Dennis Loo on Social Justice, Activism, and the 2012 Vote

by Dennis Loo

Elections are not what most people believe them to be: an opportunity for the PEOPLE to decide who will represent them and what the overall policies are going to be. Elections are not even the place where the people get to choose the lesser evil.

What elections do instead is provide the fig leaf of public approval and legitimation for policies that the 1% have been employing and plan to implement anyway. If you’re interested in social justice, then you want to avoid getting trapped in the snare of the elections.

Consider, for example, what America would look today like if McCain had won in 2008: would President McCain have continued and escalated the use of drones, kept Guantanamo open and allowed torture and rendition to continue, refused to prosecute torturers, bailed out Wall St., be threatening Iran, deport more immigrants than Bush, sign the NDAA and personally request of Congress that it include American citizens so that the military based on merely an accusation could strip them of their citizenship and hold them indefinitely without charges? Would McCain have continued suspending habeas corpus rights, concede ground to the pro-Lifers, escalated the warrantless surveillance that began under Bush into a truly massive intelligence operation, permit the ongoing mass incarceration of minorities, refuse to put single-payer health insurance on the table, and allow the gap between the 1% and the rest to grow ever wider? Would McCain be going after whistleblowers more aggressively than Bush did? If your answer to that is yes, then you may also already know that all of these things have also happened under Obama.

I didn’t mention in this list that there would be a publicly declared presidential kill list under Pres. McCain because I’m not sure that McCain would dare done it the way Obama has. And McCain would not have declared his recognition of the danger of global warming as Obama has. But what McCain and Obama both share is a refusal to do anything really significant to mitigate global warming.

What is meaningful in politics is not who holds public office or their party affiliation but what interpretive frames are the dominant ones in the society. In the 1960s, for example, ruling circles argued that the chief issue was crime in the streets and law and order and the social movements of the day declared that the chief issue was social justice. Because of the strength and determination of the social movements of that time, social justice was for a thrilling and important several years the dominant interpretive frame rather than what public officials and pundits wanted it to be.

To step back here for a moment and take the long view, as I wrote in my book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

To grasp what is going on we have to probe beneath the surface to the underlying forces at play. The problems of capitalism that are now being expressed are not simply the product of a few (or even a lot of) greedy, corrupt, and shortsighted business figures. They are not primarily the result of poor monitoring by the Federal Reserve and the federal government. They did not arise principally because of an inattentive media. They are not fixable through a set of adjustments or through electing one party over the other, or installing into power one individual or another. They are not mainly the fault of a mall-obsessed, savings-allergic public. These are systemic problems. Life will never again be the same as the life Americans have known for the last few generations. … But recognizing what is up is not so easy. Systems do not change just because you put a new face in the White House and new faces in Congress.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz said something very revealing in the fall of last year. This was before the violent evictions of the Occupy encampments. He confessed that the Occupy movement was “frightening” him “to death because it was changing the way Americans think about capitalism.” Note that he didn’t say that he was frightened to death that people would vote Democratic. He said that he was frightened to death about the way this social movement was changing public opinion. The battle for public opinion is where the action is. Elections are a means by which public opinion is shaped to suit the purposes of those who run things. If we want something else, then we have to puncture the elections charade and build an alternative pole of opinion not beholden to one party or another, a movement that bases itself on facts not spin and that tells people the whole unvarnished truth, not convenient fictions. That is the only way to usher in a new, just world and the only way to truly engage people politically and mobilize them as an independent force rather than some artificial version of democracy.

Dennis Loo is a member of the steering committe of World Can't Wait. These remarks were delivered at UCLA’s “Inside Out: Social Justice, Activism, and the 2012 Vote.