Beyond These Elections

This article comes from Robert Jensen's Homepage. Originally titled: "Taking politics seriously: Looking beyond the election and beyond elections."  Posted on Common Dreams, October 23, 2008.

"The conventional political wisdom -- Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative -- is deeply rooted in the denial of the severity of these crises and hostility to acknowledging the need for radical change. Such a politics of delusion won’t generate solutions but instead will lead us to the end of the road, the edge of the cliff, the brick wall.... it’s never pretty."

by Robert Jensen and Pat Youngblood

We have nothing against voting. We plan to vote in the upcoming election. Some of our best friends are voters.

But we also believe that we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the most important political moment in our lives comes in the voting booth. Instead, people should take politics seriously, which means asking considerably more of ourselves than the typical fixation with electoral politics.

First, we won’t be coy about this election. Each of us voted for Obama in the Texas primary and will vote for him in November. We are leftists who are consistently disgusted by the center-right political positions of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and we have no illusions that Obama is secretly more progressive than his statements in public and choice of advisers indicate. But there is slightly more than a dime’s worth of policy differences between Obama and McCain, and those differences are important in this election. The reckless quality of the McCain campaign and its policy proposals are scary, as is the cult of ignorance that has grown up around Palin.

Just as important, the people of this white-supremacist nation have a chance to vote for an African-American candidate. Four decades after the end of formal apartheid in the United States, in the context of ongoing overt and covert racism that is normalized in many sectors of society, there’s a possibility that a black person might be elected president. Even though Obama doesn’t claim the radical roots of the anti-apartheid struggles of recent U.S. history, the symbolic value of this election is not a trivial consideration. This isn’t tokenism, but a sign of real progress, albeit limited.

But even though we make that argument, we will vote knowing that the outcome of the election is not all that important, for a simple reason: The multiple crises facing this country, and the world, cannot be adequately addressed within the conventional political, economic, or social systems. This is reflected in the fact that neither candidate is even acknowledging the crises. The conventional political wisdom -- Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative -- is deeply rooted in the denial of the severity of these crises and hostility to acknowledging the need for radical change. Such a politics of delusion won’t generate solutions but instead will lead us to the end of the road, the edge of the cliff, the brick wall -- pick your preferred metaphor, but when the chickens of denial come home to roost, it’s never pretty.

These crises are not difficult to identify; the evidence is all around us.

Economics: We aren’t facing a temporary downturn caused by this particular burst bubble but instead are moving into a new phase in the permanent decline of a system that has never met the human needs of most people and never will. It is long past the time to recognize the urgent need to start imagining and building an economics based on production and distribution for real human needs, rejecting the corrosive greed that underlies not only the obscene profits hoarded by the few but also the orgiastic consumption pursued by the many. We can’t know whether McCain or Obama recognizes these things, but it’s clear that both candidates -- along with their parties and the interests they represent -- are not interested in facing these realities.

Empire: The way in which First-World nations have pursued global empires over the past 500 years to grab for themselves a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth has never been morally justifiable. The recent phase of U.S. domination in that project is particularly offensive, given U.S. political leaders’ cynical rhetoric about democracy. But whatever one’s evaluation of the ideology behind the U.S. attempt to run the world through violence and coercion, the project is falling apart. The invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq are not just moral failures but pragmatic disasters. While McCain and Obama have slightly different strategies for dealing with these disasters, neither is willing to face the depravity of the imperial endeavor and neither argues for abandoning the imperial project.

Ecology: It’s no longer helpful to speak about “environmental issues,” as if we face discrete problems that have clear solutions. Without major changes to the way humans live, we face the collapse of the ecosystem’s ability to sustain human life as we know it. Every basic indicator of the health of the ecosystem is cause for concern -- inadequate and dwindling supplies of clean water, chemical contamination in every part of the life cycle, continuing topsoil loss, toxic waste build-up, species loss and reduced biodiversity, and climate change. Unless one adopts an irrational technological fundamentalism -- the faith-based assumption that new gadgets will magically rescue us -- this means we have to downsize and scale back our lives dramatically, learning to live with less. Yet conventional politicians continue to promise to deliver a lifestyle that constitutes a form of collective planetary suicide.

So, we live in a predatory corporate capitalist economy in a world structured by the profound injustice produced by an imperial system that is steadily drawing down the ecological capital of the planet. The domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of this world is rooted in the ideologies of male domination and white domination. This belief in the inevitability of hierarchy grows out of thousands of years of patriarchy, reinforced by hundreds of years of white supremacy. Any meaningful progressive politics also must address not just the worst behaviors that come out of these systems -- the overt sexism and racism that continue to plague society -- but also the underlying worldview that normalizes inequality. Yes, Obama is black, and McCain selected a female running mate, but neither candidate ever speaks of patriarchy and white supremacy.

There are two common responses to the analysis offered here. The first is to condemn it as crazy, which is the response of the majority of Americans. The second, from people who don’t find such claims crazy and share the basic analysis, is that we have to be realistic and tone down our arguments, precisely because most Americans won’t take seriously anyone who speaks so radically.

But if being realistic has something to do with facing reality, then arguments for radical change are the most realistic. When problems are the predictable consequence of existing systems and no solutions are plausible within them, then arguing for continued capitulation to those systems isn’t realistic. It’s literally insane.

We live in a country that is, in fact, growing increasingly insane. Fashioning a strategy for political organizing in such a country, and shaping rhetoric to advance that organizing, is indeed difficult. But it must start with a realistic description of the problems we face, a realistic evaluation of the nature of the systems that gave rise to those problems, and a realistic assessment of the degree of change necessary to imagine solutions.

Taking politics seriously in the United States today means recognizing the limits of electoral politics. Voting matters, but it’s not the most important act in our political lives. Traditional grassroots political organizing to advance progressive policies on issues is more important. And even more crucial today is the long-term project of preparing for the dramatically different world that is on the horizon -- a world in which an already unconscionable inequality will have expanded; a world with less energy to deal with the ecological collapse; a world in which existing institutions likely will prove useless in helping us restructure our lives; a world in which we will need to reclaim and develop basic skills for sustaining ourselves and our communities.

These challenges are daunting but also exciting, presenting us with tasks for which the energy and creativity of every one of us will be needed. Can we find a way to talk about that excitement which could encourage others to explore these ideas? Can we develop projects to put those ideas into action, even if only on a small scale? When we have tried to articulate this worldview in plain language in recent political lectures and discussions, we have found that a growing number of people not only will listen but are hungry for such honesty.

We don’t pretend that number is large right now -- certainly not a majority, and not anywhere near the number needed for a mass movement -- but one wouldn’t expect that in this affluent society in which many people are still insulated from the worst consequences of these systems. But that’s changing. As more and more people, from many sectors of society, face these realities, they join the search for a community in which to confront this together. Our political work should focus on connecting with people on common ground, articulating a realistically radical analysis, and working from there to construct a just and sustainable society.

So, we will vote on Nov. 4, without hesitation. But more importantly, on Nov. 5 we will be realistic and continue talking about the radical change necessary to build a different world.


Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Pat Youngblood, a social studies teacher at McCallum High School in Austin, are members of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, Jensen can be reached at and Youngblood can be reached at A version of this article appeared in the Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno, CA.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Yes, the question is now not only 'beyond the election', but how do you relate to the electoral arena other than simply voting?

    The short answer lies in organization-building, which I'm purposely opposing to 'movement-building,' as when so many people say 'we've got to build a movement!'

    So here's a version of my short and practice-oriented piece, posted several other places, that I think introduces the key questions on this topic:

    <blockquote>"Well, since this is addressed to us, ['Progressives for Obama'] I’ll offer a few answers, but I’ll also ask Joshua Frank the same question: What doe HE plan to do after election day?

    First, a lot depends on who wins. It matter to me, most of the working class and almost all African Americans, that McCain loses. It doesn’t seem to matter much to Frank, so in some ways, he’s not part of any left I want to deal with. He’s deluded into thinking he can end this war while dissing all these folks.

    [Frank disdainfully posited two groups of leftists, one thinking Obama would move radically left, another into teeny changes.]

    I’m not in his first group, thinking Obama will magically move left. We’ve had him pegged as a liberal speaking to the center from day one.

    But I’m not in his second group, either, thinking every advance is teeny. If we organize well, we may actually get some rather important ones.

    ‘Organize’ is the key word here. He asks how we plan to pressure the politicians on high. Whether in the Obama camp or any other, you first get the attention of politicians mainly in two ways–-organized voters or organized money. Since we don’t have the latter, we stress the former, and that’s what we’ve been doing-–building new grassroots organizations of voters that belong to us, not the Dems or anyone else at the top. Second, you deploy your forces both in the streets, at the polls, in the schools, in the military, everywhere. But if you have no base community organizations to do these things WITH, then all your talk is so much cafe chatter.

    Because of our work in this campaign, we’ve done fairly well. But Frank is really clueless. How would he know, since his cynicism blinds him? He just doesn’t get it after all these years. If you want socialism or any other kind of radical change, you have to go to the working class, where they happen to be; you don’t just play ‘waiting for lefty’ or run around with red flags and hope they’ll come to you. And then you work with their allies as well, against the main immediate enemy.

    I live in blue-collar Beaver County in Western PA. We went into this campaign with an independent base organization of 80-100 workers united around ‘Out Now,’ HR 676, and Green Jobs.

    That’s still our key stands, but we’ve added Kucinich’s 16-point New Deal plan to project into the Bail-out battle.

    But we’ve nearly doubled our size in the last nine months, made new allies in other unions, made new alliances in the Black community and with antiwar Obama youth at some local campuses.

    We also now have an online public face weblog, Beaver County Blue, which puts out a left-progressive pole and is widely read among unionists and Black activists.

    We demonstrate against the war every week, but we build strong organization that belongs to us, and operates within the milieu I write about. Some of the local Dem incumbents worry, but we’re widely appreciated as a source of good ideas and tireless work.

    We work with IVAW here, as well as MFSO, and together with other peace groups and a state senator, we now have resolutions in the statehouse to yank the PA guard out of the war.

    We circulate hundreds, if not thousands, of items against all kinds of repression on our national P4O lists, and forward them to many others. In Denver, we worked on the IVAW security team to lend a hand with a successful action.

    So we’re doing well, but always hope to do better. We’re far from perfect.

    But this won’t satisfy [Joshua Frank]. You’ll cherry pick some demand or another issue or event to strike a pose, so no matter.

    But the fact remains that we’re building serious organization for serious work. You can call it ‘pandering’ or whatever you like, since our local opposition knows better. It really doesn’t matter what Frank or his local compatriots, the Pittsburgh student anarchists, think about this, because, first, they rarely think things through much at all, and second, they hang up near the University of Pitt, and are completely irrelevant to the actually class struggle unfolding here. Fine by us, since there’s plenty of sane and radical working-class youth here for us to relate to with politics that can go somewhere.

    It’s actually quite refreshing outside the cul-de-sac of the ‘left bloc’ swamp. Frank is welcome to stay there, if he insists. But if he ever want to put that baggage down, he’s welcome here, too.

    As for the antiwar movement ‘disappearing,’ what a hoot! A whole new sector of it has emerged, the antiwar Obama youth, about a million of them. They just decided to try to use Obama to end the war. whether wisely or not, they didn’t bother to ask me or Frank if this was OK. They just did it. Same with the union workers who give Obama standing ovations when he asserts he’ll end the war.

    Now if you’re an antiwar leader, your task is not just to lead the people who mainly agree with you. That’s the easier, softer way. You have to try to lead those who don’t mostly agree with you, who are not yet activists or anti-imperialist, but are the workers who cheer Obama or the youth who work for him.

    That’s what we do, and we’re doing it rather well. Believe me, we’re already preparing a mass mobilization on an Obama White House (hopefully Obama will win) early this spring to demand he follow through on ending the war, and to block any wider wars. We’ll have lots of new troops to work with, not just a bunch of wacked-out anarchists who think the way to end the war is to play dress-up with black clothes and masks, break store windows, and play tag with cops in the streets. After the RNC fiasco, thanks, but no thanks. We have better ways to go about it.

    So again Joshua, you now have an idea of what ‘Progressives for Obama’ will be doing. So give us a summary of what you’ve accomplished, and what your plans are, and all that you’ve gained from boycotting all our activity."</Blockquote>

    So I would pose the same questions to Jensen, although hardly with the polemical edge, because he at least understands the importance of voting and for whom in 2008. But since we doesn't offer much, he ends up with the 'movement builders' rather than the 'organization builders,' which I think is the key discussion.

  • Guest - Tahawus

    Sometimes a fake newspaper is ahead of the curve:

    "Struggling Lower-Class Still Unsure How Best To Fuck Selves With Vote"

  • Guest - TellNoLies


    You identify two ways to "pressure" elected officials: votes and money. You then say tha since we don't have money we need to organize voters. This seems to me a very narrow conceptio of effective political action of precisely the sort being criticized in this article. I view as one important but highly unfavorable arena in which the left needs to struggle. Oppressed people have lots of potential power outside the voting booth -- the power to disrupt production and circulation through strikes, occupations, blockades, etc..., the power to threaten the social peace through mass militant protests and the like.

    It seems to me that if one doesn't spend most of ones energies building up peoples organization and combativity OUTSIDE the electoral arena we are perpetually doomed to enter that arena with precious little leverage. It is precisely when the powers that be are afraid that more and more people will take their grievances outside of the voting booth that they are most prone to make substantive concessions precisely in order to keep our organizing within those acceptable channels.

    As you know, I don't reject electoral work. Indeed I think a task of ours is to be so effective within it that we force the capitalist state to reveal its essentially dictatorial character by foreclosing on the promises it can make so long as we don't. But in order to accomplish that, the left needs to be developing its extra-electoral capacities as well if it is going to be able to navigate the electoral arena with a sufficiently independent outlook not to become just an adjuct of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, as it is unfortunately within the Obama campaign.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, but read where I talk about deploying your forces: in the streets, workplaces and so on.

    I assume we all agree that we use EVERY form of struggle--mass mobilizations, strikes, and so on, in every area. Perhaps I shouldn't.

    But I've been arguing against a one-sided 'left' deviation that wants to ignore, avoid, circumvent or otherwise downplay the electoral arena.

    I'm for building ongoing mass democratic organizations at the base, but with an electoral capacity as well as a non-electoral capacity for struggle, education and mobilization. At best, elections come around every two years or so. Obviously, a wide range of tactics and battles will be taken up by these groups when electoral matters are on the back burner, and, in some case, even when they're not, and we have to do a number of things at once.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    The Onion is always very funny, and one of my favorites, even when its being reactionary, as in this case.

    If this does anything regarding immediate action besides make people laugh, in encourages people not to bother, ie, it serves the GOP 'depress the vote' effort.

    As an 'erudite' columnist put in in the National Review Online the other day, when he described our work as:

    "...voter-registration efforts to over-represent society's bottom-dwellers...."

    In other words, keep feeding them shit, but we top-feeders get to keep the ballot boxes.

  • Guest - TellNoLies

    Carl, I don't take the Onion article as reactionary at all. I think its pretty much on the money, a cogent expression of what I mean by "Obama without illusions."

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    But here's the punch line in their spoof, which I agree, is very funny:

    'The latest polls indicate that a majority of lower-class citizens might choose not to vote at all Nov. 4, preferring instead to leave the details of how they get fucked to the moneyed classes.'

    That's the classic GOP 'Depress the Vote' line that's pushed in low-income and working class communities by their minions just prior to every election.

    I like The Onion, and it's on the progressive side of things most of the time.

    But not this one. We need every vote vs. McCain-Palin in a few days. No slackers, and don't take the opinion polls as Gospel. We can argue about it all the way to the real polls, and every day afterwards, but get off your butts.

  • The Onion writes:

    <blockquote>"The latest polls indicate that a majority of lower-class citizens might choose not to vote at all Nov. 4, preferring instead to leave the details of how they get fucked to the moneyed classes.’</blockquote>

    Carl adds:

    <blockquote>That’s the classic GOP ‘Depress the Vote’ line that’s pushed in low-income and working class communities by their minions just prior to every election.</blockquote>

    I had to laugh, first at their satire, and then your interpretation.

    In fact, they are expressing a very "classic" <em>communist</em> view -- and certainly my view.

    I have been politically active all my life, and always left the details of who fucks us to the ruling class. I have never voted, and have no plans to.

    And it was Lenin who quipped that elections are when the oppressed are called on to pick which member of the ruling class will be oppressing them for the next period. (I would not be surprised if some one on the Onion wasn't consciously paraphrasing Lenin here.)

    Voting legitimizes our oppressors. And when people broadly are disgusted with them, they will stop voting for them (or vote for "alternatives" in third parties).

    Now, admitedly, for some people, voting can be (has been) a first step into political life. and an awakening to political life is valuable. But that doesn't make the voting valuable.

    And, if on the contrary, it was our communist work that, at some future point, actually started denting the turnout -- I would consider that a huge and positive development. And it would be positive even if, for a historic period, it meant that the Democrats were getting discredited and lost a whole series of elections.

    You can't build an alternative politics if you are still infatuated with the mainstream politics. And clearly the discrediting and shattering of the Democrats is part of any process of revolution in the U.S.

    Your (amazing!) assumption that this view is Republican (!) is itself a sign of the framework you have adopted.

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