Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport


There’s a reason that one of the most popular chants in Madison, Wisconsin during protesters’ occupation of the capitol building was “This is what democracy looks like!” Because only being able to choose between two corporate-funded, unaccountable representatives is not democracy.

There’s also a reason that the Democrats lost in Wisconsin earlier this month—not that incumbent governor Scott Walker outspent challenger Tom Barrett by seven to one, though that helped — it’s that Barrett didn’t even promise a progressive platform. He said little to nothing about raising state funds by taxing the rich or investing in education or social services. In fact, as mayor of Milwaukee, Barrett even implemented Walker’s anti-union bill (the bill that sparked the occupation and recall in the first place), slashing workers’ healthcare and pensions.

Instead of heightening the struggle for workers’ rights or winning it, when the working class channels its energy into electing Democrats, we defuse our power, leading to losses. Working-class struggles need to stay independent from the Democratic Party; otherwise they end up dead. There is a reason the Democratic Party is also known as “the graveyard of social movements.”

Of course, there is a big difference between the Democratic Party rank-and-file and its leaders, but when it comes down to it, the rank-and-file don’t have a say.

I know it may be hard to stomach. I voted for Obama in 2008. But I didn’t vote for this.

Imagine, just for a second, that a Republican president personally and regularly approved a kill list (mind you, this is unconstitutional and that this president is a professor of constitutional law). Imagine if that same president sent $4 billion in military aid to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, until Mubarak was defeated by pro-democracy protests, at which point this president told him to step down but continued to send billions to Mubarak’s military henchmen.

How would liberals respond if a Republican killed American citizens not on the battlefield and without due process, as he did with Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011?

If that president’s administration deported twice as many undocumented immigrants as George W. Bush’s and extended Bush’s tax cuts for the richest Americans? And how would they react to a Republican with Obama’s environmental record: appointing former Monsanto executives as FDA officials, championing “clean coal” and approving new drilling rigs for BP in the Gulf? The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, this is a Democrat: this is President Obama. If a Republican president had done all this, would liberals’ responses be the same as they are today?

The president and the Democrats often reply that their inability to pass their promised agenda is not their fault. In a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus last year, President Obama said, “Put on your marching shoes... Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” And yet this speech was only three days after the legal lynching of Troy Davis. Almost one million people signed petitions, marched, organized, and called on the U.S. government to stop the murder of an innocent man, but President Obama did nothing. He didn’t even try to save Troy Davis’ life. He didn’t even make a statement. Not only that, when hundreds of thousands of Americans did put on their marching shoes and joined in the  Occupy movement, Obama’s DHS coordinated a nation-wide crackdown, which included the passage of a law that allows anyone to be indefinitely detained.

Either President Obama didn’t want to do anything to save Troy Davis and combat inequality, or he really couldn’t. But if he is, in fact, so powerless, why should we devote time, energy, and money to electing him?

And yet, is he really unable to fight for an innocent man’s life or equality when he is able to circumvent the constitution to murder innocents and First Amendment rights by combating the Occupy movement?

So what do we do?

FDR is often credited with creating the New Deal. But he didn’t create Social Security or the WPA (creating almost 8 million jobs between 1935 and 1943 – something we could desperately use now) until the third year of his presidency. It took as many as 1 million unemployed Americans protesting across the country, and 1,856 workers’ strikes in 1934, triple the amount in 1933—and they kept the pressure on, tripling strikes again to 4,470 in 1937.

Richard Nixon, of all people, created the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts as well as the EPA. How is this possible? He did it because 20 million Americans protested, organized, marched, held teach-ins, and established today’s widely recognized Earth Day.

Obama, too, responds to struggle. He stalled the XL pipeline after over 1,000 people committed civil disobedience outside the White House, and he promised reprieves for certain undocumented youth after DREAMers occupied his campaign offices across the country.  But if we want to win real and permanent change, we need to have a much bigger movement.

As abolitionist and socialist Frederick Douglass said, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” So don’t devote your energy to Obama 2012. We need to devote our energy to building a strong and organized social movement that can force whoever is president to actually listen to us. That’s democracy.