Sunday, February 19, 2006

Working Within the System is Good, but Not Nearly Enough - César Responds

I think Carlos and I agree on this one. Working within the electoral system is important; it’s critical; it’s absolutely necessary. To paraphrase José Angel Gutiérrez when asked why La Raza Unida decided to take over the elected positions in Crystal City, Texas: the government is the best source of money for us to do the things we were already trying to do but didn’t have enough money to do.

Yes, it’s that simple. Governments have a steady source of revenue via taxes and a lawful right to do with that money just about whatever they damn well please. I’ve worked in non-governmental organizations (NGOs, the label that the rest of the world uses to describe what we know as “non-profits”) enough to know that money is generally the biggest obstacle. And when it’s not the biggest obstacle it’s right near the top of the list. Even if there’s enough money this year for what we want to do the question always arises, what about next year or five years from now? So yes, I think we need to take over the government. In fact, I think we need to do more – we need to become the government.

Do I think the Democratic Party is the key for people of color or poor people to get political power? Absolutely not.

Carlos’ premise that Democrats have always been “more progressive in helping folks of color” isn’t entirely accurate.

Thinking back to the days of Lincoln it was the Republicans who helped pass the Reconstruction Amendments to the constitution. Then there are the days of Strom Thurmond who still holds the record for the Senate’s longest filibuster. As a Democrat, he tried to stop passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 by speaking for over 24 hours! Eventually he realized he was human and stopped. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, signed the bill into law. Let’s not forget that it was Bill Clinton who signed the 1996 Death Penalty and Anti-terrorism Act that expanded the list of federal crimes punishable by the death penalty beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (well, beyond mine). There’s no question that the people who are most often killed by the government are poor people and people of color. I suppose I should also mention that spending half a trillion dollars on needless wars takes that money from social programs that poor people and people of color throughout the country desperately need. And the Democrats, like the Whigs who mouthed off against the war against México in 1845, keep dumping more money right along with the Republicans. The list goes on and on, but I’ll stop there.

While I agree that the Democratic Party in the last 40 years has been less willing to vilify poor people and people of color, I would not put my trust in them. In fact, I wouldn’t put my trust in any political party – not even La Raza Unida, the Green Party, or anyone else no matter how much I like their platform.

Electoral politics is inherently limited. It can only accomplish so much given the constraints imposed by our electoral and legislative processes. Whether that’s good or bad is a different conversation. For there to be truly significant positive change in the lives of poor people there has to be a broad-based popular social movement pressuring legislators. Poor people, by definition, will never have the money to buy politicians and elections like rich people do. We can’t en masse max out our political contribution limit, buy TV and radio air time, or pay for snazzy media consultants. No, not even MoveOn can do this. However, we can outnumber the people who have more money and worse politics than us.

But organizing work doesn’t happen inside a political party or around an election. It happens at the community level on a daily basis. It happens by constructing sustainable institutions that empower people on an individual level. A community comprised of individuals who are confident enough to speak out, make demands, and organized enough to create the world they want to live in, even if on a small and temporary scale, is a community that stops taking crap from other people. A chain of such communities would not be beholden to any political party. Nonetheless, it would wield political power because it could mobilize people to vote and when voting didn’t work it could mobilize people to take things into their own hands.

So, yeah, don’t drop out of the electoral process, but also don’t rely on that slow, costly, and entrenched process to fix our problems


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