Harm Reduction, Soapboxing, and Destructive Voting

As anarchists, we obviously reject representative democracy along with the state itself. As such, many anarchists advocate against voting in elections or even participating at all, seeing it as reinforcing and legitimizing the very system we’re fighting so hard to abolish. However, not all anarchists are against participating in the electoral process in the here and now for a multitude of reasons, although I mainly want to focus on three main ones: harm reduction, soapboxing, and destructive voting.

More often than not, when an anarchist decides to vote, they do so as a means of harm reduction. The idea is to vote to keep the worst candidates out of office to keep them from making things that much more difficult to organize against. Voting against the worst candidates and in favor of ever so slightly less shitty candidates by comparison helps make the work of community organizers and activists just a tiny bit easier. This doesn’t mean it will advance the anarchist cause, but rather, it helps to curb the ability for our political opponents to advance their cause as rapidly. Harm reduction voting is literally voting for the lesser evil as a means to keep the worse evil at bay. It is not an endorsement of the lesser evil so much as a recognition that a lesser evil is easier to pressure and less likely to make things too much worse when compared to the worse evil. At the end of the day though, harm reduction voting still recognizes that evil is evil and needs to be combatted via direct action, mutual aid, dual power, and community organizing, which are the means to achieve actual meaningful changes.

Soapboxing takes a very different approach. Whereas harm reduction voting usually involves merely voting for the lesser evil of the major party candidates, soapboxing involves actually voting for a candidate whose ideas and political platform you more actively agree with, usually a third-party candidate. This is not about voting to win so much as it is voting to increase the exposure of those ideas. The Libertarian Party, for example, was not so much founded to win offices as much as it was founded on the realization that many people only pay attention to politics in terms of political parties and elections. As such, if the goal is to spread those ideas to a wider audience, utilizing the electoral platform as a means to get more people to pay attention to one’s message is extremely useful. Politicians do not have to win to spread ideas that end up becoming more mainstream as a result.

Think of how Ron Paul brought the ideas of libertarian capitalism to the mainstream or how Bernie Sanders has done the same for democratic socialism. Modern anarchists such as Vermin Supreme, Spike Cohen, James Weeks, Brian Ellison, Jae Carico, Derrick Broze, and Matt Kuehnel, have all run for office as a means to platform ideas that were not being shared in those spaces in order to reach a larger audience with no expectation to win. Voting third party as a means to help anarchists secure party nominations and more easily spread their ideas is useful, as is attempting to get them into debates against major party candidates. Imagine if Vermin Supreme had won the Libertarian Party nomination for the 2020 election and garnered enough votes to be included in the presidential debate alongside Trump and Biden. Millions of people who have had little exposure to anarchist ideals would have been confronted with those ideals in real time in a “legitimized” form since it would be happening through the formal electoral system. It’s a means to meet people where they are and share a message that will hopefully serve to radicalize them further: a message that ultimately encourages voters to abandon the electoral system in favor of something better.

On the off chance that a soapbox candidate does win office, then they can not only serve as a means for harm reduction, but also as a saboteur, tearing down the system from within. This idea is known as “destructive voting.” The idea is that candidates run for office to destroy the power wielded by such an office. Examples could include running for sheriff to help aid efforts to demilitarize and defund the police, running for school board to support teachers’ strikes and promote school choice, or running for mayor to push to mutualize local state-owned resources such as utilities. Any push for the abolition of state operations such as ICE, prisons, or the IRS, or the overturning of oppressive laws such as anti-drug or anti-homeless laws can fall under this umbrella, and voting for a candidate that will do so is the very heart of destructive voting. Anything that takes power away from politicians and puts it instead into the hands of the people is a good thing.

In practice, destructive voting and soapbox voting follow the same pattern with the only difference being whether or not the candidate wins, but putting the idea of soapboxing first means that whether or not one​​​​ wins the election, they’ve achieved success. If the candidate loses, they at least got to share anarchist ideals to a wider audience, but if they happen to win, they get to effect change by tearing down the state from within. Harm reduction voting, however, doesn’t offer these same opportunities and such voters would often ignore candidates closer to their personal politics in favor of the major party candidate that they believe will do the least damage to the most marginalized. Choosing between these approaches to voting largely depends on the circumstances of the particular election. Is there even a candidate whose views more accurately reflect yours? Are any of the major candidates with a real chance of winning too big of a threat to chance letting win? These are questions that you must ask yourself if you decide to vote. But then again, very few anarchists would fault you for ignoring it all in favor of more important things. It’s really up to you. But to criticize your fellow anarchists who choose to vote is to ignore a complex issue that can be approached with nuance and strategy in favor of a black and white simplistic view that ignores the tactical usefulness of certain approaches to electoralism.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory