I have seen a number of comments by younger people to the effect that voting is a waste of time because after “activist candidates” are elected, nothing much changes. See, for example, Young Protesters Say Voting Isn’t Enough. Will They Do It Anyway? https://nyti.ms/2AKA2fZ
Given the staggeringly long history of racism in the United States, now combined with the militarization of police departments in the age of terrorism and the wanton use of brute force throughout the country , including federal troops in the Capitol deployed against peaceful protesters, the frustration and impatience with this “just vote” message is entirely understandable. There is no doubt that the sad place at which we have, as a society, arrived, is attributable in significant part to the failure of elected leaders to live up to their promises to bring about a more just society.
I am going to offer some thoughts about how this dysfunction has prevailed for so long. To be clear at the outset, I offer these not as excuses. There are no excuses. The racial situation is and always has been a national disgrace.
These thoughts are possible explanations that might illuminate a path forward and provide some hope to those whose frustration with failed progress has overwhelmed them in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the most recent in a long line of tragedies and surely just the tip of the iceberg in what has gone on when there was no one around to video.
I base these observations on a period in my life when I was active in local politics in Virginia, leading a citizens’ group pitted against a large oil company that had purchased the development rights to finish the master plan for our “planned community.” The situation is not, obviously, analogous to the problem of police violence against people of color, but some of the lessons learned may be useful in thinking about the “is voting useless” issue.
For context, the oil company’s interest typically was in increasing development density – more homes and more people per available acre. Deviations from the original master plan for the town were subject to the approval of a Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. The Board was the elected governing body for the county in which the planned community) was located.
Our group reviewed every proposed plan deviation and demanded hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The oil company soon began to refer to us as “rabble rousers” and “troublemakers.” It employed lawyers and experts to fight us at every stage. Sometimes we prevailed, sometimes not.
The governing bodies were typical of many local elected governing bodies across the country; regardless of how compelling our case was in any single situation, we faced resistance from some leaders who were more concerned about protecting developers’ “rights” and assuring rapid economic growth than they were interested in the environmental and social issues we often raised.
We were not without champions on these governing bodies, but the reality was that they had to deal with the other members of the bodies on a regular basis. Conflicts required compromise that often felt to us as “selling out of citizens’ interests to the commercial aspirations of greedy developers.” Our champions often fought hard for us but were outvoted. Sometimes their support was simply not as strong as we wanted. We told them so but were usually met with “you need to understand that to get anything done, we have to deal with the opposition in a measured and respectful way.” In those days the very idea of a “planned” community was anathema to many old-line Virginia conservatives and citizens demanding to have a voice in everything was a noxious concept to many.
We learned a few things from these experiences. It was necessary to show up all the time. Being ‘part-time’ advocates simply didn’t work. The politicians, those on our side and the others, needed to understand that there would be no respite. We would always show up, often accompanied by large numbers of supporters carrying/displaying some kind of identification that could be seen from the dais. Nothing disruptive but something clear enough that they would know we were there, watching. Voters in the room for every relevant decision. No respite.
There was pushback, to be sure. Our issues often were scheduled for late on the agenda, allegedly because they were “controversial,” but really so that it would be harder for our “troops” to stick around. Tenacity was important but ultimately many people with jobs the next day would have to leave the hearing for home before our items were taken up. As the group’s leader and advocate, I always stayed, sometimes until well past midnight. Nevertheless, our group’s unmistakable presence in the room, even for a few hours, signaled to the decision-makers that we were watching. Voters in the room. And the decision-makers also knew that by stalling us, they were offending many constituents. We got a few newspapers to write about it. Politicians hate bad publicity even when their names are spelled correctly. No respite.
My argument here is that it is simply not enough to vote. Bearing constant witness and constant engagement is critically important. After a while, our oil company knew we weren’t going away. Their management was furious that they could not control us. Calling us names just angered people even more. We used that against them to stir up more activism.
Well-healed adversaries, including police unions, can lobby all the time. Citizen activists are at a huge disadvantage, but can compensate to a large degree by (1) voting, voting, voting – the constant threat to remove ineffective politicians who can’t/won’t deliver on their promises (if they don’t think your group votes, they won’t care what you think or say), (2) making clear that you and your crowd will always show up for relevant decisions – pack the room, (3) treating everyone with respect, but (4) making clear you will not accept deflection and will use the tools of public advocacy, including particularly the press, to expose aggressively corrupt and indifferent decision-making, and (5) showing appreciation for victories won, even small ones – name the names; reward … and punishment. We are here. We will always be here. Deal with us and our concerns or pay the price. No respite.
Making change, progressing an agenda of challenging ideas is very hard. The natural inclination of most decision-making bodies is to move in tiny steps, if at all. Offend as few people as possible, go along to get along, etc. etc. Protests are extremely valuable for bringing attention to morally outrageous situations, but they are, standing alone, insufficient. Laws still have to be written, lobbied, passed, enforced. Recalcitrant leaders must be brought around. They must come to see that you are not going away. “Enough is enough” is not just a slogan. You cannot wait us out. Talk, talk, delay, study – no. Not good enough. We are not going away until you do the right thing. No respite.