Against American Exceptionalism: Voting as Harm Reduction

There’s an organization here called Seattle Solidarity. Years ago, I’d read about them on an old iteration of their website, which was a lot more explicit about a fundamental organizing principle they follow or have followed for over a decade: agitate to win and never mobilize if you’re not convinced that you will. I remember reading somewhere in their FAQs how they understood the critical importance to their effectiveness as a solidarity network and pressure group of maintaining a 100% win rate. I can’t find that information now; I don’t know if their ethos has changed, but when I first read it, I found their argument impressive and convincing. That’s material analysis with teeth.

SeaSol is precisely the kind of politics that critics of electoralism adore. Direct action. Horizontal solidarity. Getting the goods. But I wonder why SeaSol’s organizing ethos isn’t as influential as their theory of change. I agree with all critiques of the electoral process, but I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would even begin to interface with that process if they were not convinced that their action would result in a winning outcome. Protest votes, votes of “conscience” (so much to unpack in that one), votes for minor parties, votes that triangulate the mysteries of the electoral college, withholding the vote–I understand these, and I have respected these in the U.S. context, particularly when debates raged around Nader, but I cannot help but see their reckless futility today. Have we learned nothing in the past twenty years? The past four?

It pains me to see friends with the best “ends” convincing themselves of such means; is ideology and/or grievance and/or disillusionment so thick as to obscure the very real and concrete differences between a regime that dismantles all gains to one that will dismantle less? I see and recognize the shape of the argument, but I can’t help but hear echoes of American exceptionalism in that perspective.

Why would citizens of this country be exempt from the false choices the vast majority of the world is forced to make to reduce harm, to increase chances of survival? This steely-eyed analysis of what will and will not reproduce this broken and unjust system, I’m sorry to say, is radical in form but sentimental and “religious” in content.

I don’t know if lashing out against the mealy-mouthed neoliberal entrenchment of one party is worth the effort, but I certainly believe that it’s no more noble than combatting the fascist takeover of another. I don’t know the deep personal pain of casting a vote in favor of individuals who caused great harm to people and communities — but I do know what it’s like to live under a regime of war criminals; I do know the cost to the soul of accepting blood-soaked hands holding every fountain pen behind every mahogany desk. And yet, I still refuse to believe that engaging with the bureaucratic machine to slow its destruction of ordinary lives means an endorsement of these crimes and criminals.

You cannot have it both ways: your vote cannot be both pointless in the grand scheme of things AND so meaning-full as to rob you of your dignity should you need to vote strategically to avoid further disaster.

There is no shame in choosing the lesser of two evils; this is the default condition for most of us. There is no glory either. Voting is simply an act, like recycling, like flipping a switch off when you leave the room, like staying home with a million others during a pandemic. It does not conquer death but it does not contribute to it either.

I don’t imagine anyone at SeaSol agreeing with my reading of their tactics and that’s a real shame. The disconnect between community-based action and state-oriented agitation is one false binary I cannot wait to see abolished.

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