Voting Doesn't Create Social Change? Tell That To The Descendents of Slaves

by Paul H. Rosenberg Thursday, Nov. 02, 2000 at 12:49 PM

Voting doesn't create social change without the larger context of a social movement. But social movements have created enormous social change over the centuries, and voting has played a vital role bringing about this change.

The claim that voting doesn't create social change is either trivial or false.

In one sense it's trivially true, since voting divorced from social change movements is clearly insufficient. In such cases, one can also argue that it voting doesn't create the change, it merely facilitates it; what created the change was the movement itself. All this is true, and the point is crucially important.

But logically the claim is trivial--at least from any sort of progressive (much less radical) point of view. No one would seriously dispute it. That leaves us to consider the only serious, disputable meaning of such a claim. -- that voting is *irrelevent* to social change.

This claim is *CLEARLY* false. Rather than go through countless examples, I will simply point to one: The status of African-Americans today. No one would seriously suggest that it's one of true equality. Nor would anyone suggest that voting alone could finally achieve full equality. But without voting for social change it's possible that slavery would still endure to this day. Without voting for social change it's certain that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments would never have been passed. Without voting for social change we would still have segregation. Very few blacks would be able to vote. America would be inconceivably more fuedal, reactionary and racist than it is today.

Now, I suppose that there are some white self-styled radicals out there who will be completely unmoved by this argument, and I say, "fine." These folks are radicals only in their own minds, and the sooner we make this clear, the better.

The engine driving social change will *always* be social change movements. It will *always* come from the streets. But it will *always* have to pass through the voting booth as well. What destroyed the Soviet Union was the attempt to have a revolution that renounced the voting booth as a vital part of the revolution.

For working people in 1917, for the vast majority of the world's people at that time, the Soviet Union represented the greatest hope of humanity, and that was betrayed & destroyed primarily because the voting booth was treated with contempt by the revolution. Renounce the voting booth today, and you *AUTOMATICALLY* betray the hope of billions in the world today that a just social order can replace the existing world order.

This is not an argument for any *particular* vote in any particular election. It is an argument against a pattently false statement that's part of a trendy psuedo-radical posture. Once you admit that voting *can* play a vital role, then the really hard work begins. Then you have to think about how voting is related to movement-building, and you have to learn how to argue with others who will disagree with you about this relationship without letting those disagreements undermine your fundamental agreements about the need for change and the kinds of changes needed. This kind of work is *far* more demanding than simply striking a pseudo-radical pose and waiting for someone to take your picture. This kind of work is what creates social change. It's what creates human dignity and freedom. And it's inseparably linked to the act of voting, however compromised that act may be in the existing political order.