Electoral Politics or Protest?

In the Fall issue of Dissent, Michael Kazin and David Marcus debate the extent to which the Left should participate in electoral politics, with Kazin arguing that Leftists should vote and canvas for Democrats, earning Democrats’ resolve for championing Leftist demands, and Marcus contending that the Left must eschew electoral politics and effect change through protest. Though not a debate unique to this election cycle, it is without doubt a crucial question to grapple with when discontent with capitalism seems to be being released by the safety valve that is the Bernie Sanders campaign, when it should perhaps be allowed to properly explode into mass protests. Recent events would seem to suggest that Marcus’ argument that the Left will have more success in protestation than voting is closer to the truth, considering both the victories made through recent protests and the injuries done when protest was not sustained.

These protests and strikes run the gamut of leftist demands, from economic justice issues, to civil rights, and environmental protection. Governor Cuomo unveiled a plan to gradually raise the minimum wage in New York to $15 an hour due to the force of protestors and strikers, despite being opposed to such a measure as recently as last year. The president of the University of Missouri was forced to resign after occupations, a hunger strike, and a striking football team drew attention to the administration’s acceptance of racial hostility and open threats of whites towards black students. While clearly quite friendly with the oil and gas sectors, President Obama cancelled approval of the Keystone XL pipeline due to sustained protests by environmentalists of that particular pipeline.

That these actually quite modest successes are some of the biggest victories for the Left in a while really gets to how inegalitarian and undemocratic the empire is. It is questionable whether $15 an hour is actually enough to be a living wage. Human beings shouldn’t have to go on hunger strike to bring attention to the fact that someone charged with guaranteeing their safety tacitly condones racial hatred against them. Stopping one instantiation of a particular oil transportation method, and thereby only slightly slowing down the transporting of an energy source that we really need to stop using completely if we don’t want massive population migrations and resource scarcities that lead to humanitarian chaos and war, is really only a drop in the bucket, so to speak.

And yet it is hard not to be shaken in ones optimism towards protest when the largest protests in history were ignored and we went to war in Iraq and some of the most sustained demonstrations against neoliberal capitalism (Occupy) were broken up and their popular sentiment disregarded. Not even protest, it seems clear, will be enough for profound change. Massive strikes and civil disobedience, insofar as these are focused methods of protest will be our best options in achieving our goals of a more egalitarian and free society.

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