Election fever has seized the country, as it does every four years.
We have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two candidates who have already been chosen for us.
Now I’m not saying elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the 1930s, for instance, or right now), even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.
I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness.
Would I support one candidate against another?
Yes, for two minutes?the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, as concerned citizens, should be spent in educating, agitating and organizing in the workplace, in the neighborhood and in the schools.
Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House and in Congress into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.
Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.
The unprecedented policies of the New Deal?Social Security, unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized housing?were not simply the result of President FDR’s progressivism.
The Roosevelt administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The unemployed were rioting in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York and Seattle. In 1934, strikes broke out all over. There was a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants.
Without a national crisis?economic destitution and rebellion?it is not likely the Roosevelt administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.
Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center.
The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.
They offer no radical change from the status quo.
They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.
They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.
We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.
So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society.
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens against the obstacles to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” among other books, and a columnist for The Progressive.