Thinking Outside of the Ballot Box by Aurora Levins Morales

We received this essay on the 2008 election from Aurora Levins Morales. Aurora is a Latina-Jewish poet, scholar and activist. Aurora and her mom Rosario were both members of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. In it Aurora discusses the sexism and racism that have characterized this election season.

Over the last few weeks, and increasingly the last few days I've been getting emails from every direction, (particularly the progressive friend who have my address,) telling me why we should all get behind either Clinton or Obama. Since I'm not a registered Democrat, I won't be voting in this primary, but I've been thinking about it a lot.

First let me make clear my view that as progressives in this country we have very little impact on the outcome of the elections, and less still on the post-election behavior of the winner; our votes are not the kind of favors presidents reward. In a way, that means we have less at stake in the short term and can concentrate on our long term goals. We're a small part of the electorate. We're far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters.

Our ability to save our species from extinction and create a world we can thrive in does not depend on who wins this election. It depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. As my brother Ricardo Levins Morales points out, we live in an empire in steep decline. The election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are further disenfranchised at breakneck speed and, as much as possible, make them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class understands is necessary. Having a Black man and a woman run helps to obscure the fact that this decline of empire is what is driving the whole political elite to the right. Both these people represent very reactionary politics in ways that I don't want to get started on. Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the very fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.

There are two points here:
1) Neither Obama nor Clinton represents an alternative human strategy to propping up a failing empire that is based on pirating the world's resources (including ours) for the sake of a small elite. 

2) The fact that someone is being targeted by oppression may arouse our outrage and lead us to identify with them, but it doesn't change their actual political positions.

When Reagan was running for president, some people attacked him on the basis of his age. Our job was to expose the meaning and consequences of his politics, not ridicule him for being old. His supporters were rightly incensed. In this race, we need to defend the candidates from sexist and racist attack because we oppose sexism and racism. That they are being targeted, to differing degrees, is not a reason to support them. For that we need to assess the potential impact of their politics on our long term vision for the world.

One of the reasons that progressives are being drawn into arguing their relative merits is that the violence of our breakneck disenfranchisement pressures us to go for whatever looks like it could provide some immediate relief. But we can't afford to settle for immediate relief, and no matter who wins, this election is unlikely to provide us with even that much. Both Obama and Clinton are deeply tied to interests that make it impossible, even if they wanted to, for them to address the root causes of global and domestic looting; the collapse of empire requires that it continue. 

I want to clarify that I don't think elections are unimportant, though for our purposes as progressives, our real potential for impact is in local and statewide elections, not national ones. Keeping Dennis Kucinich in congress is much more significant for our long term goals than who gets the Democratic nomination. There are also times when for several possible reasons our best political strategy is to urge widespread electoral participation. Sometimes this can be aimed at a specific outcome weve agreed is our priorityfor example electing members of congress who will commit to action on global warming, without any illusions that they will represent us on other issues; or because the of the power that the act of voting itself represents in that time and place. For African Americans to vote during the voting rights struggles in the US South in the 1960s, was by itself a tremendous act of resistance. They were also able to challenge the holding of public office by extreme racists. 

So elections have their uses. But can be dangerous to pin all our hopes on them, and media hype (including naming this the most important election in --was it US history, or the last century?) encourages us to do so. This isn't an exact parallel, but the focus of the early US feminist movement on winning the vote ended up more or less gutting that movement. Issues like womens labor conditions, birth control, marriage rights went on the back burner for many feminists, for a long time, and when the vote was won in 1920, there was no movement left to mobilize for other important struggles, and organized feminism remained dormant for decades. We can't allow ourselves to be distracted, or fooled into thinking that the victory of either of these candidates will represent a great leap forward for women or African American people. 

Among all the candidates running for national office Clinton and Obama rank first and second as recipients of health industry contributions, and are in the top four recipients of donations from the finance (banking, investment and insurance), energy/natural resources, communications/electronics and construction industries. What's more, Obama is ahead of Clinton in taking money from pharmaceuticals, electrical utilities, internet companies and foreign and defense policy PACs. 

Clinton is inseparably entangled with international financial institutions and networks, including Goldman Sachs, the worlds largest investment corporation, with a powerful influence on all US policies affecting finance. High on their domestic agenda is deregulating banking and securities trading, and they also favor privatizing social security. Goldman Sachs is one of Clintons top contributors.

Rose law firm, where Clinton worked, represents Monsanto, the world's largest genetic engineering corporation, and perhaps one of the worlds worst corporate criminals. Monsanto is responsible for pressuring poor farmers worldwide to buy patented seeds and then, because the seeds are intellectual property of the corporation, preventing them from replanting seeds produced by their own crops. The cost of buying new, patented seed each year (which, naturally, requires expensive fertilizers and pesticides) has driven so many to desperation that 166,000 farmers have committed suicide in India alone, and eight million have left the land. While farming communities are destroyed and scattered as a result of Monsantos activities, the company employs young girls, some no doubt refugees from abandoned farmland, in highly toxic cotton seed processing factories, under terrible work conditions. Monsanto's terminator genes create plants that yield sterile seeds, in order to increase its stranglehold of global food production. Pollen from these altered plants drifts into wild plant ecosystems, potentially sterilizing large areas and indiscriminately wiping out many species. 

Here in the US, among many nefarious activities, Monsanto is aggressively pushing to limit the rights of farmers to choose what they plant, and of communities to regulate the local use of GE plants. The details are beyond the scope of this article, but during Bill Clinton's administration Monsantos interests were furthered to an obscene degree, in ways that seriously endanger public and environmental health. 

While she presents herself as our best hope for a decent health care system in this country, Clinton is heavily backed by funders with an immense stake in preventing that from happening. She has strong ties to a corporation that is threatening our health, by feeding us genetically modified foods with unknown consequences, by destroying the genetic and economic diversity of food production, and by endangering plant life in general, on which our own lives depend. 

Obama, like Clinton, receives major funding from Maurice Templeman, not only part of a multi-generation diamond mining cartel in Nigeria, but directly involved in the destabilization of Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Ghana and Rwanda, including roles in the overthrow of Ghanas first elected president Kwame Nkrumah, and the CIA backed assassination of Congos first elected president Patrice Lumumba. Many democrats take Templeman money, and the fact that Obama is African American doesn't necessarily make it worse, but that he''s both African American and represents himself as in any way progressive makes it unconscionable. 

Several people have suggested to me that part Obamas appeal is that both his history as a local leader of integrity (which has been rapidly bargaining away) and his charismatic style of oratory, create unconscious emotional resonances with Martin Luther King, Jr. But although Obama has consistently opposed the war in Iraq and spoken out for troop withdrawal, he has also stated that all options are on the table with respect to Iran, and has made it clear he is open to military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Heres what Dr. King had to say about the Viet Nam war, in his famous 1967 Riverside Church speech:



No one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men [sic] the world over.

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. Dr. King was very clear about the connection between racism and poverty at home, and wars of conquest, both because money that should have gone to improving peoples lives was being diverted to the military, and because poor people of color were being killed and disabled faster and in greater numbers than the middle class and wealthy and white.

It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

Obama, on the other hand, promises to expand the US military by 65,000 Army soldiers and 27,000 Marines. We all know that in 2008 as in 1967, those young men and women will be primarily poor and disproportionately of color. He also proposes to increase funding to the military so that the finest military in the world is best-prepared to meet 21st-century threats.

But Dr. King, who was not running for office and had no big contributors he must avoid offending, had no problem identifying the real purposes of US military ventures. He said, what we are submitting [our soldiers] to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involvedand the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

I think at this point its clear why I feel neither excitement nor anxiety about the Democratic primary process. 

First let me say that as a woman of color, though I am not surprised, I am disgusted and angry at the way a Black man and white woman have been put into the ring against each other, while the white male elite looks on. So should we all be. As Robin Morgan says in her essay Goodbye to All That #2 , it's strongly reminiscent of the way the same two constituencies were pitted against each other to compete for the right to vote during the late 19th century. It was utterly predictable that the first serious female and Black presidential candidates would run against each other.

The people who disappear in this contest are women of color who are subjected to both sexism and racism, and who, with our children, are suffering more devastation at a faster rate than anyone else in this country. In 1981 I was a contributor to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color, a collective refusal to make an untenable choice, and resist the pressure we faced to abandon ourselves either as female or as people of color, to distance ourselves from the political struggles of one or the other of our peoples or face being called traitors. The book had a strong impact on many progressive people, but not, of course on the wider society. In 2008 we are being told, as usual, that we have to choose between a man of color and a white woman, neither of whom will do much to change the increasingly desperate conditions of our lives.

For those who participate in Democratic party primaries, the choice to support either one of these candidates should be one of strategy, not generic loyalty. First, how much energy do we want to allocate to the elections, and how much to our other social change strategies? Two, what do we want our votes to accomplish? Although the assumption that a Democratic president will be dramatically more benign than a Republican is open to some question, let's agree that we want the extreme right out of office. The ability to defeat the Republican nominee is one criterion to be weighed. But we also need to weigh how supporting one candidate or the other will affect our ability to build alliances for greater changes than the candidate her or himself has to offer.

Ultimately, it's far more important to change how people think than how they vote. In her article, Robin Morgan quotes Harriet Tubman, who, when asked how she managed to free hundreds of slaves replied, "I could have saved thousands, if only I'd been able to convince them they were slaves."

To the extent that we fail to challenge the idea that our greatest power is our presidential vote, we help to maintain illusions that both over- and underestimate our real capacity. As long as people think voting for president is effective, there is no need for them to examine the real decision making processes of the US government, a wholly owned subsidiary of the very rich, and it will be difficult, as organizers, to convince them that they are living under a ruthless corporate rule that they must oppose in order to have real effect. As long as people think that its their best option for exerting power, they will find it hard to see the great range of options for political action that we actually have. As long as people think the president of the United States sits at the center of history and is more likely to shape our global future than the millions of people who not only think another world is possible, but are busily at work creating it, their aspirations will remain narrowed to a point. The great wave of hope that is circling the globe will pass them by. 

I began this article in response to Robin Morgans article on the viciousness of the sexism in this campaign. What it's permissible to say in public is only one marker of oppression, but it's an important one. I agree with her that its important to notice and talk about how much easier it is for Clinton's opponents and the media to go all out with violent and degrading sexist attacks on her than it is for the same level of racism to be openly expressed at Obama. Which is not to say that he isn't constantly targeted by racism, but in the public arena where this battle is taking place, sexism is considered trivial. 

The power brokers expect Obama to be a model minority candidate, and he has that option. He can assimilate himself enough to be Black in a way that's acceptable to a workable number of white people. There's no comparable role for Clinton. To the degree that she assimilates by acting like one of the guys, or taking hawkish positions on the war, she loses her femininity and becomes less acceptable, not more. A model female doesn't run for president. 

I've made it clear that I don't support Clinton, and don't think being mistreated is any reason to, but the content of the attacks on her is a marker of the condition of women in the United States. As organizers it give us an opening to bring sexism into focus in an imaginary post-feminist country. This doesn't in any way take away from the importance of talking about the impacts of racism or big money or any of the other rottenness that permeates what is commonly and mistakenly referred to as politics. 

Recent history gives us another way to redefine American politics. America is much larger than the United States. After five hundred years of brutal economic and social oppression, Bolivia, the poorest country in Latina America has elected a radical indigenous man with a mandate to take back the countrys natural resources and redistribute wealth into the hands of its majority indigenous population. In Venezuela, under the leadership of a mestizo man, petroleum wealth is being used to put power into the hands of working people, and to improve the quality of life and build solidarity and mutual support far beyond its borders. Cuba, in spite of 49 years of economic blockade, has one of the best health care systems and most ecologically sustainable economies in the world. Together with newly elected progressive governments in other Latin American countries, they have created an alliance that allows them to start defying the corporate powers that force their will on so much of the world. 

Imagine that instead of arguing about Clinton and Obama we put our considerable energy and smarts and capacity for thinking big toward joining that alliance; toward stripping illusions, revealing possibilities and overcoming discouragement in order to make such a thing possible.