We all love feeling needed — that is, until New York Senator Chuck Schumer texts you to donate to his Senate campaign in the run up to election day.
As a veteran of electoral politics from high school, I can viscerally recall the electricity in the atmosphere during election season throughout the United States. Through dozens of hours of canvassing, phone and text-banking, voter registration drives and bumping shoulders with local and state politicians, I will forever appreciate the personal importance that contributing to a political campaign at any regional scale can have to those who become acutely invested in it. I’ve been frozen in the local pizzeria, surrounded by fellow campaign volunteers and staff also trapped in biting anticipation as we watched election results creep upward in real time on a Tuesday night. And as social media and the concurrent crises of climate change, attacks on LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights, right-wing election conspiracy theories and rising costs of living make politics a more engaging and alarming subject, more people of all ages will mobilize their time and resources to campaigns that reflect their values.
This midterm election season, which falls between the presidential general election season, Democratic and Republican candidates and their party organizations have gone into overdrive to engage voters with their respective platforms or by leveraging the electorate’s antipathy of the opposing party. During the electoral feeding frenzy, both major parties will make their best effort to enlist as many volunteers as possible — and as you’ve likely seen incessantly through YouTube ads, spam emails and mass text messages — collect donations. Speaking purely from experience, it’s appealing, even comforting, to think that contributing your labor and money to a campaign makes you part of the change — an active agent in the dense and seemingly impenetrable political process. And while there is a grain of truth to this depending on your class position and aspirations, I argue there are tangible and effective ways to improve your community and have an impact on national politics that are far more worthwhile than donating your labor or dollars to your political party’s organizing machine. Instead, next election cycle, give your wallet or your door-knocking shoes a much-needed refresher and get involved in direct action.
Direct action is a common term embraced by political actors from animal rights activists to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to describe the immediate action we can take to improve the local conditions in our surroundings, confront figures in positions of power or otherwise prompt political change. Direct action can range from a protest to paying the bail of an arrested person; from running a mutual aid table to forming a human blockade to prevent an eviction; from civil to very uncivil disobedience. However it is conducted, a good direct action should bring to the forefront of our political imaginations the fact that all political institutions are carried out by people through day-to-day functions, and this is precisely the realm where we have the power to protect and uplift our communities. To reiterate, we place trust in elected officials to implement policies that we could very well do ourselves through direct action and mutual aid.
As both the Democrat and Republican parties each command “war chests” of over $1 billion, not even taking into account the hundreds of millions of dollars donated to their auxiliary organizations such as the Democratic and Republican National Committees, basic necessities such as groceries and housing are becoming increasingly unaffordable, pushing tenants to act. The current Democratic consensus of letting corporations raise costs while their profits outpace them by a factor of hundreds and Republican dreams of imposing violently anti-poor austerity measures are failing to meet the needs of the working class, and few political campaigns are proposing meaningful solutions, opting instead for leaning into partisan loyalty. Voters, especially progressive ones, would be far better suited using their resources for direct actions that alleviate food and housing insecurity such as mutual aid and tenant union campaigns than donating to a campaign whose commitments will likely be stymied by political deadlock.
It would be remiss of me not to address the concern that not contributing to the war chests of political campaigns would not only benefit the opposition party, but increase the dependence of these campaign organizations on corporate funding. This is an understandable worry given the bleak capitalist reality of American electoral politics; however, it ignores the fact that direct action inherently requires political organizing and a political platform. Giving more resources to community organizations and mutual aid initiatives may not allow for email blasts and paid volunteers, but it allows for face-to-face conversations with community members who are affected by the social and economic policies of elected officials. Politically-charged direct action empowers those who are served by it to make informed decisions if they choose to vote; after all, a message imparted over a mutually beneficial direct action speaks louder than a 30 second YouTube ad. Direct action does not require organizers to make endorsements or subordinate themselves under the hegemonic two-party system. On the contrary, politicizing direct action and your interactions with marginalized community members consolidates an organization that is independent from party politics that can exercise pressure on local governments, interface with other like-minded groups and be one of many nodes that spares a counter-hegemonic movement.