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From Draft NOtices, July-August 2003

The Ballot Trap

— Rick Jahnkow


Having worked on Eugene McCarthy's campaign in 1968, George McGovern's in 1972, and several congressional races (including one for a third-party candidate), I am aware of the old — and continuing — debate on the relationship between social change and the electoral process.

Some argue that we should work within the Democratic Party to move it leftward; that we should support electable moderate candidates who will reward our campaign efforts in their behalf by giving a hearing to our views; that we should back progressive candidates who will, at least, stimulate public discussion of the issues we want to have raised.

Others contend that our electoral efforts ought to be confined to radical or third-party slates; that we should ignore national campaigns and work only for local candidates and referenda; that we should limit our participation to the casting of ballots on election day, or that we shouldn't even bother doing that.

Before we can decide the extent of our involvement, we should determine what kind of difference electoral politics will make in helping us reach our political goals. And to answer that question, we must first ask how significant change is brought about in our country.

In a society like ours, which concentrates political power and policy-making in large, deeply entrenched institutions, change has historically come in response to pressure from movements that began outside the mainstream and were initially dubbed "radical." This is how progress was achieved in civil rights, women's suffrage, workers' rights, and arms control.

Such movements rarely achieve their demands without long years of struggle. They win no easy victories. Instead, they engage in a drawn-out process with the elements of demands, education, and negotiation. As this process goes forward, viewpoints shift in the general population, positions previously dismissed as radical become more acceptable, the character of the power base is transformed, and institutions are compelled to accept change.

At some point, the outsiders pressing for change must decide whether their cause is best served by remaining outside the system or by trying to work within mainstream institutions.

My own experience suggests that progressive activists often overestimate the gains they can achieve by devoting their scarce resources to electoral politics. As soon as they are asked to help a candidate who happens to have taken an enlightened stand on a few issues, they drop their other political work and rush into the electoral arena — forgetting that it was usually their own pressure from the outside that induced the candidate to take the enlightened stand in the first place.

Political office-holders in this country, whether Democrats or Republicans, do not take the lead in promoting change; rather, they reflect the wishes of movements that make it safe for them to favor change. If the activists who play a crucial role in building and sustaining such movements allow themselves to be sidetracked by electoral campaigns, they leave open the possibility that the power base will shift in another direction.

It was the failure to recognize these dynamics of social change that led many progressives to support Lyndon B. Johnson as a "peace candidate" in 1964. Fearing that Johnson's Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, intended to start a war, the Left gave its full support to the Democratic nominee, creating a temporary consensus that allowed Johnson to do exactly what Goldwater was suspected of planning.

In the late 1960s, the demands and direct-action tactics of the antiwar movement contributed significantly to the growing willingness of some liberal politicians to challenge U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia. But when these politicians began recruiting peace activists to work in their electoral campaigns, they siphoned off energy that could have helped increase the pressure generated by the antiwar movement.

I've concluded that campaigns like Eugene McCarthy's, which attracted many young antiwar activists like myself, actually made it possible for Richard Nixon to prolong the war. George McGovern's campaign skimmed off even more of the vitality of the grassroots antiwar movement; when Nixon balked at signing a peace treaty, many of us were too busy doing precinct work to organize the mass actions that could have made a difference.

As many in the peace movement prepare to strike up another love affair with the Democratic Party, they might recall that Jimmy Carter faced relatively little dissent from the Left and, as a result, gave us the rapid deployment force, the neutron bomb, and draft registration. Later, the Democrats in Congress saddled us with aid to the right-wing Nicaraguan contras and backed down on an important resolution urging a nuclear testing moratorium. It seems that progressives, in their eagerness to dismantle Republican conservativism, are often ready to repeat the electoral mistakes of the 1960s. They ignore the fact that liberal Democrats have displayed at least as great a propensity for leading us into war as have Republicans.

Involvement in local or congressional campaigns can present problems that parallel those of national elections. In one 1984 example, peace activists in the San Diego area rallied to the campaign of a liberal Democrat who was challenging Republican Representative Bill Lowery. Because the candidate favored a nuclear freeze, his supporters overlooked his questionable position on U.S. intervention in Central America. A major controversy arose among his supporters when it came out that he favored draft registration. In the end, valuable time and money were lost in this campaign — time and money that could have been used instead to build the local peace movement.

I don't mean to argue that the electoral process is a total waste in every situation. I would not rule out certain levels of electoral activity as effective ways of bringing about change. There is usefulness in citizen-initiated referenda, for example, and some local elections extend the promise of governmental responsiveness. And I do believe in casting ballots for national office.

However, until we have managed to affect the viewpoint of the general population at a much deeper level than we have so far, it would be a mistake to put too much of our confidence -- and too many of our scarce resources — into the electoral process. There is no lack of people willing to run for political office or work for candidates. There are far fewer who are willing to do the agitating and organizing and movement-building that is required to institute meaningful change.

As another election approaches, I hope those who are seriously committed to the cause of peace and social justice will manage to resist the temptation to surrender, even temporarily, their essential role as agents of change.

This commentary originally appeared in slightly different form in 1987 in Draft NOtices and was published in The Progressive and excerpted in Utne Reader.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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