What more fitting tribute and appropriate sequel to Time Magazine’s 2011 Man of the Year Award to “The Protester” than to make 2012 “The Year of the Voter.” Both acts are highly symbolic and both have the power to transform society. The emphasis here is on the power of the vote. 2012 will most likely bear witness to more protests here at home but with an emphasis on voting as the effective change agent.
To the average middle class voter surveying the American political landscape from 30,000 feet in 2012, you could be either hopeful or fearful: hopeful because massive citizen action against the status quo could restore balance to a country tilting more dangerously to the right. Conversely, you could be fearful because without an energized electorate committed to change, the country could — with its current dysfunctional, two-party system of government and an “angry white minority willing to attack democracy to get its way” — continue its slide toward other world status.
In each instance, the voters will determine outcomes. This is the macro view, the easy part. Now for the hard part — the difficult choices that lie ahead in identifying more centrist candidates from both parties committed to at least a reform agenda: restoring union rights; removing the growing restrictions on voting rights; eliminating the assaults on women’s’ rights and individual rights and freedoms; strengthening environmental preservation; rebuilding the economy; reducing the growing income inequality; and, saving our democracy from the influence of unrestricted Super PAC money.
The voter of the 21st century is “looking for some leaders who know how to govern from the bottom up” says Thomas Friedman (Sunday Review, NYT, Dec. 18, 2011, page 11). Friedman writes, “The role of the leader now is to get the best of what is coming up from below and then meld it with a vision from above.” Many Democrats and a goodly number of progressives say this is the leadership challenge the President and both houses of Congress failed to meet. If Friedman is correct about voter expectations, there could be major changes on Capitol Hill in November — perhaps even in the White House. Also at stake are a number of state houses around the country and progressive ballot initiatives. The leadership approach Friedman suggests could move many of our citizens from protest to vote and not fear the outcome of an election.
Voting, that singular act in which Americans deposit their hopes for change or continuity, and reform, is the logical sequel to protest. There is a natural symbiosis that advocates for real change as well as thoughtful observers of the electorate’s behavior cannot and should not ignore. The journey from protest to voting can be as brief as a step from the street or the sidewalk (in most instances) inside to the voting booth. The contrast between the two activities and their environments is as stark as war and peace.
In one instance, you might carry your sign while dealing with the debilitating effects of tear gas or fending off the life threatening blows from a police truncheon. In the other, you ensconce yourself momentarily in the tranquil solitude of a voting booth, review your choices and register your hopes for the future.
The American electorate is aware that change is in the wind and it is they who must tilt this country toward the reasonable middle. Our elected officials are blind to the chaos we live. Voters are also aware that in response to angry constituencies at home, the ruling elite are manning the ramparts on Capitol Hill, Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms across the country, and among the 1 percent. The size and volume of the protests suggests the voters know that the protesters of 2011 have to become the voters of 2012. The struggle for change in 2012 may reach epic proportions because of the stakes: the November elections should determine the kind of society we either embrace going forward or continue to reject in the near term. The voters will be the judge and the jury.
The lessons of history are available to the organizers guiding protest movements on the path from protest to ballot box. If they want a blueprint, review the turbulent decades of the 60s and 70s when millions of Americans sought equal status in the land of their birth and to end what was then the longest war in American history — the war in Vietnam.
Then and now, pushback from those heavily invested in the status quo followed a script when dealing with those protesting for change and the right to vote: Initially, ignore them; harass them; arrest and physically abuse them; undermine their legitimacy through the media and the legal system; attempt to outlaw their activities and their organization through punitive legislation; and, ultimately, accept their demands at the lowest level of accommodation over the longest period of time.
The keys to success for those seeking change through the ballot and those seeking to remove restrictions on their right to vote are persistence and organization. If you are protesting, be consistent, do not resort to violence, and be willing to sacrifice the present for the future and, perhaps, even endure physical harm. Your antagonists also judge you by what you are willing to forgo, to endure, to achieve your goals. The power to rule is never relinquished without a struggle. Again, if your protest is the prelude to getting out the vote, build coalitions, a vocal base of supporters, who view change as an inevitable part of the tides of history that engulf all nations — including our own.
Persistence changes the power relationship between the governed-turned-protester/voter and those who would rule.
Repressing those seeking democracy and a fair deal here at home, or elsewhere, only deepens an unquenchable thirst for equality, economic justice, and the right to vote. The American oligarchy fears the deepening passion of movements like the OWS and the 99 percent enroute to the ballot box from the streets. They would prefer the longest detour money could buy.
That detour could be a hard sell in 2012, especially coming from the Right. Movements, people campaigns, and have simple, easy to remember themes, slogans that get the adrenalin pumping: “Stop the War!” “Freedom Now!” “Hell No, We Won’t Go!” “Fired Up, Ready To Go!”
For 2012, the theme that speaks to the electorate, at least on the protest side, the side that seeks redress of grievance through the ballot, is simple: equity and fair play; “Those who’ve gotten all the breaks the last ten years will have to give a little bit more.”
No reasonable observer of the 2012 elections disagrees about what is at stake. We can disagree over political philosophy, specific publicly financed programs, or policy priorities. What we cannot countenance, and could be the death knell for American democracy, is a dysfunctional government unresponsive to 99 percent of society. It is the voter in 2012 that will determine if that reality is the most serious threat to their futures.