Bernie Sanders, Anarchists, and Voting

Let’s start this with a couple of admissions: I am an anarchist who hopes that Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic primary so I can vote for him in the general election next year. I am also an anarchist who is sick and tired of hearing other radicals complain about Bernie Sanders.

William Kaufman, though I suspect no anarchist, seems to feel the same:

In this presidential summer of our discontent, the radical left has been fighting hard—not chiefly against capitalism and its galloping calamities, it seems, but against . . . Bernie Sanders. Scarcely a day passes without an ominous recitation of Sanders’s manifold political shortcomings—Sanders exposés seem to have become a thriving cottage industry for the far-left commentariat.

That is from a great article in CounterPunch, which is ironic given that CounterPunch is perhaps the headquarters of the anti-Sanders cottage industry. Kaufman does a good job of countering many of the arguments radicals make against Bernie Sanders, though he only briefly discusses the one anarchists most often go to, the one he labels “Elections are a trap and diversion from real organizing.” As a member of the small anarchist encampment in the radical left, let me offer a few thoughts.

For anarchists, this isn’t really about Bernie Sanders not being radical enough, but voting and electoral politics in general. The anarchist method of social change is not the electoral one. We do not believe in forming political parties, getting into office, and trying to make change from within. But merely voting is not the same as these things, despite many anarchists acting as if it were. It is quite possible to advocate for organizing and direct action as the most effective methods for creating lasting social change while at the same time taking five minutes out of your day to stroll to the closest elementary school and cast a vote for a name that doesn’t make you retch when you read it. And on a more pragmatic level, I can think of at least three reasons why we need to reverse our long-standing, vehement opposition to voting.

First, “voting for a slightly more progressive party may mean real benefits for people,” as Mark Leier, anarchist, historian, and author of the biography Bakunin: The Creative Passion, argues:

At the same time, it is often the case that refusing to appreciate incremental change can be immoral. Let me give you an example. Many anarchists refuse to vote, for many very good reasons. At the same time, voting for a slightly more progressive party may mean real benefits for people. Even if that benefit is only, say, $50 a month more for someone on welfare, that $50 is crucial for some people. And so it may be that some practical politics should also inform anarchist ideas about what to do now. Of course I am simplifying the question and I would not presume to tell anarchists what should be done, but I offer this as an example where a straightforward argument on refusing to vote may not be as principled as it first seems.

Second, I think our anti-voting position alienates us from many people, especially the condescending way in which many anarchists dismiss not only voting but the people who vote. Voting doesn’t make you a brainwashed dumbass, just like not voting doesn’t make you an enlightened genius. I think our anti-electoralism has done us more harm than good, and a more effective position would be one that acknowledged the first reason above while highlighting voting’s limitations and bringing attention to our preferred strategies (i.e. organizing in the workplace and community) for creating social change. That would open, rather than shut down, the lines of communication between anarchists and people who could be open to our ideas.

Third, Leier’s “incremental change” is often the only change that happens. I do not think that anarchists appreciate this. Too many of us are in it for the quick fix, whereas we should be in it for the long haul. Capitalism and government are not going to be overthrown any time soon. David Rooum connected this, correctly I think, to the preponderance of young anarchists:

It seems to some young anarchists that anarchism is so sensible and obvious that everybody must agree with the idea as soon as they hear about it. These young anarchists are convinced that the revolution can be completed within a short time, if it is urged with enough energy.

Anarchists who have been in the anarchist movement for some time feel compelled to recognise that society is resistant to rapid change. The anarchist revolution has been urged for well over a century, but few have been convinced and progress is very slow.

We need to stop being such purists and start reconsidering our all-or-nothing mentality. Even though a Bernie Sanders presidency is not going to create the society that anarchists want to see, or even the society that progressives want to see, it would be a movement in the direction of a better world. And that is a good thing.

One of my first posts on this blog was about Marion Barry, pointing out his many failings and lamenting that he became a politician in the first place. I still don’t think that anyone who wants to change the world should become a politician, because I don’t think that’s the best way to do it. With that said…


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2 Responses to Bernie Sanders, Anarchists, and Voting

  1. Lindy garber says:

    I walked alongside a couple of anarchists in Denver in 2008. They appreciated that the street was nicely paved and that they were able to rally in a nicely kept park. They also liked libraries and schools. How do those things happen? Government makes them happen. I like you voting but, really, try to get educated on how government works, start with Henry clay, the great compromiser


    • Kris Covel says:

      You know all of those things are created/maintained by people, not some specific structure called “government,” right? But thanks for the comment – I’ll try to get myself “educated.”


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