understanding what historical conditions can lead to radical change is only one small part of a greater learning process, especially for those who only just began grappling with the inefficacies of electoralism—including the four of us. As members of a campus arm of the Democratic Party, we have to own up to a legacy of veiled exploitation, oppression, and marginalization—the expansion of the prison-industrial complex under President Bill Clinton and the bombing of hundreds of civilians in the Middle East and Africa under President Barack Obama are just two recent examples of the Democratic Party’s willingness to harm at-risk communities.
Even today, we can see that willingness right here in Democrat-governed Middletown, where police still receive more funding than the Equal Opportunity, Youth Services, Health, Conservation and Development, and Recreation and Community Services offices combined. Statewide, Connecticut has consistently and historically led the country in income inequality. These institutions, even those known as “progressive,” are not doing enough.
Many preach passionately about the importance of voting in this election and the value of young people’s participation. Yet, just as many are silencing the voices of historically marginalized groups—particularly BIPOC and working class people—who regard the electoral system as illegitimate as their voices are often underrepresented in the government. The vast majority of people have perpetually been exploited by an electoral system that demands they vote for the lesser of two evils in the name of “harm reduction,” with the promise that next time around there will be a better candidate—a promise never fulfilled. Candidates have little incentive for bold action in a two-party system where votes are not earned, but expected, with little more than promises and platitudes offered in return.
For example, perspectives like those of radical Indigenous advocacy group Indigenous Action argue that electoral participation only serves to legitimize the very systems we are trying to fight.
“Do we compare how many millions of undocumented Indigenous Peoples have been deported?” Indigenous Action writes. “Do we add up what political party conducted more drone strikes? Or who had the highest military budget?… If voting is the democratic participation in our own oppression, voting as harm reduction is a politics that keeps us at the mercy of our oppressors.”
Even if harm is reduced by voting, what happens to the groups that are still being harmed? How are we, as Americans, supposed to grapple with the fact that we participate in electing officials who actively harm minority communities?
The 2020 Black Lives Matter and broader anti-racist movement—the largest racial justice movement since the Civil Rights Movement—has forced this country to reckon with the failures of reformist policies implemented by those elected via harm reduction, from chokehold ban legislation and bias training to funding police departments for body cameras. All of these policies have failed to reduce police killings and violence. Still, too many are willing to believe that incremental change is the best path forward, arguing that changes must happen gradually over time because seismic, structural changes are too “radical.”
Radical changes require us to completely rethink our societal structures and build something entirely new. Timid paths to reforms cannot eliminate the legacy of white supremacy and the racial disparities in almost every single aspect of our country, because white supremacy is too ingrained in our society.
“In 1956, I shall not go to the polls,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote. “I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say… If a voter organizes or advocates a real third-party movement, he may be accused of seeking to overthrow this government by ‘force and violence.’ Anything he advocates by way of significant reform will be called ‘Communist.’”
History has presented us with alternatives, that perhaps unfathomably, actually work.
“‘Reform this, reform that’ is heard from all sides…,” Political scientist Peter Kropotkin wrote about late-stage capitalism. “And yet all know that it is impossible to make things over, to remodel anything at all because everything is interrelated; everything would have to be remade at once.”
By taking the power away from oppressive state structures through direct action, such as protests and community organizing, we can remain true to our shared values and liberation and justice without legitimizing these structures. For example, the Middletown Mutual Aid Collective was born out of frustration with an electoral system that was unable to guarantee food and cleaning supplies to its people during a devastating pandemic. The Middletown Mutual Aid Collective has redistributed over $30,000 in cash and even more in groceries and personal protective equipment (PPE) to struggling families, aiding the working class far more than your favorite liberal politician.
Similarly, renters and tenants’ unions have been fighting across the nation to save people from eviction by seizing power from landlords and asserting the human right to housing, rather than begging for it from an unresponsive electoral system.
In the workplace, solitary workers and unions, especially those on the left, have started pushing for increased benefits, hazard pay, and healthcare, using strikes to put muscle behind their demands for a democratically-run workplace.
At the end of the day, we believe that voting—and where to focus energy in the broader fight for justice—is a deeply personal decision. As students at an institution steeped in critical thought, we should realize that “vote shaming” is not only dismissive of lived experiences, but also a deeply arrogant position from which to moralize. How can anyone truly quantify the amount of good from voting versus that of direct action? Who are we to say that organizing mutual aid is less effective than electoral organizing? Even if we do choose to engage in the electoral system, we must also commit to political involvement that extends far beyond voting and electoral organizing.
“I think that a better question people need to have is if voting is the only thing they are doing to create the world they want to see,” K Agbebiyi wrote. “I think they need to question why that is. And then there will be less pressure around their decision whether or not they are going to vote.”
We did not write this to call for boycotting the election, but rather to impress the importance of constant interrogation, not only of methods but also of intention. From the perspective of radical change, we recognize how the electoral system can popularize agendas, but we believe that such popularization is only useful in demonstrating the importance of more radical and concrete forms of resistance. We must organize for the right of working people not to be struggling every minute of every day but so that they too can join the fight against an exploitative, oppressive, and self-perpetuating system.
The next time one of those ‘Vote Blue no Matter Who’ graphics pops up on your Instagram feed (we’re looking at you, @SettleforBiden), ask yourself: what exactly are you settling for?
Bryan Chong is a Co-Chair of the Wesleyan Democrats and a member of the Class of 2021 and can be reached at email@example.com.
George Fuss is a former Co-Chair of the Wesleyan Democrats and a member of the Class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katelin Penner is a former Student Community Director of the Wesleyan Democrats and a member of the Class of 2022 and can be reached at email@example.com.
Olivia Ramseur is a former Public Relations Director of the Wesleyan Democrats and a member of the Class of 2023 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.