Here's where we stand right now, less than a week before the 2020 election: A global pandemic has killed more than one million people worldwide, as American politicians hold superspreader events in states across the country to rile up their supporters; the planet is either on fire, under water, or absolutely freezing, which should cause everyone to reckon with the life-threatening consequences of global warming — even if right wing governments didn’t continue to downplay these human-driven disasters. Meanwhile, the Trump administration, with funding from Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, has created a horrifying reality at the U.S.-Mexico border, where ICE and border patrol detain migrants in concentration camps. No wonder some people are asking whether or not voting can solve all these problems.
Yet, the despair and impotence so many of us are feeling right now are exactly why this year's elections — and particularly the presidential race — have been touted as one of the most obvious tools to create change. This civic tool has been largely embraced by Democrats, eager to get rid of Donald Trump. Paired with the fact that the pandemic has transformed the way people are casting their ballots this year, this newfound voting enthusiasm has led to a surge in early voting, as 22.2 million people had already voted as of mid-October — nearly 16 percent of all votes cast in the 2016 presidential election, The Associated Press reports.
But not everyone — even those who abhor Trump — think that voting is the answer. In fact, there's an often overlooked tension that exists among leftists when it comes to voting. While some see it as a way for people to choose who they want as an adversary in a long fight for liberation, others maintain that prioritizing voting creates the illusion that we have any control over the institutions that determine whether and how we live.
Despite most liberals' and progressives' enthusiasm for rejecting Trump through the election, some people are focusing their efforts directly on the communities, rather than casting a ballot that they say won’t bring the structural changes our lives literally depend on. But, considering that low Democratic voter turnout in 2016 is considered at least partially responsible for Trump's victory, could there possibly be a moral argument for not voting now?
Will, a West Coast-based socialist, tells Refinery29 he was turned off from voting in this election after watching the Democratic establishment stand by and allow the Trump administration do so much harm on the principle of bipartisanship. "It's really been the Democrats failure to oppose Trump that's hardened me against voting in 2020," he said. “They haven't stood firm anywhere.”
“I feel like my efforts are best spent creating alternatives to the systems that are oppressive and networks of support for people who need it”
The Democratic position of bipartisanship in governing was made clear early on in Trump’s presidency. Even after he launched attacks on immigrants, Black people, trans people, and many other marginalized communities during his first presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton said this in her 2016 concession speech: “We owe [Donald Trump] an open mind and the chance to lead.” Not exactly rousing words — it's no wonder so many were disillusioned.
Despite the losses at the polls, the last four years have seen many instances of political action. Millions of people have taken on the Trump administration in the streets even as Democratic leaders haven’t supported these mass action and resort instead to flimsy displays of resistance meant more for memes than meaning. It would seem that there has to be a better way.
“I feel like my efforts are best spent creating alternatives to the systems that are oppressive and networks of support for people who need it,” says Alice, an antifascist journalist and care worker who co-writes a weekly column about fascist activities. “We can vote in whoever, but the system is designed to protect certain people and the status quo.” But beyond that, Alice says she would rather spend her energy working on mutual aid and crisis and safety networks than wait for support from any presidential administration. “People need things right now.”
A common misconception about people who choose not to participate in electoral politics is that they don’t care or are not engaged in their communities, but that’s not always the case. And even when it is, shaming people who don’t vote isn’t a great motivator to get them to the polls. In more recent years, liberals have sometimes argued that people who don’t vote are supporting fascism — as if the only way to oppose fascist policies is with a vote. “There are way more effective ways to fight fascism than voting,” says Alice. To the many people who are opting out of the election — and even to the many who are participating — voting is considered the bare minimum of "doing the work."
When people who believe in and organize around the principles of so-called radical politics, their reasons for not voting in a presidential election are often rooted in liberation and in solidarity with marginalized and often disenfranchised communities. For them, there is more power in building the world they want for themselves than waiting every four years to vote for some politicians who may or may not get the job done.
It’s not hard to see why some radicals don’t feel confident that their vote for a presidential candidate will bring about structural solutions to white supremacy, policing, poverty, an end to imperialist violence, and other abuses that are built into the institutions that dictate our lives. We can’t vote away the white supremacy or anti-Blackness or the patriarchy that is built into the fabric of this country. As Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of imprisoned human rights advocates stated, "Presidential politics of voting in this country is so crazy that people are literally telling Black people 'just vote, even though neither candidate serves your interests on any level.'" The group added in a later tweet that "voting in this presidential election is condoning a form of white supremacy."
As such, some non-voters aren't just unenthused about a Biden administration, they might feel like a vote for him would go against their values. And even the most progressive candidates will enforce norms once they become president. Most of the people who spoke with Refinery29 offered former President Barack Obama’s presidency as one example of this dynamic.
“Obama promised the world to everyone and delivered nothing,” says Freddy Martinez, a D.C.-based anarchist who says he’s always been anti-war and names this as his reason for not voting in the presidential election. Martinez says he fully bought into Obama’s message of hope and change and became disillusioned with the Obama administration — especially regarding matters of foreign policy. As a result, he says, “I haven't voted since.”
Martinez says his decision not to vote is an act of internationalist solidarity. As the chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations in 2002, now-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden argued in favor of the war on Iraq, calling it “a march to peace and security.” More than one million Iraqis died as a result. Further, the Obama administration’s covert drone wars killed as many as 807 civilians in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen over eight years. “These people cause so much suffering across the globe and I can't support that,” he says, and adds that a prior belief “among liberals and conservatives that Trump is anti-interventionist [is] complete bullshit.”
For Abram Blau, an actor and communist who lives in New York, there's no reason to "lend a little bit of credibility to the system by voting for one of the architects of mass incarceration, and someone who is a probable rapist." Blau was disturbed that some Democrats who cite the accusations of sexual abuse against Trump as a reason why he's unfit to be president don't oppose Biden, who was faced with allegations that he sexually assaulted his former Senate staffer, Tara Reade. "If we're looking at who has more assault allegations that's a pretty bleak game," Blau adds. Blau also mentioned, though, that if they were in a swing state, they would certainly be voting for Biden.
Many non-voters don't think Biden will make the sweeping systemic changes necessary to keep people alive and safe, especially amid nationwide demands to abolish policing. Biden's 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was the blueprint for mass incarceration that has disproportionately affected Black Americans nationwide, and that's not lost on racial justice organizers.
“Biden is a centrist liberal,” Clarissa Brooks, a freelance journalist, organizer and cultural worker based in Atlanta, whose politics are rooted in anarcho-communism and Black queer feminism, tells Refinery29. “The world that we need [in order] to be safe won't happen under Biden. Intercommunal work, world building, [and] giving a fuck about your neighbors actually keeps people safe.” With the backdrop of ongoing efforts to defund and abolish policing, Brooks asserts that this issue is “non-negotiable,” and adds that Black people who didn't see their lives change in any meaningful way under Obama "definitely aren't seeing that under Trump or Biden."
It's true that the ways radicals resist the U.S. government are under attack from both sides. Trump has repeatedly attempted to paint the Biden and Harris ticket as radical and socialist, while Biden punches left and promises to persecute anarchists, simply for being anarchists.
Perhaps this is why people like Alice, who suffers from mental health conditions, say it's her anarchist community that keeps her safe and comforted in times of despair. “So from a purely selfish standpoint,” she says, “the one person I should vote for says he wants to lock up anarchists and that means locking up people I care about, and me.”
Even if some people have no interest in voting at the presidential level, that doesn't mean they dismiss the concept entirely. Brooks believes that her civic duty goes further than showing up at the ballot box every four years, she also believes that voting locally remains an important tool for accountability, and to enforce changes that have a material impact on people's lives. And make no mistake, Brooks asserts, “I can promise you I can name every city council member. Organizers are tuned into local politics.” She adds, “I do believe the work I'm doing and have been a part of has made life better for people.”