Electoral Boycott as a Revolutionary Tactic

Radical Reformism in a Time of Change

Except for a small group of committed Bernie Sanders supporters and writers, analysts of the US presidential primaries generally agree by now that Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic Party candidate and Donald Trump the Republican Party candidate. Several ideas have been advanced within this context concerning what disaffected voters, unhappy with these choices, should do. For example:

Bernie or Bust — A group of die hard Sanders supporters, the “Bernie or Bust” movement promotes writing in Bernie Sanders’ name on the ballot, rather than voting for Hillary Clinton.

● Voting Third-Party — Both the Green Party and the Libertarian Party recognize potential for third-party growth, and are attempting to seize the moment by appealing to disaffected voters from across the spectrum.

Vote Pact — In an attempt to neutralize the “spoiler effect,” writer and political activist Sam Husseini is encouraging progressives and libertarians to vote in pairs for their preferred minor party candidates.

Notice that each of these ideas are reformist rather than revolutionary (including the Sanders campaign). That is, rather than promoting a fundamental transformation of the structure of government and two-party system, they advance radical change within the existing institutional framework. The timeliness and potential for radical change is now widely recognized, but reformist ideas are likely to have only limited success.

Boycotting the Elections

Boycotting the elections would be most conducive to revolutionary change, for a couple reasons. First, while Vote Pact neutralizes the spoiler effect (and promotes nonpartisan coalition building in the process), the wasted vote problem remains, as pairs of votes for minor parties are unlikely have a big impact on the electoral outcome.

Second, as a type of participation in establishment politics, voting reinforces the legitimacy of current system, propping up the status quo and its extensive list of policy problems. Even a vote for a minor party candidate — while expressing a preference for radical policy reform — is effectively a vote of approval for the current electoral system and structure of government. A campaign for electoral boycott avoids this pitfall.

A likely objection to this tactic is that if progressives on the left and libertarians on the right abstain in unequal numbers, a boycott may help the less preferred candidate, similar to the spoiler effect. However, this apprehension is based on a pluralist understanding of the president as an ideologically motivated free agent carrying out a partisan agenda within his/her institutional context.

An alternative elite-theoretic view is that it doesn’t matter a whole lot which candidate or party wins the election. Beneath a veil of partisan division, elites use the political system to maintain balance — offering concessions to keep populist movements at bay, while maintaining the status quo and securing the interests of the upper class. As Howard Zinn observed, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in the streets.”

If the spoiler effect remains a concern, one could also turn Husseini’s idea on its head and make an abstention pact with someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum. While this idea is unlikely to have a big impact on the election outcome (considering, for instance, that the Trump candidacy appears to be increasing registration among Latinos), it would probably do more to build revolutionary momentum than pursuing change via the ballot box.

Boycott and Revolution

The need for fundamental, even revolutionary change is now widely recognized. Widespread support for the Sanders and Trump campaigns — whose effect (if not intent) has been to preclude revolution by weaving disaffected voters back into the two-party system — are among several signs of this. However, simply staying away from the polling stations isn’t enough. To gain the most momentum from the current moment, the boycott should be advanced as part of a longer-term movement for systemic revolutionary change.