Howard Zinn: Election Madness

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Dateline: Feb 22, 2008

There’s a man in Florida who has been writing to me for years (ten pages, handwritten) though I’ve never met him. He tells me the kinds of jobs he has held—security guard, repairman, etc. He has worked all kinds of shifts, night and day, to barely keep his family going. His letters to me have always been angry, railing against our capitalist system for its failure to assure life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness— for working people.

Just today, a letter came. To my relief it was not handwritten because he is now using e-mail:

Well, I’m writing to you today because there is a wretched situation in this country that I cannot abide and must say something about. I am so enraged about this mortgage crisis. That the majority of Americans must live their lives in perpetual debt, and so many are sinking beneath the load, has me so steamed. Damn, that makes me so mad, I can’t tell you. . . I did a security guard job today that involved watching over a house that had been foreclosed on and was up for auction. They held an open house, and I was there to watch over the place during this event. There were three of the guards doing the same thing in three other homes in this same community. I was sitting there during the quiet moments and wondering about who those people were who had been evicted and where they were now.

On the same day I received this letter, there was a front-page story in the Boston Globe, with the headline Thousands in Mass. Foreclosed on in 07.

The subhead was 7,563 homes were seized, nearly 3 times the 06 rate.

A few nights before, CBS television reported that 750,000 people with disabilities have been waiting for years for their Social Security benefits because the system is underfunded and there are not enough personnel to handle all the requests, even desperate ones.

Stories like these may be reported in the media, but they are gone in a flash. What’s not gone, what occupies the press day after day, impossible to ignore, is the election frenzy.

This seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.

And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.

Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid the subject of the Presidential elections?

The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press, glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.

Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system wont allow them in.

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a better candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.

The unprecedented policies of the New Deal, Social Security, unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized housing, were not simply the result of FDR’s progressivism. The Roosevelt Administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover Administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army—thousands of veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.

Without a national crisis, economic destitution and rebellion, it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.

Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.

They offer no radical change from the status quo.

They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.

They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.

None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.

So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.

Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For instance, the mortgage foreclosures that are driving millions from their homes–they should remind us of a similar situation after the Revolutionary War, when small farmers, many of them war veterans (like so many of our homeless today), could not afford to pay their taxes and were threatened with the loss of the land, their homes. They gathered by the thousands around courthouses and refused to allow the auctions to take place.

The evictions today of people who cannot pay their rents should remind us of what people did in the Thirties when they organized and put the belongings of the evicted families back in their apartments, in defiance of the authorities.

Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.

Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” “Voices of a People’s History” (with Anthony Arnove), and most recently, “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.”
2 comments on “Howard Zinn: Election Madness
  1. “To vote or not to vote” that is the question and Prof. Zinn seems, like Hamlet, to be of two minds about this issue, but in politics of high stakes, as in America, it is dangerous to want to have it both ways.

    In this paragraph, he seems to align himself squarely with the “Anything But Bush” crowd, which is just another version of an acceptance of the “lesser evil” ad infinitum:

    “No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death…”

    And he disparages a refusal to participate as some “ultra-left position…” which sounds to me a bit like the center again accusing the actual left of the usual charge of “extremism.” A few points need to be made.

    First, refusing to vote is a political act. It’s not about “moral purity” —which, admittedly some neurotics do practice. Thus, refusing to participate any longer in heavily managed elections offering only system-beholden creatures that have over and over again demonstrated their lack of reliability is not a sign of “ultra” anything but of exercising political intelligence. Voting in these rigged elections is an act of legitimation for the system. Zinn knows that. And we need to deny the system any form of legitimation because it doesn’t merit it. Every chance we get.

    Zinn gives evidence of his own contradiction in these passages, where he talks about the power of a mobilized citizenry to IMPOSE its priorities on ANY White House occupant, which would, per se, invalidate the necessity of voting and concentrating in capitalist elections, choosing the lesser evil, and so forth…right after he accuses those who have reached the end of the line and are now choosing to reject participation in these electoral circuses.

    “The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.

    They offer no radical change from the status quo.

    But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

    Let’s remember that even when there is a better candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.”

    In sum, in my view it boils down to this. Whoever is in the White House will implement, as Zinn himself suggests, the priorities and policies of the empire UNTIL forced to change course by historical developments (i.e., determined Vietnamese or Iraqi resistance) or an aroused US citizenry. From that perspective it is useless and a costly distraction to go on engaging in capitalist electoral contests. The time is come for the creation and deployment of new, extra-electoral strategies, or electoral strategies that do NOT conform to the game rules favored by the establishment.

  2. As I stated in my recent article “Celebrating UN-President’s Day: Why I Will Not Vote For A President In 2008” I am not willing to participate in the presidential electoral process in 2008 or for the duration of empire. I agree with Howard Zinn in terms of the “madness” that ensues around presidential elections, but my perception of that madness is different from his. Zinn appears to assume that the electoral system itself is fundamentally valid and that voting should be a supplement to the local community organizing that he believes we must be doing. While I agree that our local communities and bioregions are the proper venue for organizing, the purpose of that organizing, for me, appears to differ from Zinn’s purpose. While Zinn would attempt to maintain the culture of empire intact, assuming that the essential fabric of that culture can and should continue, I hold that the culture of empire and Western civilization itself must collapse in order for the earth community to prevail. Civilization is anti-life and anti-human. It must be allowed to vanish from the face of the earth, and I support anything and everything that will accelerate that process. Voting, on the other hand, merely reinforces the culture of empire and assumes that its fundamental underpinnings are sustainable and that what civilization really needs is an extreme makeover rather than unequivocal annihilation. For me, voting is very much a part of the life-support system in which many progressives participate in order to prolong the duration of an expiring empire. They endeavor to “prevent” the consequences of Peak Oil, climate change, and global economic catastrophe, “hoping” to resuscitate the toxic fragments of empire and with them, restructure some new utopian society. Conversely, I welcome the Triple Crisis and the irreversible death of empire–and the sooner the better.

    For me, local organization is about preparing for the collapse of empire, not about repairing or refurbishing empire but helping individuals and communities survive during and after collapse by creating sustainable communities which are informed by the transformative experience of collapse. In other words, I believe that the collapse of civilization is an alchemical process which must occur in order for human beings to fully grasp their humanity and their interdependence with the more than human world. Until humans have lived through collapse, all their attempts to alter the social, political, physical, economic, and environmental realities of planet earth will be nothing more than cosmetic. No changes made by well-meaning progressives or their fondest presidential candidates will be either substantive or sustainable until the earth community has endured collapse and thereby entered its next evolutionary phase. If my voting in local elections enhances sustainability and collapse preparation in that venue, than I will vote locally. Obviously, the national election charade is inimical to all of the above, and my participation in it would invalidate all that I have just stated.

    Left-liberal, progressive politics refuses to understand collapse and in so doing, learn to welcome it, rather than attempting to prevent it. Intoxicated with the soporific of “hope”, the progressive left renders itself irrelevant. It could, on the other hand, open to collapse and ground itself in reality-based options, empowering its adherents to boycott the national election charade, thereby hastening the unfolding of the pivotal process for which a murdered planet is pleading: the collapse of civilization.

    Carolyn Baker’s page, Speaking Truth to Power, is located at http://carolynbaker.net/site/. Her essay on the refusal to participate in elections can be found on this site at http://www.bestcyrano.org/cyrano/?p=431

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