Elections Matter, But What We Do Between Them Matters Even More

I am sick and tired of the horse race approach to election analysis. Of course, in a winner-take-all system, every vote matters, but the carnival of every election season — the noise, the color, the razzle-dazzle — can create a spellbinding distraction. Both during and after each election, those of us committed to building the movement for social and racial justice must stay focused on the larger context and fundamental questions.

Capitalist democracy has always been “flawed” and fraught. Still, the right-wing alternative — authoritarian rule — is a frightening and threatening but all-too-real alternative. So, we have to politically walk and chew gum at the same time: defending the political rights we have, leveraging them as best we can, and simultaneously organizing and mobilizing for something better.

The past eight years have served to illuminate the fault lines in capitalist democracy, and this midterm election further clarified the challenges we face. There are many pundits bemoaning that “our democracy” is in jeopardy. Yes, but it has never belonged to all of us, and yes, it is “belonging” to fewer and fewer. Elites (initially landowning and slave-owning white men, but a more diverse cast of elites today) have had a stranglehold on government and the state from the beginning. The right to vote and hold office has expanded, and at the same time new obstacles to the full exercise of democratic decision-making have been erected.

In recent memory this includes Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United that have allowed corporations and ultra-rich individuals to exercise autocratic power, and the current wave of voter suppression bills: Florida’s SB90, Texas’s SB1, Georgia’s SB 202, the list goes on. And when legal obstacles to voting fail, more ruthless measures prevail.

Black southerners know this all too well from the Jim Crow days of night riders and white vigilantes threatening Black voters, or landowners threatening to evict Black sharecroppers if they dared to even register to vote. Civil rights movement legend Fannie Lou Hamer was the victim of one such threat and more. She was beaten and left with permanent disabilities for daring to assert her right to vote. The rise of racist militias threatening to monitor the polls or worse, defend the preordained outcome of right-wing victories, are reminiscent of fascist dictatorships more than anything else.

So, there was a dark cloud over this year’s midterms that overshadows even the still looming threat of a GOP numerical victory in the House of Representatives. We already have Lindsey Graham suggesting there will be riots in the street if authoritarian tyrant Trump is ever convicted and jailed for the multitude of crimes he has seemingly committed. That is only one of many indications that the current right-wing movement, elected and unelected, is prepared to use extralegal means to hold power. January 6 was a clear and powerful wake-up call on this very point.

In the 2022 midterms, there were mean-spirited gun-toting xenophobes on the ballot, climate denying anti-choice zealots and foul-mouthed fearmongers. Racism and misogyny were also on the ballot this time around, more explicitly than ever before. Racist and sexist tropes and stereotypes were deployed widely to instill fear and dread in isolated white voters. Television ads featured scenes of violent mayhem and shadowy out-of-control figures pillaging and plundering. In these moments, the fig leaf was removed: “crime” was openly portrayed as young Black men on a rampage.

Plucked out of context, and played over and over, these scenes were portrayed in campaign ads as if they were daily occurrences. The message was: Violence and crime will come to your suburban community if you do not elect a GOP candidate. “Safe” white communities were juxtaposed against violent cities full of violent Black and Brown criminals.

The past eight years have served to illuminate the fault lines in capitalist democracy, and this midterm election further clarified the challenges we face.

Unlike in past elections when the proponents of anti-Black policies were all white, Black candidates and women candidates were also deployed in the service of these racist, sexist and reactionary platforms. These Black right-wing candidates include Jennifer-Ruth Green in Indiana, Richard Irvin who ran in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Illinois, and of course, the poster child for Black reactionary opportunism, Herschel Walker in Georgia, who aims to unseat Senator Raphael Warnock.

So, even though John Fetterman won by a slim margin in Pennsylvania and hopefully Warnock will do the same in Georgia in the runoff, we still have a lot of work to do to derail dangerous movements that threaten our very lives, and that transcend electoral politics. Right-wing hate groups are going to push for their agenda whether they win at the polls or not. So, this electoral season is not only about winning more ballots but winning the ideological struggle that is far more complicated.

To say that we need to look beyond the ballot box to understand and respond to this moment is not to say elections don’t matter. All my reservations about an over-emphasis on electoral politics notwithstanding, elections do matter. There have been few revolutionary pivots in modern history that have not on some level involved polling citizens on what people and ideas they want to lead. Moreover, there is a qualitative difference between authoritarian proto-fascist rule and a flawed and fractured capitalist democracy.

For those on the left who want nothing to do with the “sellout politics” of bourgeois democracy, I ask, do you know anyone who has lived, organized, and struggled under a full-blown dictatorship? I do. People are held without charge, jailed, tortured, exiled and killed on a routine basis and in large numbers. There are no rallies outside the police station to demand the release of arrested comrades. Dissidents were routinely disappeared under dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Haiti under Duvalier and elsewhere. Today in the Philippines, Turkey and Russia, protest and dissent can yield a life sentence. So, protecting even a slender semblance of “rights” helps determine the terrain of resistance and struggle. A corollary to this fact is the equally important fact that “democratic rights” have long been in short supply in Black and Brown immigrant communities. For example, a DUI can get you deported, and an angry response to an unjust arrest can get you killed.

For this reason, it matters if there is a Cori Bush, a Rashida Tlaib, or an Ilhan Omar in Congress, or a reasonable person versus a proto-fascist in local office. Keeping the far right out of elected office can at least ameliorate some suffering and give organizers room to breathe. Whether the Republicans or Democrats hold the House and the Senate matters. Whether we build a broad-based progressive movement to fight for what our people need and deserve matters even more.

The ominous clouds of authoritarianism are still hovering. They will not just blow over. Most Germans did not predict, or even believe possible, the full-fledged horrors of the Third Reich. Most Chileans did not foresee the overthrow of the elected president, Salvador Allende.

The current political situation in the U.S. is different situation and unique, but there are also parallels between it and the years leading up to those horrific historical moments. We cannot stumble around with “it can’t happen here” blinders on.

The divide between the right and left in the U.S. on critical questions, and even on what is factually true, is palpable and ominous. Similar divides occurred in past historical moments that resulted in major breaks, such as the U.S. Civil War. States are at odds with federal law on key principles like women and trans people’s rights to bodily autonomy. The New York Times is doing a series on political violence highlighting the rise of extralegal armed groups as documented by Southern Poverty Law Center, Political Research Associates and the ACLU. These are serious times. Freedom-loving and justice-seeking people need to continue to vote, strategize and organize with a clear understanding of how high the stakes really are.