Many of you have probably seen the clip of the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman interviewing Russell Brand that’s been making the rounds on social media the last couple of days. If you haven’t, you can watch it here; it’s just over 10 minutes. The reason it’s gone viral is that Brand, while defending the fact that he was the celebrity guest editor of New Statesman for one week despite never having voted in his life, launches into a passionate tirade against the entire political structure of the UK for failing to address the major issues of the day and promotes the idea that people should stop voting and instead overthrow the current system in a socialist revolution. That’s the basic gist of it, and if I seem somewhat less than generous to Brand’s view of things, it’s because I am.
What Brand should be advocating, in my opinion—what would get him to the socialist paradise he envisions—is more people who feel disenfranchised by the current political system not only voting but also getting organized and running for office. Creating political change is incredibly difficult, but he seems to want a magical revolutionary shortcut–and even if there were a revolution in the UK or the US tomorrow, the ones who would win would be the organized forces who took power after the dust settled, not the disaffected masses who cleared the way for them (see: Egypt post-Tahrir). I don’t think this is just a publicity stunt for him—he’s clearly very angry—but in order to be constructive in improving our political system, anger has to be channeled into some sort of system that can accept it and use it to move the ball down the field.
I’m concerned myself about the trajectory that American democracy is on right now, but without infusions of new blood into the existing system I don’t see it getting significantly better in the near future. I agree with Russell Brand that we need a revolution, but it’s a revolution of young people engaging in politics instead of disengaging. The Occupy movement was the closest to true popular revolution that we’ve come in America for awhile, but it was incredibly inefficient in terms of creating any kind of durable political change, and anecdotally at least it seems to have had the effect of causing a lot of its participants to become less engaged politically rather than more engaged. There are some new voices that came out of the movement—a very small handful like Kshama Sawant saw the political opportunity and ran with it, which I still maintain is the biggest concrete change that we could have hoped for from it—but Brand really just seems to be advocating Occupy 2.0 without acknowledging that the first round didn’t go so well. Most of us can agree that we’re frustrated by aspects of our government, but the only thing that’s going to change that, in my opinion, is greater political engagement by people who feel disenfranchised by the system right now.
I’ll also add, for anyone who’s considering taking Brand’s advice and not voting, that if you’re really opposed to the 1% who control the country, prevent us from addressing global warming, have rigged the economic and political systems in their favor, etc, not voting is the single best thing you can do to ensure that they remain in power. It’s what they want—what do you think is behind the Republicans’ systematic disenfranchisement campaign? If you really want to do something to stick it to the man, I’ve got two great suggestions for you:
1) Vote—not just in presidential elections, but in local ones too (they happen every year here in Washington State, so all you have to do is get in the habit of mailing in your primary ballot in early August and your general election ballot in early November); the issues that affect your daily life the most probably come from the local or state level instead of the federal level anyway.
2) Run for office yourself, or encourage someone you know to run—and even better, encourage a girl you know to run for office; research shows that girls who are encouraged to run for office are more likely to do so, whereas boys often don’t need any encouragement. Running Start is a great organization to get involved with at the national level, and Progressive Majority and the Washington Bus are fantastic at the local and state level.
And for those of you in Seattle, don’t forget to send in your ballots by November 5th :)