Thursday, February 21, 2008

Election Madness

"The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of
the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press,
glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring
forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry."

sounds like you?; sounds like me

Election Madness
By Howard Zinn
The Progressive
March 2008 Issue

There's a man in Florida who has been writing to me for years (ten
pages, handwritten) though I've never met him. He tells me the kinds of jobs
he has held-security guard, repairman, etc. He has worked all kinds of
shifts, night and day, to barely keep his family going. His letters to me
have always been angry, railing against our capitalist system for its
failure to assure "life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness" for working

Just today, a letter came. To my relief it was not handwritten because
he is now using e-mail: "Well, I'm writing to you today because there is a
wretched situation in this country that I cannot abide and must say
something about. I am so enraged about this mortgage crisis. That the
majority of Americans must live their lives in perpetual debt, and so many
are sinking beneath the load, has me so steamed. Damn, that makes me so mad,
I can't tell you. . . . I did a security guard job today that involved
watching over a house that had been foreclosed on and was up for auction.
They held an open house, and I was there to watch over the place during this
event. There were three of the guards doing the same thing in three other
homes in this same community. I was sitting there during the quiet moments
and wondering about who those people were who had been evicted and where
they were now."

On the same day I received this letter, there was a front-page story in
the Boston Globe, with the headline "Thousands in Mass. Foreclosed on in

The subhead was "7,563 homes were seized, nearly 3 times the '06 rate."

A few nights before, CBS television reported that 750,000 people with
disabilities have been waiting for years for their Social Security benefits
because the system is underfunded and there are not enough personnel to
handle all the requests, even desperate ones.

Stories like these may be reported in the media, but they are gone in a
flash. What's not gone, what occupies the press day after day, impossible to
ignore, is the election frenzy.

This seizes the country every four years because 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 mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.
It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting
teacher would give it to students.

And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and
radicals alike. We are all vulnerable.

Is it possible to get together with friends these days and avoid the
subject of the Presidential elections?

The very people who should know better, having criticized the hold of
the media on the national mind, find themselves transfixed by the press,
glued to the television set, as the candidates preen and smile and bring
forth a shower of clichés with a solemnity appropriate for epic poetry.

Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an
exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major
candidates. An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though
everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system won't allow them

No, I'm not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally
insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral
purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and
at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right
now) where 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

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be
spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the
workplace, in the neighborhood, 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,
in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social

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 FDR's progressivism. The Roosevelt Administration, coming into
office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover
Administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army-thousands of
veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from
Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the
unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over
the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in
San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the
South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people
were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the
furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with
hundreds of thousands of members.

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

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

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.

None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with
its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for
war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties
and the Sixties. 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, including the left.

Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking
direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of

For instance, the mortgage foreclosures that are driving millions from
their homes-they should remind us of a similar situation after the
Revolutionary War, when small farmers, many of them war veterans (like so
many of our homeless today), could not afford to pay their taxes and were
threatened with the loss of the land, their homes. They gathered by the
thousands around courthouses and refused to allow the auctions to take

The evictions today of people who cannot pay their rents should remind
us of what people did in the Thirties when they organized and put the
belongings of the evicted families back in their apartments, in defiance of
the authorities.

Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or
Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until
forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of
black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and
desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally
useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct
action by concerned citizens.


Howard Zinn is the author of "A People's History of the United States,"
"Voices of a People's History" (with Anthony Arnove), and most recently, "A
Power Governments Cannot Suppress."

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