Less than a year after being released from prison, whistleblower Chelsea Manning, known mostly for releasing a series of military logs and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, has filed to run for U.S. Senate in Maryland as a Democrat. She almost certainly won’t defeat her primary opponent, incumbent Senator Ben Cardin. That doesn’t matter.
If Chelsea Manning were to miraculously win both the Democratic primary and general election, it’s even less likely that she would be able to accomplish any of her main policy goals. Few if any other senators would sign on to immediately abolishing Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), let alone doing the same to prisons and the military. That also doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Chelsea Manning will have greater access to the public ear on those and other issues. While she hasn’t exactly been voiceless since leaving prison with over 320,000 followers on Twitter, her campaign gives her a platform from which her words can be reported by the press as those of a candidate for Senate.
This strategy is not original to Manning.
For example, despite being in Congress for a total of 23 years, less than half of a percent of the bills sponsored by former congressman Ron Paul ever became law. His 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were similarly ill-fated by any traditional analysis.
It was Paul’s answers during the debates that stuck in the public mind and created a serious cultural shift. A 2007 exchange with Rudy Giuliani alerted viewers to the concept of “blowback,” the idea that terrorist activities against Americans are best understood as reactions to past U.S. military interventions and covert operations. From the halls of Congress, Paul was able to expand on this idea by asking Americans to consider how they might react to a Chinese occupation of Texas—an anti-war parable that then became a major campaign ad during his 2012 run.
That is why, despite the fact that Paul lost miserably in both of his presidential runs, and despite Manning’s almost certain loss in her senatorial race, their campaigns are infinitely more important than those of their opponents. The McCains and Cardins occupy positions of power and go through the motions of the existing political machinery. The Pauls and Mannings, however, can fundamentally transform the political culture over time. That change is more significant, because it is the political culture that defines the limits within which those with power can act in the first place.
Consider the electorally disastrous 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater carried only six states but, as time passed, imitations of his particular conservative vision came to dominate the Republican Party.
If Manning were to receive anywhere close to the attention of those candidates, she could have an even greater effect. This is because she seems acutely aware that there is a world beyond the state, and that politics is about much more than policy.
Manning’s first campaign ad mentions no policy proposals, nor does it say anything about how she would govern. Rather it strikes against the idea that what’s really needed in the first place is new federal policy. Amid images of black flags and riot cops, she tells viewers: “We don’t need more or better leaders…We need to stop asking them to give us our rights. They won’t support us…We don’t need them anymore. We can do better.”
This message echoes that of anarchist author Karl Hess who, in his 1975 book Dear America, wrote: “The leaders have failed. Before that failure becomes fatal, it could be erased by the new age of fully participatory social organization…of one stateless world, of privilege ended and responsibility begun…of self-management…The leaders have failed. Leadership has failed. Now it is our turn.”
Hess was no stranger to practicality in politics. Before becoming disillusioned with conservatism, he had been the primary author of the 1960 and 1964 Republican Party platforms, and, coincidentally, one of Goldwater’s main speechwriters. What drew him away from conservatism towards anarchism was a frustration with a top-down model of society that assumes social change must come from elites acting through the state. He came to believe instead that politically motivated people should act directly upon society themselves.
This framework for politics has a long history of anarchist-inspired projects, from radical labor unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, to grassroots disaster recovery like the Common Ground Collective in post-Katrina New Orleans, to attempts at routing the drug war like the Silk Road’s online marketplace. It is that history—the history of direct action—that Manning draws upon in her campaign rhetoric.
Her message looks for solutions not in public policies that would, at best, be warped beyond recognition by the internal dynamics of state power. It looks for them in the power of individuals motivated to build a new world on their own. With so many politicians pledging to shake up Washington, it’s Manning’s campaign that’s truly revolutionary.
Jason Lee Byas is a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and a Young Voices Advocate. He is also a Ph.D. student in Philosophy, living in Champaign, Ill. and Norman, Okla.