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September 29, 2008 / JV

Why Not Voting Is Pointless, Ahistorical, and Selfish

about those folks i keep talking to who don’t want to vote. particularly those whose politics i would otherwise agree with and who claim to be immersed in some kind of a struggle.

dont be so selfish.

why dont marginalized/oppressed/black people realize that

a. the system is not in their interest
b. the system is not going to all of sudden be in their interest
c. some of our smartest comrades are those who learn how to work the system
d. when that happens, you should be able to recognize it and respond appropriately

radical change occurs radically, not by you indulging in some personal and self-righteous rebellion by doing something silly like not voting, voting for someone we all know won’t win, or voting for mccain at the last minute because “it doesnt matter”.

in response to some of the justifications i’ve heard for not voting, or not voting for obama:

not voting is not a “right”. nobody ever had to earn their right not to vote.

there is no utility in not voting. nobody gives a flying cow if you don’t vote.
if you do vote, however, you are exercising a right that many people have died for, and you are using your privilege to participate in your country’s politics and potentially change the way things are run.

voting and working for radical change are not contradictory nor mutually exclusive. You not voting does not mean you believe in radical change, and it certainly is not going to create radical change, ever. you not voting cannot create anything. it is inaction. moreover, you voting does not mean that you can’t also be working towards creating radical change.

your claim that it makes no difference if republicans or democrats are in office is just not true. a quick look at the last sixteen years of this country can illustrate that. no, barack obama is not going to incite a communist uprising, but he can affect everyday issues like federal funding for social programs, taxes for the middle class, not to mention his decision in the likely appointment of up to three supreme court justices and how that could drastically impact legislation and the criminal injustice system for decades to come. he’s not Huey Newton, but he’s certainly not John mccain. if your primary concern is “survival” as you claim, wouldn’t it be in your interest to make immediate decisions that will better enable that survival?

like i said, don’t be so selfish. people are always talking about ‘obama doesn’t line up with all of my beliefs’ and ‘none of the candidates represent all of my values’. my answer is: it’s not about you. (and you should know by now that things don’t work like that). it’s about achieving the most good for the most people. it’s about electing the person that you think would be best for the country. no, i don’t agree with obama about a war in afghanistan, and cynthia mckinney might be more in line with my politics, but i know she is not going to win. so when it comes down to it, do i think it’d be in the best interest of most americans for obama or mccain to be in office?

We cannot confuse our means with our end. i am not saying that you have to necessarily “believe in” the system that oppresses you, and you certainly don’t have to trust it or its politicians to engender all of the change you wish to see. But afterall, unfortunately, at this point in history (and maybe only until your revolutionary agenda is realized), that is not the enacted role of electoral politics.

we have to be aware of our end goal, if it is some radically different form of socioeconomic political organization, and realize what paths of action will, or will not, get us there. don’t act (or refuse to act) based on a system that does not exist. we have to live in the present, acknowledge what avenues of action will realistically create change now, and simultaneously work towards our ultimate goals within and without the system.

P.S. i encourage you to research barack obama. dig up his less publicized interviews, look at the work he did before going to law school. check out some things that his (former) pastor has said. look at the social programs of his (former) church. i think obama is quite brilliant. please, beautiful black folks, think twice before harping on about how he’s not addressing this or that enough. and if you are going to do that, be fair about hating. get in mccain’s soup equally as much. he hasn’t mentioned black people except to apologize about voting against MLK day multiple times. obama is running, his politics (although not wholly public for practical reasons) are considerably progressive, he’s black, he’s actually black, and he’s swooning the world with his intelligence and his message. you cant have your cake and eat it too (at least not before it’s done). do you want him to win or not?

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11 Comments

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  1. Naima / Sep 29 2008 9:44 pm

    cool, cool. i been feeling this way for a long time, and though i love obama, i know he’s not perfect at all. however i am a bit curious to see if you’d be posting this if it were hillary instead of obama running for pres. just a thought.

    lets also dialogue about ms. mckinney, and the green, ahem spoiler party, which is unfortunate. i think progressive politics should always be heard – i know the three party deal will never happen, you think green and democrat should merge so we get the entire spectrum from centrist to progressive/left? might be interesting, eh? (nah i ain’t canadian, i just like a canadian teehee)

  2. soltrane / Oct 2 2008 1:30 pm

    honestly, i don’t know if i would feel like this was such a pressing issue if hillary were running. i mean, it’d undoubtedly be a different discussion.. mostly because hillary isn’t barack lol she doesn’t have the magic! but also, her being a woman wouldn’t be as relevant to the anti-voting black revolutionaries i’m primarily addressing (which of course is a whole nother issue). i also dont think hillary is as different from mccain as i feel barack is =/ i didnt truly believe that her presidency would create anything new..
    not to mention, i dont think people (particularly black ppl in this case) would be making such a hoo-rah about not voting if they didnt have barack to hate on.. i feel like they’re kind of using him to be like ‘see, it doesn’t even matter if the candidate is black! i still dont believe in voting!’ regardless of the fact that he’s probably one the best candidates in all of history that the democrats have seen, irrespective of race.

  3. Dr. Herukhuti / Oct 7 2008 5:34 pm

    Peace to you,

    I am one of those radical (black) folks who does not vote for political candidates. I don’t vote for political candidates for the following reasons:

    (1) Impact – I want my actions to have the greatest impact/effect possible on public policy. I don’t believe voting in elections for candidates is a good use of time in that regard. I believe that mass actions and political contributions (particularly the bundling of said contribution) are more efficient and effective ways of effecting public policy. History and political science demonstrates that, regardless of political affiliations or ideologies, politicians/elected officials respond most to money and mass movement action. Therefore, if you have the money or masses you can advance your agenda with almost any politician/elected official.

    This approach is specific to voting for candidates. Voting for ballot referenda and initiatives are different.

    (2) Reform vs. Revolution – To vote for and elect the candidate that will do the most good while keeping the system intact is to vote for keeping the system intact. Reform helps to maintain an oppressive system–to tweek it so that it is less painful for some folks so that it can continue to be painful for other folks. GWB has been great for those of us who want and work for transformation. He has made it so bad for more folks that more folks are able to see that it is the system itself that is problematic, not merely the person who sits as figurehead. We are still not at a point in which enough people are questioning the legitimacy of the system for us to be ready to do something different but if we have more of the same in government, we could be. Another four years could open more people’s eyes, ears, minds, and hearts.

    This would be a very cynical view if not accompanied by a commitment to work with communities to develop the skills at questioning the social order, strategizing social action for social justice and social change, and understanding what is happening.

    (3) Voting as social contract – As a political science degree holder, I take seriously the idea that participation in the voting process is a contractual relationship with the outcome of the vote in addition to the expression of your point of view. That means that if I participate in a vote, I am affirming the legitimacy of the voting process and the outcome of the vote regardless of whether I agree with that outcome. Spiritually, psychologically, and psychically, I view my act of not voting as an act of self-care in the same way that I choose not to participate in processes that I deem harmful to my spirit, soul, and emotional self. I choose not to affirm the legitimacy of this electoral system. I choose not to affirm the legitimacy of a system of voting that includes an undereducated, ill-informed, uninformed, easily manipulated electorate. I choose to not affirm the legitimacy of a voting system that systematically undercounts, marginalizes, and denies access to voters of particular ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, i.e., Black folks, poor folks, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks, etc.

    (4) Politics Corrupts Politicians – The argument you made is that Obama is the lesser of two evils or the best we can hope for or the better of the two or the most progressive that we can hope for given who we are and what we are. To me, that argument is as pessimistic and cynical as my point (2) probably sounds to you. The system of electoral politics in this country is necessarily corrupting. It calls for the most well-meaning folks to craft their agenda and message to appeal to the greatest number of key constituencies and thereby creating social and public policy not on the merits of ideas but all the marketability of ideas. With this system in place, no politician can be trusted to make good on their election promises nor follow a particular agenda once in office. Without masses and/or money, you can’t get any elected politician to take a real stand against hegemony and oppression that is not in their interests.

  4. soltrane / Oct 8 2008 8:51 pm

    First of all, i just want to say i really appreciate you coming through and taking the time to share your thoughts. I want to see other points of view and have this dialogue, so that I can better understand where you’re coming from and hopefully you can understand where I’m coming from, whether we resolve to agree or not. So first and foremost, much thanks and much love.

    Now I’d like to try to respond to some things you’ve talked about.

    1. In my opinion, voting does not take enough time for time to be an issue.

    2. Voting is not what is holding the system together. Regardless of whether 80% of the population votes or 10% votes, the incumbent will change and life will go on. I have two thoughts about revolution vs reform. First I want to ask you to define revolution, particularly as a course of action. Please tell me what exactly revolution would look like today, in 2008. When we talk about revolution (i prefer ‘radical change’ because revolution, historically, has meant some form of mass violence which i don’t think is realistic right now in this country) and reform, i feel like we are allowing those words to still be defined by power movements of the 60s. I feel as though it’s become more about the terminology than what those words mean in action.

    3. The black folks and poor folks that this system (voting, economic, political, social, etc) marginalizes… Do you think we/they are fending better–economically, politically–today, or 10 years ago? What about the everyday issues? What about the family who can’t afford gas, because in the last eight years prices have more than tripled in most states? what about the mother whose son has two math textbooks in his classroom of 30 students due to cuts in funding from no child left behind? what about the fact that our e-mails, cell phone calls, and library checkout records are fair game because of the USA patriot act? Do you believe that because people are in ‘pain’ that it doesn’t matter how much more pain they feel? I guess we differ in that I believe that the smaller gains count too. I think that we undermine the ‘pain’ that people feel when we assume that it makes no difference if it were to be more or less.

    4. I guess, as an extension from number 3, I’ll say this. We have seen differences in the job market, economic deficit/surplus, social programs, wars waged, etc in this country based on who has been in the oval office. I think we can both agree that the president affects public policy (I’m assuming that if you didn’t believe this it wouldn’t matter to you that money and masses are the only ways to reach politicians). To me, voting is a way to put a person into office that will make life better rather than worse. And considering that a candidate’s primary concern is always getting reelected (along with going down in history), I think it’s okay to assume that the president at least for the first term, is concerned with pleasing his/her constituency to some extent.

    I agree with you that the voting system is messed up, but I would not let that stop me from voting because a) I don’t believe my ancestors died in vain. They had to be on to something. I think there is a power in politics that we can tap into. b) I don’t see voting as oppositional to working for radical change and c) Me not voting does not only affect me. I think that everyone is affected by my decision to vote, and I vote in the interest of the people. I consider it an effective and genuine choice to vote for a candidate in the interest of oppressed people, and with the belief that it will positively affect our lives, in some manner. I would rather vote for Barack Obama and have him appoint three judges who ‘interpret’ the Constitution in a way that drastically changes the judicial system of this country, as opposed to not voting and have McCain appoint three justices who will probably overturn Roe v. Wade and try to implement a marriage amendment. I see voting as another tactic, alongside mass action and community organizing.

    I want to close with an analogy that I hope can illustrate how I feel about the problem of protest (not)voting. I agree with the idea that when you are fundamentally opposed to something you should not affirm it, and I think this is a reasonable decision in certain situations. For example–marriage. Marriage is an institution of privilege and one of the most intimate ways the state exercises control over our lives. If a person chooses not to get married because they acknowledge that it is part of a nationalist, sexist, heterosexist system of oppression and coercion, that makes sense to me, because it is a personal decision that affects only that person’s life (and the life of that person’s lover). It is like a sacrifice (of multiple legal and social privileges) and a protest that they are making against state sponsored ‘love’ and the exclusion it promotes. However, choosing not to vote does not only affect you, it affects everyone. And it specifically affects those people that you have mentioned — black, poor, marginalized.

    So to me, voting is a rather quick and easy way to have your say in this ‘democracy’, and use your power and your privilege to an advantage.

  5. soltrane / Oct 9 2008 6:48 pm

    I want to add that I might not be engaged in this conversation if John Kerry were running. I think that this election, for those people who don’t vote, should be an exception.

  6. Dr. Herukhuti / Oct 9 2008 7:24 pm

    Peace Soltrane,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your last statement says a lot to me. It suggests that your argument for voting is tied to the specific context of these two politicians. For me, it raises the question, “What is it specifically about Barack Obama and John McCain that has raised this zeal for voting in you?”

  7. soltrane / Oct 14 2008 12:44 pm

    I like Barack Obama. I think he is extremely intelligent and I think he’ll do some really cool stuff while in office :) I feel this way based on interviews I have seen, as well as judgments I’ve made about his values based on such things as his community organizing work, his black liberation theology-preaching pastor and so on. In particular, I remember an interview I saw of his a few months ago where he was talking about young black men in the innercity, which I can’t seem to find anywhere online.
    I think the fact that he’s made it this far is more a testament to his understanding of strategy, politics, race, and class in america than it is to the “readiness” of the american people. I also think that his core politics differ from those of the bland run-of-the-mill democrats we’re used to seeing. i mean, the ones who are just an evangelical church service away from being republican.
    In addition, I do believe that fundamental change can happen through electoral politics. I think the system is not working now, but I like to believe that it can work, at least to some extent within my lifetime.
    I see Barack Obama as our chance to vote for someone who we would actually like to see in office. for one reason or another.. even if it is only for the purpose of providing young people of color with images of what they can become (a justification I heard from a friend who doesn’t usually vote).
    I believe in voting period. But i see this particular election as imperative to the future of this country. And I don’t think it’s coincidence that such a critical election has coincided with the emergence of a presidential candidate who has managed to ignite a popular public interest in politics that we haven’t seen since Kennedy. For the first time in my lifetime, there is a candidate (partisanship aside) who I believe could genuinely change the course of this nation when we need it the most.

  8. Dr. Herukhuti / Nov 4 2008 10:35 am

    Peace Soltrane,

    I’m curious why you believe fundamental (i.e., systemic) change can happen through electoral politics (in the United States). Has there been any evidence to suggest that it has?

    My understanding of systems (from systems theory and systems thinking) informs my perspective of the capacity for electoral politics to change US society (e.g., economics, politics, social policy, white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, oppression, etc.). My reading of US history (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Joel Spring’s The American School, etc.) informs my belief that systems change in the US has not happened yet.

  9. the black scientist / Nov 8 2008 12:54 am

    hey :) good to see you again.

    I’m not sure that we share the same definition of fundamental in this case. systems have surely changed, perhaps not ‘fundamentally,’ but to that i ask again what fundamental change looks like? do we imagine fundamental change as occurring on some apocalyptic scale? do we expect it to be sudden, obvious, or by way of another revolution’s tactics that can’t be applied to the U.S.? I truly wonder what our vision looks like…

    In response to the logic of your argument–I have no problem believing in things that have not yet happened.

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  1. Reformation and Revolution are not Mutually Exclusive « Ana Maria Aguero Jahannes
  2. Reformation and Revolution are not Mutually Exclusive « brown black and queer

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