What is real political resistance?
Recently, liberal campaigns have used the simple word “vote”—often alone, maybe emphasized with an exclamation mark––to hastily plant in place of a more definite progressive political slogan or movement. It’s hard to evade, having become a sort of one-word identification symbol for Democrats, an almost obvious command watered down by ubiquity. It’s less of a rallying cry and more of a slightly condescending plea. The recurring lack of enthusiasm for Democratic presidential candidates is the cause for this reductive phrase’s popularity, as well as moderates’ fears that leftists won’t end up voting at all. However, the dispiriting choices in this year’s presidential race—an incompetent authoritarian versus an uninspiring centrist—calls the actual power of voting into question. Not to mention that the oversimplified and marketable “vote” slogan could easily create a misunderstanding of the populace’s political responsibilities, reducing the perception of citizens’ duties to voting once every four years. Can we really call voting for the lesser evil “political power?” And what does this mainstream simplification of political obligation mean for us?
Understandably, these questions are heavily disputed—voting is a defining part of American democracy, and at this particular moment it’s not an action that should be trivialized. Many consider how privilege is tied to the ability to criticize the validity of electoral politics, and reasonably argue that voting blue will at least curb needless suffering. Especially in the midst of a national crisis that the Trump administration has only exacerbated, voting for Biden would at least be a vote for basic COVID-19 prevention and relief through more efficient testing and stable economic assistance. However, I worry that the overwhelming emphasis on voting, while valid to a certain extent, sterilizes our understanding of political consciousness and duty as we simplify what it means to have political choice and power. Just look at the other popular Democratic slogan, “Vote blue no matter who,” a catchy phrase with dark undertones of blind loyalty to a political party over actual political analysis. The infinitely sadder “settle for Biden” exemplifies the rising apathy for politicians’ track records. And this diminishing attitude—almost like politicized political apathy—is excruciatingly obvious in the Republican party as well, exemplified in its absurd denial of fact and refusal to deviate from the Trump administration. Recently at the Republican National Convention, the GOP reduced its platform to continued support of Donald Trump and subsequent condemnation of the Democratic Party. On the whole, the prevalence of a wide scale guilt trip to vote instead of a charged political movement shows the dysfunctional nature of American democracy and further pushes the illusion of political choice for Americans, as if either party works to uphold anything else than the interests of the ruling class.
Criticism of defining the vote as the one political responsibility is not unique to this moment. Acclaimed radical activist and political philosopher Angela Davis has always described electoral politics as conflicting with her anti-capitalist views, explaining in 2016 that “the arena of electoral politics militates against the expression of radical militant perspective,” while still expressing the importance of voting to defeat Donald Trump. This year, she doubled down by asserting that radicals must temporarily “work within the electoral arena, recognizing that the electoral arena is not the best place for the expression of radical politics.” While many liberals have taken her call to vote as an endorsement for the Democratic candidate—which Davis clearly refutes—Davis’ years of radical thought go conspicuously unmentioned in this narrative. This kind of liberal campaigning has effectively watered down Davis’ message for the public, using her voice to shame radicals rather than shed a light on the inherent violence of the erasure of marginal and minority perspectives within electoral politics.
For some, being told to participate in a system that has never stopped feeding off of institutional oppression may seem contradictory. Voting has never been synonymous with resistance or revolution. Our energy must be directed towards tangible political action, and for leftists, that doesn’t always occur within the electoral system. However, the vote does symbolize a short term improvement—even if that improvement is unsatisfactory, it does have real effects on people. The endless barrage of “vote” rhetoric, rather than expressing this complicated rationale, weakens this message, ignores the inherent violence of current American politics and destructively simplifies what constitutes political action. Sure, vote. But that can’t be the end of our political responsibility––and it’s definitely not the end-all be-all of the state of the country. Besides voting, we can donate to organizations and individuals in immediate need—Vassar Political Education Wealth Redistribution, started by Vassar students, regularly shares ways to redistribute wealth. However frustrating it may be, finding alternatives to electoral politics is necessary in a system that works to strengthen a discriminatory hierarchy. Voting is a way to gain representation within that system, and while its significance should not be mitigated in that sense, resistance will always begin outside of electoral politics.