Beto O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Ted Cruz as U.S. Senator has arguably generated as much buzz on campus as the 2016 presidential election. While it’s clear that Rice students are most politically engaged during election season, students should consider whether electoral politics is the most effective means of pursuing their political goals. We argue that it is not, and that our activism must not be limited to working within a political system that does not always reflect the needs of the people.
Tactics of voter suppression and disenfranchisement keep working-class citizens from engaging in electoral politics. While it’s easy for a student to walk to the RMC and vote between classes, those who work long hours are often unable to get to the polls.Before even finding the time to make it to the polls, however, Texans have to be registered to vote 30 days before Election Day, whereas other countries (and now the states of Oregon and North Dakota) register voters automatically. Gerrymandering often prevents black and Hispanic voters from having a substantive impact on elections, and one does not have to look beyond Texas’ 2nd Congressional District, which includes Rice, to get a sense of how districts can be shaped to dilute the voting power of minorities by including distant suburbs.
Apart from tactics of voter disenfranchisement and gerrymandering that prevent electoral politics from being an effective means through which change can be achieved, we must understand that within the U.S., the only changes that are possible are those that are taken up by the dominant political parties. For example, though Democrats are conscious of the existential threat of climate change, electing Democrats is not enough to achieve the changes that might seriously mitigate the effects of climate change. The recent U.N. scientific panel declares that large-scale systemic changes “of which there is no documented historical precedent” are required to limit the effects of climate change. Given the Democrats’ tepid response, even relative to those of European nations, it’s reasonable to be skeptical that Democratic control of political institutions would result in such drastic change.
Though Democrats at least acknowledge climate change, we cannot confront other legitimate issues that both Democrats and Republicans refuse to discuss through electoral activism. For example, the issue of illegal Israeli settlements and the military occupation of Palestine cannot be contested through electoral politics because the vast majority of American politicians, ranging from and to and , support the Israeli occupation.
Finally, a sole focus on voting ignores the crucial role that organized communities and popular protest play in shaping electoral politics; historically, strong labor unions have produced more progressive candidates than today’s Democrats because their power and interests emerge from working people instead of corporate donations.
Our goal in writing this piece is not to dissuade people from voting. Rather, we encourage others to think about how they use their political energy beyond Election Day, as activism on campus tends to be focused on voting. While electoral politics may seem like the most effective and reliable method of pursuing change, there are historical counterexamples. In 1960, black students from Texas Southern University, only a few miles away from Rice, started that ultimately led to racial desegregation in Houston. Today, local organizations exemplify the vibrant community of activism within the city and the possibility of achieving real gains without elected officials; Food Not Bombs feeds poor and homeless Houstonians, and the Texas Organizing Project regularly bails out unconvicted black mothers who are awaiting trial.
Rice students are often chided as apolitical and disinterested in politics. On campus, however, we lack points of entry to involvement in activism aimed at grassroots action. We believe that educating ourselves by attending workshops, such as Rice Left’s post-election workshop and actively engaging in critical conversations about dominant conceptions of politics are the first steps to wider involvement. Ultimately, direct engagement through grassroots community organizations like those listed above is the most straightforward means for pursuing the political ideals that Rice students find important. Activism has never begun or ended with electoral politics — similarly, our own activism must not be limited to electoral involvement.