Saturday, March 15, 2008

College History Student Rates Ballot Box, Obama As Minor Change Agents

Revolution deep in the hearts,
minds of Americans

American workers did not achieve the eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor and the minimum wage by voting. They did so through struggle.

by Kyle Szarzynski
The Badger Herald
Madison, Wisconsin

For some time now I have been droning on about Sen. Barack Obama’s staunchly unprogressive political record. He’s a centrist who appeals to left-wing emotions, a clever poseur of the American political landscape.

Not that his opponent is any better. Both candidates’ appeals to liberal primary voters — which are incredibly agonizing to listen to — are about as calculated as can be. Mr. Obama’s rallies and Sen. Hillary Clinton’s town hall meetings abound with rhetorical flourish and calls for hope and change, but they invariably lack substance. Give either of them a laxative, and I’d hate to see the bathroom afterward.

That’s my read on them, anyway. Other progressives, fatigued in these difficult times, are likely to grab at any sign of hope. But does it matter? How much can we expect from even the most left-wing presidential hopeful?

This political season — like all political seasons — we are asked to choose between one of two pro-imperialist, pro-corporate parties. Regardless of who wins, power will remain in the laps of the few, and inequalities of multiple kinds will endure. “If voting could change anything,” said Emma Goldman, “they’d make it illegal.”

I may not quite have the anarchist’s cynicism for our political system, but it is true that fundamental social change never comes through the ballot box. Bill Clinton, after campaigning on a moderately populist platform in 1992, gave us NAFTA, corporate welfare, a bourgeoning prison-industrial complex, a bloodied welfare system and countless other policies that makes one wonder why the right so detests him. Civil rights groups and labor unions were often left speechless, while the hopeless — from homeless veterans to enfeebled Appalachian miners, to the inner-city unemployed — remained without hope. Is it any wonder why so few of the underclass turn out to vote?

Those who put all their faith in the Clintons and Obamas, or even the Edwardses and Feingolds, will always end up disappointed if their desire is to see a substantial concession to social justice. If a real shift in power is the intended goal, can we really expect it to come about through a system that locks away most property and influence in a safe from which only the top 1 percent have access? I pity he who is so naive.

Fortunately, America has a better tradition of democracy — one that takes its cues not from a trifling ballot, but from outpourings of popular pressure. It’s a tradition which has turned out millions into the streets and, as Howard Zinn so aptly describes, creates a narrative of its own, in which the working majority — not the elite politician — dictates history.

The American centuries have produced countless examples of this type of change (real change, that is) of which the labor movement is particularly noteworthy. American workers did not achieve the eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor and the minimum wage by voting. They did so through struggle. The bloody battles with police of the Gilded Age, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and the walkouts of the postwar era amounted to a shutdown of the means of production, forcing politicians to make concessions and improve the quality of life for the hitherto powerless majority.

“OK, you’ve convinced me,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking to a delegation of activists. “Now go out and put the pressure on me.” Trade unionists and other agitators went out and did just that, feverishly organizing workplaces and making the bosses everywhere queasy with apprehension. The legacy of this struggle — aided, but not directed, by a sympathetic president — is still apparent.

Similarly, it was the activists of the Civil Rights Era, staging sit-ins, marches and other protests, who forced the end of apartheid in the American South, not a liberal White House. It was President Richard Nixon, after all, who oversaw the integration of more schools than either of his two predecessors.

True, times have changed, but people remain dissatisfied. The health care problem has turned into a crisis, the war continues to consume bodies and money, while real wages are seemingly unable to stop plummeting. As long as our society remains one of mass inequities, in which millions are crushed by unnecessary burdens and millions more long for control over their working lives, the well of revolt will never be dry.

“The really critical thing,” according to Mr. Zinn, “isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. … Those are the things that determine what happens.”

Take it from a historian, and don’t hold your breath if Barack Obama wins in November.

Kyle Szarzynski ( is a junior majoring in Spanish and history.

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