Throwback Thursday: In the Meantime–Some Thoughts on Voting

6 Sep

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a progressive in a political world that mostly recognizes the binary of Republican and Democrat. Now that the Democratic National Convention is in full swing–especially after rousing speeches by First Lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton–the questions concerning the role of those of us on the far left in mainstream politics seem more pressing than ever. So, for this Throwback Thursday, I wanted to revisit a post I wrote in 2010 about voting.  What is your take on those with radical politics voting in our decidedly imperfect political model? *****************************************************************************************************************************

This was originally posted on November 4, 2010  


Though the gains the Republicans/Tea Partiers/general all-around fools have made this past Tuesday should be no surprise, they are, nonetheless, disheartening.  Living in Alabama where the electoral choices seem to be conservative candidate A v. ultra-conservative candidate  B, it’s hard for this crunk feminist to feel good about her choices. ‘Cause let’s be real: when you choose between the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil.

Nonetheless, with a heavy heart, I went down to my local voting spot to exercise my right and, to be honest, to show my damn face.  As I walked toward the entrance, there was a trio of law-abiding black folk sitting exactly thirty feet from the front door. One called out to me, saying, “My princess, here’s a sample ballot.” (Side bar: I don’t think I’ve ever been called “princess” in my entire life, but I’mma let that one slide since the sister was an elder and trying to do her civic duty). I noticed they were handing out sample ballots to every black person who crossed their path. I also noticed that they were getting some serious side eye from some melanin-lite voters. Sigh. 

I entered the building feeling a lot more sad than I did two years ago. Not that I was jumping up for joy in 2008 either, but I digress.  Once I got inside I noticed lots of black people voting. Like, a whole lot. Like, most of the people in the room.I’ll admit it. I had a sort of kumbaya moment seeing everybody.  Standing behind a sister, we exchanged greetings. I asked how she was, and she replied, “Blessed, really blessed. Happy to be able to do this.” She said this with a simple grace and dignity. All I could do is nod in reply.

Herein lies the rub. Black folks in Alabama have not the opportunity and safe conditions to vote in for all that long. The politics here are so retrograde that driving through this state sometimes I feel like I am not in the 21st century at all, but in some strange time warp. So, I can’t dismiss the mere right and opportunity to vote as something that is not particularly significant. At the same time, in a place like Alabama (and increasingly across the country), those of us on the left–shoot, even moderates!–are getting shut out as the Right/Wrong has a very successful political temper tantrum. So, what does it mean when 1) you have to choose between the lesser of two evils and 2)your “lesser evil” has no chance of even remotely winning. Let’s be clear, while fools like Palladino are dismissed in New York (for now), candidates in his vein (who are ridiculous, uninformed, and who spew hateful nonsense) summarily thrash their more moderate opponents in my neck of the woods.

In other words, what does exercising the right to vote mean when the system is so ridiculously effed up? I guess what I’m trying to figure out  is, what are the strategies those of us on the left (can) employ in the face of such rapidly encroaching/re-entrenching conservatism, both locally and nationally? For while I see the most efficacy in battling oppressions in our local communities, the fact of the matter is national de jure sanctions do affect the everyday lives of Americans. For example, I remember reading about so-called welfare reform as a kid in my social studies class and not soon after experiencing its effects in my own home, so the notion of opting out of the national dialogue does not ring true to me at all. At the same time, I’ve been known that hope is not a political strategy and that we are going to need more rigorous and radical applications for justice and social change. I’d love to hear your thoughts on voting, the election, and the state of progressive politics.

10 Responses to “Throwback Thursday: In the Meantime–Some Thoughts on Voting”

  1. Aaron Andersen September 6, 2012 at 7:44 AM #

    Is there room in a radical vision for embracing the “Big Tent” even when it will mean a compromise, in the short and mid term, on political goals?

    The Big Tent sounds pretty egalitarian, and fits my vision of democracy, though in real life, lots of people are asked into the tent not to have a voice but just to make it bigger. And given existing tent pole structures built in at the tent factories, that is no easy problem to solve. And the bigger the tent, the more disagreement there will be inside of it, which makes governance messier, which makes people long for the simplicity of one vision (the possible effects of such longing are being demonstrated on the right wing by the Tea Party). Real problems and pitfalls abound.

    Still, the right wing is doing it’s damndest to throw people out of their tent left and right, shrinking it into something more like a private luxury tent with a bunch of devoted, deluded servants enforcing the ideological purity. From a pragmatic perspective, this would be a good time to judo-throw the right wing by embracing many that they are alienating.

    Is that pragmatism irreconcilable with a radical vision of justice?

  2. Vic78 September 6, 2012 at 9:41 AM #

    Alabama is one of the most depressing experiences in my adult life. It’s not bad to see my people lose. The problem is that the margin is so wide. It’s annoying to be preached to about voting. “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter.” Well, it seems as if you have the wrong point of view then your vote is worthless. Therefore you don’t matter.

    Many of the anti-voting crowd aren’t stupid. Their attitude is more like George Carlin’s. It’s really disheartening to see how wimpy the dems are. They were too scary to stand with the president over contraception. It’s pretty difficult to convince someone to vote when people see the president on his own like that. It really hurts to see the party’s not organized.

    I have my own radical beliefs for social change. Seeing the president on tv every day has opened doors that were previously closed. To see certain groups of people vote in the large blocks that they do is good news. That means that there is the possibility for higher levels of cooperation.

    I take my hat off to whoever posted about Harris-Perry yesterday. I was pretty colorful talking to the tv that day. I can imagine what it’s like to have that half wit in my presence. The good doctor needed to snap.

  3. lorrellk (@ldkilpat) September 6, 2012 at 10:31 AM #

    I’ve been having hot and heavy conversations about this all week. Personally, I have made the choice to not vote. I’ve been not voting for quite a while now and I get the same responses: too many people have died for you not to vote, if you don’t vote you can’t complain, voting is your only voice, and the system is so bad because not enough black people vote. I wasn’t satisfied with choosing one evil over another. I was no longer comforted by the symbolic action of pressing a button, knowing via history that act doesn’t change the reality of working class people.

    As I told a friend last night via my twitter feed (@ldkilpat), no social gains have been won or maintained by voting alone. The right to vote wasn’t won by voting, it was won by large scale, organized action. That’s what we’re missing. Someone has told us that the notion of using our only power, resistance in all its forms, was out of style and useless. So off to the ballots we went.

    Now, we’re on the verge of history as the Chicago Teachers Union is 4 days away from an epic strike. Public opinion is being swayed against them, yet i doubt the harshest critics have sat down with a teacher to discuss why this is necessary. Knowing what I know through an analysis of history, their victory won’t be at the ballot. Chicago is a democratic city and that alone is not alleviating the disproportionate suffering of the city’s working class. Direct action is the way that all change has happened is society. Direct action is what we need to get back to.

    I’m not calling for a mass evacuation of the ballot boxes. I’m simply saying that if voting is all you do, you really aren’t doing much at all.

    • kalpal September 6, 2012 at 10:52 AM #

      Vote! Just not for a Democrat or a Republican. You already know what lies they will tell and which promises they will never keep. Vote Green Party or anyone else, just stay away from the devils you know. They will never be angels. Stay from evil, lesser or greater. Find a new bunch of opportunistic bums who are too new at the game to know how to betray you while assuring you they are on your side and all will be well in the sweet bye and bye.

  4. Zach September 8, 2012 at 10:58 PM #

    I think one of the most underutilized methods for change is for citizens to become dues-paying members of organizations that lobby, litigate, and advocate for progressive solutions. We know this model can work because of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA has utterly dominated the field of gun policy in recent years. Democrats have surrendered on this issue and stopped trying to pass gun control legislation, despite the thousands of senseless gun-related deaths that occur each year, because the NRA has 4 million dues-paying members.

    For comparison, Amnesty International has 350,000 members, the ACLU and National Organization for Women have 500,000, and Planned Parenthood has 700,000.

    If those of us who cared about civil rights, the environment, immigration, DC statehood, and other progressive causes became dues-paying members of groups anywhere near what the NRA musters- we would see a lot of meaningful change in DC and in state capitals. Paying dues (rather than a one time donation) also makes you feel more connected and invested in these groups- which is why Cesar Chavez made sure even indigent workers paid nominal dues to the labor union so they felt and knew they were a part of it.

    Voting is important, but it’s only one way of pursuing change in a democracy and we need to be going after all opportunities if we want to make things better.

  5. tlfk September 12, 2012 at 9:02 PM #

    I get why people feel so disenfranchised that they don’t want to vote, esp as some states make it more difficult to exercise that right (I feel very lucky to live in a state that has early voting – so convenient to vote on a Saturday or Sunday). And with our electoral college for the pres elections, if you live in a state that always goes one way or the other, and you vote the opposite (i.e., voting blue in a red state), it’s hard to believe your vote counts for much. But while I recognize the many flaws in our current political system, I can’t not vote, b/c sometimes I feel like as bad as things are currently, I am very afraid it will get worse as we get more and more people in office who feel it is okay to only be beholden to those with money. I believe in participatory democracy, and am actually very active in organizing people to be participants in this democracy. But I worry that as money becomes more and more of a factor in elections, and wealthy people and groups essentially start buying elections, it will be even harder to have a participatory, proactive democracy. Yes, I sometimes feel like voting is reactionary, and just an effort to keep things from getting worse, but I think there is value to that; voting is, at the moment, still an (relatively) easy and direct way for any citizen to make his/her voice heard. And I absolutely believe voting is not enough – you’ve got to remind elected officials that they can’t ignore you when they are not in campaign mode, and I still think that kind of advocacy can be effective. Legislators (esp. local and state) do pay attention, and count emails and calls for and against, when their constituents are voicing concerns about an issue. I do worry about that kind of responsiveness going away, however, as corporations have more and more influence.

    I personally enjoy the opportunities we have to be a part of the democratic process, and to be able to have role in shaping local/state policies that meet citizen needs. But it’s a lot of work,and if you are struggling to get by, it’s not easy to find the time or energy to be really involved in this process, even if you may be one of the citizens who is directly affected by a policy. And sometimes it feels like I and my cohorts are working in a black hole, pulling teeth to get people more involved. And when I feel like that, I’m just happy if they at least vote.

  6. Race Files September 17, 2012 at 8:47 AM #

    Seems to me that the vote or not to vote debate is built on a foundation of difficult circumstances. The system is so broken, and so polluted with big money that we are, in effect, disenfranchised to a degree whether we vote or not. To make matters worse, our political options are so narrow – as the writer so eloquently put it, “when you choose between the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil.”

    But I vote. I vote because to concede that right simply opens up even more political space for the right. And I vote and continue to believe in government, or at least a better vision of it, because while I have no love of it as a person who grew up in a U.S. colony, I nonetheless no that it was government that ended slavery; not U.S. Steel. It is government that has the potential of being held accountable, or at least within reach, something we can touch, grab hold of, and pull toward our values, even in a losing tug of war.

    And in this presidential election, I will vote because the right, as represented by their most powerful political organization, the GOP, has designs on the future that will change the terms by which we now understand evil, and the lesser of two evils. I believe that enough to get 5 IDs if I need them and to vote even in a state in which my choice won’t make a difference in the balance of electoral college votes. Winning the popular vote even if the election goes to the right wing, is at least a statement that they have no popular mandate and will have to contemplate that when considering whether or not to, say, appoint Bob McDonnell Secretary of Health and Human Services, or some other such tragic nonsense.

    • Aaron Andersen September 17, 2012 at 9:06 AM #

      I agree with the last two posters about voting, because it can make a difference locally, and because we shouldn’t give a politician that we disagree with an implicit mandate through silence. If we don’t vote just because we don’t live in a swing state, we’re playing directly into the hands of cynical pollsters and strategists who are more than happy to divide the country down the center with a scalpel of carefully crafted wedge issues and calibrated half-promises, as long as it allows them to squeak out an electoral college victory.

      Further, if Obama is reelected by slim margins, but the House of Reps stays more or less the same, which looks likely, we’re looking at two more years of the same toxicity in Washington.

  7. Jen September 24, 2012 at 6:36 PM #

    If you don’t like the options, be the other option, and run as an independent. Even if you won’t spend a single second campaigning, and you plan to speak about as much as the ficus in Michael Moore’s ‘vote for ficus’ stunt, at least there will be an option on the ballot for people who see things the way you do.

    • Zach September 24, 2012 at 9:30 PM #

      @Jen. I agree with that in principle, but I think a more pragmatic option would be to tell people about the “None of the Above” reform and try to implement it. With this reform, voters could vote for “None of the Above” (NOTA), and if a plurality or majority vote for NOTA, then a new election is scheduled with new candidates. This way voters can show their disapproval of “lesser of two evils” without “wasting” a vote, or even force an entirely new election.

      There are so many ways to make our democracy more democratic, transparent, and responsive, but I think it requires educating and organizing people. I still think a great way to pursue change is to join grassroots lobbying groups like the ACLU, National Organization of Women, Sierra Club, etc. as a dues-paying member. Pooling our money and our numbers can really make a change. Just look at the NRA’s success in lobbying with its 4 million dues-paying members!

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