For meaningful change, voting is not enough

Winston Heckt, Staff Writer

There is a narrative around voting that places the act on a pedestal, pushing the idea that voting is the most important thing a U.S. citizen can do to enact change. The phrase “don’t complain; vote” comes to mind; we speak as though participating in a democracy starts and stops in the voting booth in November, and if only more people voted and got “our” side elected then we could finally steer the country on a path toward justice and equity.

I’m not here to say voting is pointless — seriously, please vote — but I do think Americans place too much emphasis on voting as a means of social change. This top-down approach is dangerous for a healthy democracy. Every gain that has been made toward equity and justice in America, be it the 40-hour work week or the Women’s Movement, was born primarily out of citizens engaging not in electoral politics but in demonstrations, protests, and boycotts.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the NAACP focused on education, litigation and lobbying to end racial discrimination which lead to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. However, these channels were too slow for the general public, and there were increasing calls for direct action in the form of civil disobedience — sit-ins, marches, Freedom Rides, boycotts, etc. These actions propelled the Civil Rights movement forward much faster and further than the previously accepted avenues of political change, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It should be noted that without lawmakers who were sympathetic toward the movement, neither bills would have been written into law. But I think it’s more important to note the order in which change took place. People organized and came together all across the country. They took matters into their own hands to force change until lawmakers could no longer ignore issues. It is important that we elect politicians who run on platforms that will actually help people, but if you just vote and sit back and expect them to pull through on everything they campaign on, you’re in for a nasty shock. Without a popular movement to stand on, progressive politicians stand little chance of making any actual progress. As Frederick Douglass put it, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” So please register to vote, and use your voice this November, but remember that if you want the government to stop working for the one percent and to start working for all the people, your struggle can’t begin and end at the ballot box.

This article first appeared in the Friday, September 28 edition of The Echo.