In my December 2013 editorial, “The Social Movement Romance,” I argued that progressives were doing themselves a disservice by focusing exclusively on building social movements while disdaining electoral organizing. Not everyone agreed. One reader commented that Martin Luther King, Jr. “intentionally remained out of electoral politics and changed the zeitgeist of our political culture and made transformative change.”
Not exactly. King was an enthusiastic supporter of the Voter Education Project, the voter registration campaign founded in 1962 that coordinated the work of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the SNNC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Urban League. Obtaining voting rights was a key demand of the Civil Rights Movement. Look no further than the Southern Poverty Law Center’s online Civil Rights Memorial, which honors the 41 Americans who “lost their lives in the struggle” — many of them murdered because they fought for the right to vote. These freedom fighters were not naïve. They understood that the voting booth could be a critical theater of struggle.
So it is painful today to see how effortlessly Republican-controlled states have passed laws making it harder for key Democratic constituencies — African Americans, Latinos and young people — to vote.
Civil Rights Movement veterans are outraged that the GOP’s neo-Confederates are successfully disenfranchising millions of Americans. Apparently, the most sanguine about this assault on basic democratic rights are young Americans who are losing faith in the electoral system.
In Pennsylvania, Carl Davidson, the national co-chair for Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, worked with civil rights and labor activists to successfully turn back attempts by Tea Partiers to limit ballot access. He says that notably missing from this new voting rights movement were significant numbers of young people.
In March the Pew Research Center reported that Millennials, those born since 1981, are the most potentially social-democratic of any American generation: 53 percent favor a more activist role for government. Yet while 50 percent of them identify with the Democrats (34 percent with the Republicans) they are the generation least likely to say — only 31 percent do so — that there is “a great deal” of difference between Democrats and Republicans.
“We have to understand that their analysis is largely correct,” Davidson says. “Politics is corrupt. But we don’t get to choose the field that we fight on.” The point is not that these young, disaffected multitudes should be corralled into voting for whatever apologist for Corporate America floats to the top of the Democratic bucket. Rather this left-leaning demographic, a cohort especially vulnerable to the cruelties of the 21st century economy, could and should play a helpfully disruptive role within the Democratic Party, especially at the primary level, where ideological realignment is most possible.
Voting is not an expression of our beautiful intentions and purest principles; it is about winning whatever power we can get our mitts on. Those on the Left who believe we can build utopias outside of the structures of the state delude themselves. They have effectively surrendered the government and all of its awesome machinery to their enemies.
Not so those Moral Monday and Truthful Tuesday activists across the South who are gearing up to launch Freedom Summer 2014. Among their top demands: protecting citizens’ constitutional right to vote.
Here’s to hoping the Civil Rights Movement shall rise again.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.