“I Voted” Isn’t Enough

Issue 259

Danny Katch Oct 28, 2020

For all of the catastrophic low points of Donald Trump’s time in office — praising murderous Nazis in Charlottesville, happily tossing paper towel rolls in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, promoting bleach injection as COVID protection — the most unbearable aspect off his presidency on a daily basis has been his unending assault on our ability to have a sustained thought.

Like a car alarm blaring day and night, Trump’s alternating sirens of fear and hate, ignorance and cruelty — broadcast across all of our screens and intruding into almost every conversation with family and friends — has made it impossible to focus on anything beyond just stopping this awful noise.

So it’s understandable that for many progressives in these final days of Trump’s first, and hopefully only, term, voting him out is the one and only priority. We may recognize that our present crisis has roots in the racism, inequality, and failing healthcare systems that came long before 2016, but it feels like we can only take those issues on after Nov. 3, because if Trump wins, there’s no telling what chaos and tyranny might ensue.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming clearer by the day that even if Trump doesn’t win, there’s no telling what chaos and tyranny might ensue. The false claims coming from the White House about voter fraud have ensured that millions of Republicans — including heavily armed white nationalists — will view any result other than a Trump reelection as illegitimate.

What this means is that the old activist adage about voting one day and organizing on the other 364 needs to be updated. Even on Election Day itself, we need to be prepared to do much more than vote in order to defend our democratic rights.

But even if Trump is defeated and forced to concede, the current dynamic of a two-party system — where one party has ceded the wheel to a motley crew of zealots and cranks, while the other remains tightly controlled by bipartisan centrists — cannot resolve the multiple crises we face.

For starters, it’s not idle speculation to assume that Republicans will try to sabotage a Biden presidency with the less dramatic but perhaps more destructive tactic of sabotaging an economic recovery. In case they lose control of the Senate, they will be aided by an even more reactionary Supreme Court bolstered by Republicans’ shameless 12th-hour addition of Amy Coney Barrett.

So regardless of how this chaotic election turns out, it’s important that hundreds of thousands of the people who have been organizing against Trump understand that their role in the political process is not limited to voting, and that’s where the signs are more hopeful.

•  •  •

The good news from the past four years is in the grassroots movements that have arisen to challenge both Trump and the lukewarm resistance put up to him by Democratic leaders.

Most attention typically goes to the inspiring insurgent electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and others who have helped push left-wing ideas into congressional halls and corporate media coverage that had previously only allowed debates between centrists and conservatives.

But as news coverage during election season narrows exclusively to candidate coverage, it’s easy to forget that the most significant and successful opposition to Trump over the past four years has come not from politicians or the “deep state,” but from millions of people who have partaken in some of the largest and boldest protests and job actions this country has seen in decades.

From the historically large Women’s Marches on the first day of Trump’s presidency to the even larger Black Lives Matter protests of the past summer, mass protests have countered the far right’s infiltration of government agencies with a counter-infiltration of popular culture, turning movie sets, football locker rooms, and TikTok threads into forums for organizing against rape, police murders and presidential rallies.

Crucially, and for the first time in generations, these struggles breached the gates of the repressive American workplace — most spectacularly with the wave of teachers strikes that have rolled back budget cuts and privatization schemes and in certain cities established the strike as a tool for fighting deportations and anti-Black racism.

Then there have been auspicious job actions in a number of critical non-unionized industries. Five-hundred Microsoft employees signed a petition protesting their company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while Google employees held a historic global walkout against mishandled sexual assault complaints. More recently, small but impactful rallies, walkouts, and petitions have demanded and sometimes helped win hazard pay and PPE from companies like Amazon, Instacart and Trader Joe’s.

There is of course no need to counterpose voting and protesting, and if Donald Trump’s opponent were Bernie Sanders or another figure associated with these movements, that would be doubly true. But the Biden campaign is spending the final weeks of the campaign promising voters that he will reject progressive demands; “Joe Biden will not ban fracking,” was Kamala Harris’s most repeated talking point during the vice-presidential debate.

In these circumstances, silencing our criticisms of Biden and halting other organizing under the rationale that voting out Trump is “all that matters” runs the risk of setting back the progress that the left has made in advancing working-class demands like Medicare For All, which Biden has vowed to veto.

This election is truly important. But if we want to address the nightmares created in the Trump era, we have to find the ability to focus on more than one thing, even as the car alarm blares louder than ever in the days leading up to Nov. 3. That means continuing to build the organizations and movements for the world we rightfully want, and not just limiting ourselves to casting a vote against what we rightfully fear.

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