The Election: Can You Change the System from Within?

I voted yesterday for the first time in my life.  I know you’re thinking: waiting until you’re almost 30 to vote -how unpatriotic, but let me explain.  While I’ve been living in the United States for the past 11 years, I was only able to get citizenship this year.  Before that I was caught in a voting no man’s land: unable to meet the residency requirements for voting in my home country but also forbidden from voting here, in my adopted country.

I’ve sat-out, feeling powerless, as Americans elected officials who disappointed me (yes, I’ve cried on election night) and I’ve felt left out as Americans elected officials who’ve made me proud (I’ve cried happy tears too).  It’s no surprise then that I reveled in my first election day and proudly called attention to my “I Voted” sticker.  Given my excitement about voting, I was surprised and intrigued to read that my classmate, the lovely Keegan of Paper Crane Library, was opting not to vote.

In her thoughtful post (please read it!) Keegan lays out her reasons for not voting.  I wanted to share the first reason she gives:

1. I am a pacifist. No matter which candidate you vote for (with the exception of Jill Stein. Maybe. Kind of.) you are voting for war. You are voting for the expansion of and the enslavement to the military-industrial complex. And not only that, but the government thrives on the disenfranchisement of women, people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, and the environment–discrimination and oppression are types of violence.

As I was reading I kept seeing my beliefs (I’m also a pacifist) reflected in Keegan’s words.  This made me wonder: how can two people who share the same ideas about the world be motivated in such totally different directions?  While I’m sure the paths that lead to our divergent views are too complicated to sort out, the difference between Keegan’s and my feelings about voting mirror an ongoing debate in activist circles: what is more effective changing the system from within or revolutionary change from the outside?

There is plenty of support for working for change from within.  Every encouragement to vote, to get involved with a legal organization (ACLU, Lambda Legal, NRDC), or to donate to a development organization working overseas  (PeaceCorps, Kiva, Red Cross) – is pushing you to take action within the system to change the system.  Working within the system is definitely the most user-friendly form of activism (that’s not to say that it’s easy) and advocates of this approach cite that this is the only realistic way to sustain long-term action campaigns.  Other argue that as a part of the system, activists have more power to effect change than they do outside it and are more likely to attract allies.

That said, there are many who warn against the dangers of this approach.  Political hip-hop artist Immortal Technique eloquently sums up their concerns: “Niggas talk about change and working within the system to achieve that. The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it’s not you who changes the system; it’s the system that will eventually change you.”  Groups who have worked outside the system include revolutionary movements like the ones that fueled the Arab Spring, protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, and boycott actions like the grape boycott associated with Cesar Chavez that was dedicated to improving farm worker conditions.

Working within the system and outside it might seem like opposing forces, but in fact most successful activist efforts involve a combination of both efforts.

My apologies for the long post, but thanks again to Keegan for inspiring it!  What do you think?  Is activism possible from within the system?  Or is doing so a slippery slope to becoming the very thing you were trying to change?

9 thoughts on “The Election: Can You Change the System from Within?

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Aja! It is definitely a balancing act and a learning process. I’ve found it’s very hard to commit to an anarchist view, for fear that I’m seen as a hypocrite–I still participate in capitalism, benefit from institutionalized racism, etc. I own an iPhone and have a pretty cushy day job. But I think we all just do the best we can in whatever capacity is available to us. I think real change can absolutely come through traditional, “inside” channels. But I think my personal interest and calling is to explore the outside ones.
    Great post!

    • I think I’m in the same boat as you – and most people – in sometimes feeling like a hypocrite for making compromises on my beliefs. I’m a firm believer in the value of doing what you can, though, and in not worrying about doing it things the “wrong” way or about it not being “enough.”

  2. To Aja (and Keagan!)

    I really appreciate your words, your insight, your honesty. While I do not agree with your pacifist position I deeply respect your willingness to share this and how it impacts your voting choices. I know that “voting for the lesser of two evils” seems hardly a reason to vote but voting is the single most effective way we can change our leaders, our future. Prior to our recent election President Obama said more or less “you can’t change Washington form the inside.” I’m curious if you agree with that statement.

    This is of course coming from a fellow hypocrite. Humanity is imperfect and the beautiful irony is that no one can say they are not a hypocrite without being exactly that.

    Again, thanks for the discussion. Great post.


  3. Hi Kaitlyn,

    In response to your question:

    The idealist in me would like to disagree with President Obama on this one: I honestly hope that change can come from anywhere as long as people are dedicated to making it happen. That said, changing the system when you’re in the middle of it is hard! It’s all too easy to get bogged down by bureaucracy and politics.

    Does that mean I think it’s going to take a full-on revolution if someone wants to change Washington? Not necessarily, no. By becoming participants in the democratic process by working both within the system (voting, talking with elected representatives, canvassing, blogging, spreading information, etc) and outside the system (boycotts, strikes, walk-outs) people all over the country can do a lot to change Washington. These efforts are likely to be even more successful, though, if they enlist the support of advocates in the capitol.

    Despite what I’ve witten above, I have to conclude that I don’t really have a concrete answer for the question of how to change Washington. But I do believe that most lasting change, like an effective social media campaign, takes advantage of variety of methods and platforms and is driven by the support of both the general population and powerful influencers.

    Whew, sorry for the long answer! That’s just my humble opinion, though, what do you think?

    • I think it is important to distinguish between what can be done inside versus outside of Washington. I’m more of a realist but I do believe that anything is possible given the right circumstances. However, if you can’t change Washington from the inside, why are you there?

      I only know a handful of politicians, one of them being a former representative from Washington State. I asked him why he ran for office and why he ultimately switched to the private sector and he basically admitted that it was impossible to make the change he wanted given the constraints of his office. So, he opted to try from the outside. He did not regret his decision and as a lobbyist has had a much more positive experience. I know–even as a lobbyist! 🙂

      All this to say, I agree with your last paragraph that lasting change must use a variety of platforms and must be supported by both the public at large and individual leaders but this does lend itself to mob rule, on occasion, which is something of a different feather.

  4. Pingback: How Social Media Peer-Pressured Me into Voting | Social Media & Audience Engagement

  5. Pingback: Political Efficacy « The Academic Librarian

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