by Ariän El-Taher
Author’s Note: I am not a member of the Nikkita Oliver campaign, nor of the People’s Party. I am a local organizer and political analyst, whose attention was brought to Mr. Danny Westneat’s recent article in which he critiqued mayoral candidates Nikkita Oliver and Casey Carlisle. As someone who, like Mr. Westneat, is also a critic of politics and politicians, I noticed many simplistic yet serious theoretical and objective flaws in his article. As such, this essay is for the purpose of addressing those flaws, namely in his critique of Ms. Oliver.
The central thesis in Mr. Danny Westneat’s entire critique of Ms. Nikkita Oliver can be synthesized into this: voting is “the bedrock democratic process”, so one’s citizen voting-record, or lack of, is a primary criterion to being qualified for the high office of mayor.
Before I begin, I must say that voting is not “the bedrock” of democracy. That is, voting itself does not promise that the people of a society have the political power to influence how their policies are shaped. A nation can have the “traditional trappings” of a democracy, by allowing citizens to vote, without being democratic.
For example, the so-called ‘communist’ U.S.S.R., too, had elections, but we need not revisit the details of that history to remember that the Soviet Union was anything but democratic. Mr. Westneat assumes that voting—a parliamentary procedure—equates to democracy. But voting occurs in even outright dictatorships, such as in North Korea. So, the right to vote, and voter participation, are, in themselves, not accurate measurements of a democracy or someone’s commitment to it.
As such, Mr. Westneat’s fixation with discrediting Ms. Oliver on the basis of her voting record alone relies on an untenable rationale, which crumbles upon the slightest of scrutiny.
However, in order to better understand the problematic nature of Mr. Westneat’s critique of Ms. Oliver based on her “spotty” voting record, we must understand his highly problematic conception of politics, beginning with his failure to demonstrate an even elementary understanding in the difference between political theory and political science.
Political theory describes to us how things should be, and political science measures for us how things really are.
Often, an unsophisticated grasp of this distinction leads to individuals basing their critique of material reality—such as Ms. Oliver’s voting record—on facile conceptions of political theory. This, then, leads to issuing unqualified suggestions (i.e., “run for city council instead”). In the words of the great George Santayana, “theory helps us to bear our ignorance of fact.”
As such, I’ll first address Mr. Westneat’s critique through the field of political theory, and, then, political science.
The Political Theory Aspect
As mentioned above, Mr. Westneat’s article tacitly disqualifies Ms. Oliver as a candidate for mayor by casting doubt on her commitment to democracy, and therefore the people of Seattle. His entire critique revolves around her citizen voting record, based on the assumption that voting “literally counts” and that it constitutes “the bedrock democratic process”. This rationale allows him to use her voting record as the sole criterion by which he discredits her.
I will address in the second half of this article whether the very basis of his argument against Ms. Oliver—that voting “literally counts”—is true or not. That is, I will discuss the actual political science, as well.
For now, in theory, what exactly is the purpose of voting?
In theory, voting is an instrument for the public to influence how the social and political realm of our society is shaped and for whom it operates. In line with theory, Mr. Westneat assumes that our voting “literally counts”, meaning that they influence political policy. So, it’s the influence (a.k.a power) component that’s essential to a democracy. In fact, democracy is the Greek term for “people-power”. So, voting is just one instrument that the people legally hold for exercising their power.
It’s important for the public to know that something which ‘democratizes’ refers to something that transfers political power into the hands of ordinary citizens, equally. The people then exercise their power by voting, which then ensures that their votes shape government policies. Later in this essay, I’ll unpack whether that actually plays out in reality.
But, as I described, voting is not “the” only, or even primary, criterion of “showing up” in a democracy and for its processes. Civic activism, protest, and community organizing are also “traditional trappings” of democracy—each of which Mr. Westneat tacitly marginalizes to some ‘other’ category not belonging to his narrow conception of “traditional trappings”.
By drawing a false dichotomy of voting versus protest, where voting belongs to the “traditional trappings” of democracy, and “protest” belongs to some untraditional, alternative “trapping”, Mr. Westneat incorrectly pits two very “traditional trappings” of democracy against each other, baselessly—the very democracy to which he casts doubt on Ms. Oliver’s commitment.
But the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—a foremost document that establishes American democracy—clearly addresses “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Therefore, civic activism is among the foremost democratizing forces in our society. Indeed, protest may not “fill potholes”, as Mr. Westneat claims, but it certainly earns the civil and human rights of many for whom voting has been denied or ineffective. For, even chattel slaves “filled potholes”, but it required protest to democratize and civilize the United States of America. And recent political, economic, and sociological work on inequality and inequity—one example being The Spirit Level—shows that if you improve the conditions of the vulnerable, you will improve the overall conditions of your society, including crime, infrastructure, and much more.
As such, Ms. Oliver—whose popularity has been earned through her esteemed nationwide activism, and who understands these issues very well—is categorically and measurably the candidate most devoted to the “traditional trappings” of our democracy.
But the failure to grasp this is a shattering commentary, not on Ms. Oliver’s commitment to democracy, but of Mr. Westneat’s knowledge on democracy and its condition in the United States. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Westneat does not discredit Ms. Oliver, but his very own intellectual merit through which he critiques others.
But the analysis can’t stop here—it must dive further.
A deductive analysis of Mr. Westneat’s criticism of Ms. Oliver’s participation in the “traditional trappings” uncovers that, by this phrase, his central argument is not simply referring to the parliamentary procedure of democracy, but also the “traditional trappings” of a particular culture, race, and class—from each of which Ms. Oliver, and countless others, have been historically excluded and disempowered. This exclusion and disempowerment forms the very impetus for the existence of the People’s Party.
But Mr. Westneat’s trite critique based on “traditional trappings” is not merely incorrect, but also subtly akin to dog-whistle politics, for it harkens back to a classic argument that ‘civilized’ members of society express themselves through a ‘refined’ manner, such as voting, whereas the ‘uncivilized’ resort to less-refined methods of expression, like protest.
But this dichotomy is dangerously simplistic, for it overlooks the historical reality that protest is a consequence when the ‘refined’ methods are ineffective; it overlooks how the voting aspect of “democracy” has long been disproportionately ineffective in serving the interests and providing the basic rights for massive segments of the U.S. population, thereby propelling civic activism as the necessary, rational force behind major civil and human rights achievements.
The Political Science Aspect
When Mr. Westneat blithely refers to the “traditional trappings” of democracy, he takes for granted, and therefore overlooks, that it is this very tradition which has been inequitable, exclusionary, oppressive, and even fatal for millions of inhabitants of the U.S.; it is that “tradition”, including voting, that does not “literally count”, and continues to fail, the many in order to bolster the prosperity of a few; and it is precisely the inequitableness of that “tradition” which gives rise and merit to the candidacy of Ms. Oliver and the People’s Party.
The soaring inequalities and inequities across class, race, gender, ability, sexuality and more, which plague the U.S., have become common public and political discourse and concern. These inequalities are not the will of the people, nor are the policies that caused them; they are the will of the power elite, who have overwhelming influence on the outcomes of policy. The appalling gap between public preferences and actual political policy is no longer a secret, thanks to research by some of the nation’s finest institutions and scholars. All of this disempowerment of the public to shape policy demonstrates that our democracy is in peril and that voting does not always “literally count”, as Mr. Westneat so simplistically claims. The widespread virtual disenfranchisement of the people gives more than sufficient weight to the credence and necessity of Ms. Oliver’s campaign and the People’s Party.
In their landmark 2014 political science study, Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page from Princeton University and Northwestern University, respectively, discovered that “the estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups…Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.”
At the heart of their study lies the finding that the U.S. is a “civil oligarchy”, in the words of political science scholar Dr. Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University. Oligarchy refers to a form of government in which the power to shape policy is under the influence of a select few, those few most often being the wealthy elite of society. Likewise, our “civil oligarchy” largely serves the interests of corporations and the super-rich. Contrary to what Mr. Westneat professes, we are not a democracy, which is why Seattle, and our country overall, is in desperate need of the People’s Party, whose core endeavor is to democratize Seattle.
The outcome of this democratization is that policies increasingly favor the needs, values, and interests of ordinary people and small business owners.
Ordinary citizens’ “non-significant” impact of votes on policy has strong consequences for voters’ morale and therefore turnout. Many might be unfamiliar with the political science research, but they have, indeed, internalized the view that their votes don’t really matter. Some, then, put their efforts towards what they rightfully believe are more consequential forms of democracy, like organizing and civic engagement. In this vital form, no candidate more than Ms. Oliver has “shown up” for the voices, interests, sufferings, and rights of Seattleites.
Of course, voter turnout is impacted by many factors. Like Ms. Oliver, the inability to sustain housing is a serious issue in regards to being able to vote. This touches on the class-basis of voter turnout.
Voter turnout increases along the income-scale. Further research by Dr. Martin Gilens finds that as income-level increases, so, too, does voter participation.
But non-participation is not a crime in the U.S., nor is it a marker of one’s commitment to democracy. Understanding non-participation requires a sophisticated political, sociological, and humanizing lens—precisely what Mr. Westneat does not employ in his critique of Ms. Oliver.
According to a major poll by USA Today, 41 percent of non-voters say “my vote won’t make a difference anyway”, and 59 percent say they don’t pay attention to politics, because “nothing ever gets done; it’s a bunch of empty promises”.
In Affluence and Influence, Dr. Martin Gilens found that, out of respondents earning an annual income of $65,000 or less, 60 percent believed that “public officials don’t care much about what people like me think”, whereas only nearly 35 percent of respondents earning over $100,000 agreed with that statement. So, wealthier voters are far more likely to internalize the view that their votes are impactful.
Although, these findings represent citizens’ views towards national elections, they certainly carry forward within citizens’ views towards local elections.
For example, voter turnout for Seattle’s previous (2013) General Municipal Elections was 52.5 percent, meaning that—out of the then 410, 572 registered voters in Seattle—195,022 Seattleites did not vote, as they have the right to do.
Examining Seattle’s voter turnout maps shows that voter participation is weaker in places where income levels are lower, especially in areas with low-income People of Color. This brings our attention to not only the class-basis of voter participation, but also its race-basis.
If there were more room in this article, I would delve into the myriad ways that People of Color, particularly Black and Brown people in Seattle and elsewhere, especially LGBTQAI+ People of Color, are unable to, or have difficulties with, voting. However, since these issues have become common public discourse, I trust that readers can determine for themselves the significance of class, race, gender, and LGBTQAI+ factors that impact the voter participation of many, including Ms. Oliver—a Black woman from the LGBTQAI+ community, who, like many in Seattle, has struggled to secure constant housing.
Ms. Oliver is not alone in having an understandably “spotty” voting record. Millions intuit the reality that there are more consequential forms of democracy to which they can devote their urgency, energy, and creativity, rather than voting.
Attempting to correlate a citizen’s voting record—be it “spotty” or “perfect”— with their qualifications for mayoral candidacy is not an intelligent, empirical analysis; it is propaganda. In the language of science, this is described as a ‘spurious correlation’, where the relationship between two things is only ostensible, not grounded in actual correlation or causation.
Any political journalist or political analyst worth their salt would have performed the bare minimum of investigation to uncover this. Elite academic training is not required to conclude that it was precisely by being fed up with the inaccessibility and often inconsequentiality of voting that Ms. Oliver has decided to run for Mayor of Seattle. There is no basis to run for mayor more deserving of merit than that. When the system is not working for many, enter it and change it from within.
After long remaining one of many virtually-disenfranchised and dissatisfied voters, and therefore recognizing our damning lack of democracy, Ms. Oliver’s journey to run for mayor is not only the most reasonable bid for mayor, but it also makes her most-qualified, precisely because democracy does not exist and because the “traditional trappings” have failed the people. Her campaign is set to build democracy where the affluent, and their guardians, like. Mr. Westneat, have restricted it for their own demographics—by race, class, and other categories.
As such, now, more than ever before, it is time for the people of Seattle to gain a mayor who has long been accountable to them and who has long engaged them, as a fellow citizen, so as to raise people-power and therefore democracy. In this endeavor of serving the interests of all people, equitably—rather than the corporatocracy to which other candidates are beholden—no candidate has excelled more than Ms. Nikkita Oliver.
Featured image by Alex Garland