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Socialists and the defense of voting rights


Sudip Battacharya argues that the socialist movement must take up the defense of voting rights as a matter of principle, and part of the basic struggle for the extension of democracy.

In early June, the Texas Republican Party put forward one of the most restrictive pieces of legislation on voting rights, which would’ve likely passed if it weren’t for Democratic party legislators walking out of the proceedings.

According to The Guardian’s Sam Levine, the bill would have placed “new ID requirements in place for voting by mail, blocked election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications, barred drop boxes, 24-hour and drive-thru voting, and curtailed early voting hours on Sundays, a day widely known to be popular among Black voters who cast their ballots after church.”

The legislation would’ve made it incredibly difficult for most working-class people, which includes many Latinx and Black Americans, from having their voices heard on election day. There would be incredibly long lines,  as witnessed across various parts of the country during the presidential election. Most working people do not have the luxury of waiting for hours to vote. Since we do not have election-day holidays, most of us have to use what little time off we have to exercise this basic right, oftentimes during already diminished lunch breaks.

Voter I.D. laws also compel working people, mainly Black and brown, to spend an entire day off from work obtaining forms of identification. Most working people rely on public transportation, and in some states, like Georgia, the DMV offices that would provide driver’s licenses to prove one’s right to vote have been shut down in areas that are predominantly Black, rural and poor.

The most recent attempt at restricting the vote by Texas lawmakers is just one of the latest examples of anti-voting measures promoted by GOP statehouses. Since February, more than 200 bills restricting the vote have been introduced, with 14 states already having adopted such laws. This ranges from Georgia requiring people to send in identification, to Florida making it illegal to share water and food with people waiting to vote, in a state where voting lines have continued to get worse.

“[Voter repression] is being pursued because the Republican Party has been the party of dictatorship,” notes Bill Fletcher Jr., long-time labor organizer and writer. “They are deeply afraid of the changing demographics and political currents in this country. They want to reestablish a very clear racial oligarchic republic.”

If more states adopt anti-voting measures, this would reinforce the existing level of power that anti-egalitarians and anti-socialists have within political institutions. In the United States Congress, a bloc of extreme right-wing politicians with unpopular ideas, such as beating back efforts to raise the minimum wage, would be in the position to shape society due to a voter base of mostly white, mostly middle to upper middle-class constituencies.

The recent attempts to suppress democratic rights must be confronted by socialists. At the same time, we must engage with discussions regarding the electoral space that run deeper than abstaining completely or sinking into the morass of electing candidates who simply toe the Democratic party line.

THE RIGHT TO VOTE IS POWER

Blood has been spilled over the right to vote, especially in the U.S., with African Americans winning the right to cast a ballot following the end of the Civil War. In this period, known as Reconstruction, extending suffrage to African American men was a monumental shift in U.S. politics. It led to the election of Black and white lawmakers across the former Confederacy who promoted universal education and healthcare, and in some areas, redistribution of land and other resources. None of this would’ve been possible without extending the vote.

As a direct response to this, the right to vote was contested by an alliance of Southern elites and sections of the white working class, who did everything they could to intimidate and kill African Americans and those sympathetic to a less hierarchical political system.

African Americans voting in 1867; Sketch by A.W. M’Callum

Ultimately, the potential of Reconstruction was crushed, and the right to vote was vastly diminished, with most African Americans being denied the right through violence and intimidation, right-wing coups of state governments, and laws that handed over power to decide who could vote to the white Southern ruling-class. Overall, the restriction of the right to vote, the right to assemble, and the right to run candidates, led to the increased vulnerability of African Americans and even many poor whites. Most African Americans, having little to no voice—apart from certain community members who played a “moderating role” between the broader constituency and the white supremacists (often at the expense of the majority of Black people)—were now at the mercy of legislators and interests who viewed them as less than human and wanted them to stay within a role white people desired, such as working as domestic labor or as sharecroppers.

W.E.B. Du Bois writes in his classic text about the era, Black Reconstruction,

In the former slave states, from Virginia to Texas, excepting Missouri, there are no Negro state officials; no Negro members of legislatures; no judges on the bench, and usually no jurors. There are no colored county officials of any sort. In the towns and cities, there are no colored administrative officers, no members of the city councils, no magistrates, no constables and very seldom even a policeman. In this way, a least eight million Negroes are left without effective voice in government, naked to the worst elements of the community.

Since the vote was restricted, a right-wing constituency of business, and sections of the white working class, dominated society across the South, helping elevate a bloc of right-wing legislators into national halls of power; legislators who would continue stymieing progressive change and pro-worker policies.

For instance, during the New Deal, policies were pushed forward because of pressure from the labor movement Left that would go much further in restructuring society for the benefit of working people across the country. But this mostly Southern  bloc of reactionaries, who had already been in power for decades and were senior members serving in powerful committees, prevented more radical legislation from even being discussed on the Senate floor.

Nelson Lichtenstein writes in State of the Union,

Even as union densities rose to European levels in the late 1940s, an alliance of Republicans and Dixiecrats in Congress vetoed union-Democratic Party efforts to bolster the American welfare state or defend the Wagner-era labor relations regime. And because of the vital role the South still placed in national Democratic Party politics, even those liberals elected from solidly pro-labor constituencies were drawn into compromises and coalition with the right.

Fast forward to the present day, and there are echoes of this period in our own politics. As we  witness the desire for progressive change and momentum build, the GOP is rushing to erect more voting barriers. Even the concept of “democracy”, however ill-defined and rhetorical, is being attacked by right-wing officials. Republican Senator Mike Lee stated over Twitter late last year, after a summer of unrest and resistance, that “[w]e’re not a democracy.” Lee continued, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

It was a clear indication of the Republican and conservative strategy to work against even the limited spaces of democracy that we have under capitalism, to continue what has been called the “counterrevolution” of the past fifty years since the passage of the civil rights legislation and other democratic reforms during the 1960s.

“What we’re up against is not unlike what happened when Reconstruction was defeated,” argues Fletcher, “Basically, we have to carry out a battle for democracy. That’s what it comes down to.”

Voter-I.D. laws and other voter restriction efforts will make it harder for oppressed and marginalized people to be heard—echoing the situation at the end of Reconstruction. It will reinforce the ability of right-wing, minoritarian legislators to be a major force in policymaking despite their dwindling support on the issues they promote, such as shifting more resources to businesses.

Historian Carol Anderson, whose work has focused on white backlash politics and on the fight for modern voting and civil rights  explains,

The devices the Republicans used are variations on a theme going back more than 150 years. They target the socioeconomic characteristics of a people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc.) and then soak the news laws in “racially neutral justifications—such as administrative efficiency” or “fiscal responsibility”—to cover the discriminatory intent.

If voting rights are curtailed, people like Mike Lee and those who support him — small business owners who are against a fair wage, people who are upwardly mobile and desire more “law and order,” people who view themselves as “protectors” of the “middle class” — will continue to concentrate their power and shape the political terrain to their advantage, just as they have throughout U.S. history.

Losing our voting rights will enhance the position of reactionaries and those who already benefit from the existing status quo.

If we are to generate momentum to expand democracy into the workplace and beyond the voting booth we must fight to protect the right to vote itself.

“Our role [as socialists] is to lead in the battle for democracy,” Fletcher elaborates, “Our role is to fight for consistent democracy. It’s about union rights. It’s about land control. It’s about respecting the treaties of the indigenous. It’s all of that. That’s our battleflag, fighting for consistent democracy.”

The battle for socialism is a battle for democracy in all facets of life. It is fighting for the rights of working people to determine how they want to lead their lives—not to allow for a few “representatives” to do that for them. But, as Fletcher explains, this expansion of democracy at the workplace and in housing and healthcare will be much harder to achieve if the right to vote, even in a capitalist system, was made extinct or hindered.  “The elimination of liberal capitalist democracy will not necessarily radicalize people to believe an alternative to capitalism is necessary.” “[People] don’t just jump over the fight for rights and say all rights are bullshit.”

Early 1960s African American voter registration drive

If the right to vote, even under liberal capitalism, is diminished, it will become harder for people to envision the need or potential to expand democracy beyond the limits of bourgeois rights. If the right to vote is greatly restricted, people will despair or focus their energy on salvaging electoral rights at the most basic level, setting back the socialist horizon for years to come.

THE VOTE IS NOT ENOUGH

August Nimtz, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, author of The Ballot, The Streets, Or Both?: From Marx and Engels to Lenin and the October Revolution, explained how figures like Marx and Lenin viewed fighting for the right to vote and participating in electoral politics as extremely nuanced.

Unlike social democrats such as Karl Kautsy, Lenin knew that incrementalism—electing politicians and hoping reforms will lead to socialism—was ultimately irrational and led to socialist reformists abandoning working-class principles. Lenin was proven correct when the Social Democratic Party of Germany, having won representation in parliament, led by individuals who believed that socialists no longer had to struggle for power beyond the electoral realm, ended up taking pro-war and anti-worker positions. In contrast, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party cultivated a constituency to defeat the Tsar and the capitalists and destroy, if temporarily, the capitalist state.

Still, Lenin didn’t eschew the electoral realm completely, viewing it accurately as a critical tool in the fight for socialism.

“Lenin used elections to educate, beginning in the [first Russian parliamentary (Duma)] elections in 1906,” Nimtz writes, “He loved using campaign literature to differentiate between the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, the centrists and the right wing.”

Similarly, Lenin would analyze voting data as best he could to judge the level of influence and power that the Bolsheviks had among the masses, helping to understand when the working class was in a  position to take power.

Lenin called his approach to electoral politics “revolutionary parliamentarism”, according to Nimtz. The purpose of counting votes and running campaigns and candidates was always connected to exposing more and more people to the contradictions of Tsarism and bourgeois democracy. The point of participating in parliament was not to convince people that all they had to do was elect more Bolsheviks. The main goal of such electoral campaigns was to expose the limits of the system in delivering true democracy and freedom, as well as expose the other political parties in their failure to represent the material interests of the working classes.


Suffrage demonstration in Petrograd, Russia, March 1917.
With the support of Russian revolutionaries, women won the vote before any enfranchisement was won in the major western capitalist “democracies”.

Essentially, the Bolsheviks wanted to push people to realize that the only way to achieve democracy and the political system they deserved was to seize state power for themselves and to develop systems that were actually representative, such as replacing the unrepresentative Duma with the soviets, or workers councils, which were a more direct form of democracy.

Taking lessons from the Bolsheviks, socialists in the U.S. would not simply fight for the right to vote, but also connect the right to vote to the right to organize beyond the ballot box. Like Lenin and the Bolsheviks, it is incumbent upon socialists to have a broader campaign and mission that can help channel the energy of the masses generated from protecting the right to vote, to pushing for democracy in all facets of their lives

“You want to be there in working class neighborhoods, on the picket lines, wherever workers are on strike,” Nimtz notes. “That’s what proves your mettle, that’s what proves how serious you are.”

A legitimate cause of concern is that socialists may fight for voting rights, only to see those rights used to keep electing neoliberal Democrats, as far-right Republicans preserve power within critical institutions. Again, losing the right to vote as-it-is would certainly shift the political terrain even more in favor of the neoliberals and the right-wing. However, if we do not find ways to organize oppressed peoples that would sustain some power independent of the Democratic Party, political momentum will be co-opted by Democratic Party leaders. They will sink their teeth into the voting rights movement, sapping it of whatever radical potential it might have had. After all, the Democratic Party leadership does not want democracy to go beyond passively voting every few years. They’d rather, as demonstrated by Biden, simply maintain power, and work with the right-wing to generate policies that provide benefits for some over the majority of exploited and oppressed people.

“It’s the black hole of progressive movements,” Nimtz argues, regarding the Democratic Party when it comes to social movements.

It is important for us to fight for the right to vote while developing campaigns and an independent party that can funnel such energy and momentum into the streets and forms of action that generate power for oppressed and exploited peoples.

An independent socialist party, if it is serious about power, would encourage the working class to disrupt business as usual. It would steer people away from the Democrats and fight to expand democracy, pushing beyond the limits of liberal capitalist democracy.

Fighting for the right to vote should therefore only be viewed as the first step toward transformative change.

“We got to have our own party,” argues Nimtz, “That’s the real test of how mature the movement is, how mature the working class movement is.”

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at editors@tempestmag.org.

Sudip Bhattacharya View All

Sudip Bhattacharya is a writer, whose pieces have appeared in various outlets ranging from CNN Politics to The Aerogram to Regeneration. He is also pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University, with a focus on building Left political coalitions among Black, Latin and Asian Americans.

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