This letter was spurred by a debate between Michael Eric Dyson and Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford as well as a recent conversation that I had with a close friend. The debate is available here.
To the disenchanted and disaffected Left; those dissatisfied with the lack of progress towards a more earnest and just society; those who feel voting in this election is incongruent with their values and counterproductive to their work; and to those who believe the electoral process is at best woefully ineffective and at worst rigged. This is an open letter to vote for President Barack Obama.
The fear politics of “what if” drives countless Americans to the polls. “What if Romney is elected?” “What if Obama is elected?” But to you, “what if” is not a motivating factor because both major political party candidates are defenders of the status quo. Regardless who wins, both candidates are poised to continue drone attacks, ignoring the crippling effects of racism and poverty, and perpetuating paralytic beltway politics. But this election, as any other, comes down to one question: which is easier to push—a 700 pound donkey or an eight-ton elephant?
The franchise is essential yet elemental. Only the delusional believe one vote can determine an election, but only the disillusioned believe it is meaningless. The reality is that the ballot box is the only means by which the majority of Americans have to access and participate in this democratic government. Voting is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution, the exercise of which is sacred, however; the franchise is simple citizenship. Little time and energy can be expended on the act itself. The political neophyte’s voice is equally weighted with the savant. It is by no means the only way for citizen-participation in government, but it is the easiest. It was intended to be. When the Left fails to engage in this simplistic act, it concedes this basic method of education and change.
How can the Left effectively agitate for change in communities when it acquiesces the franchise? Today, the power of one person’s political voice is diluted by the greater sea of money flowing into politics after Citizens United. A billionaire or corporation can spend a limitless treasure trove in attempt to purchase votes. While it is illegal to sell a vote, it is certain many will be bought. How can it be otherwise in the absence of a united political bloc engaging and educating voters about issues and inconsistencies? The money in politics wants the Left’s tacit consent to the status quo because every movement for justice, equality, and the expansion of rights has been organized and led by the American Left. Your disengagement from this system strengthens it.
The Left views the franchise as a deflated, barren avenue from which no meaningful change can be born. This will be truer than not, so long as the Left continues to think of votes individually and fails to organize its bloc. People with unique political and economic philosophies must vote together. Roughly 60% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the last presidential election and less than 10 million votes were the difference between the two major party candidates. An organized voting bloc would create a constituency that could not be ignored—whose vote must be courted. Such a bloc would be particularly effective in local Congressional races. While Americans have largely viewed the President as “legislator in chief,” Congress has the power of the purse. It is Congress that enacts legislation. When the Left fails to organize and vote in these races, it concedes contests requiring fewer votes to win. Ultimately, such a voting bloc would bring more progressive legislation to the fore of political discourse and lead to the election and integration of more liberal political leaders. None of this will happen if the Left does not vote.
Political maturity and justice requires consistent pressure from all avenues including the ballot box.
This is not to say that voting is an end in itself or that the franchise will have an immediate impact on the work you are doing in your communities. The franchise is essential yet elemental. Your vote will not augment your work for justice. Your work augments your vote. Actions clarify positions which are compromised by a vote that is incongruous with your values. Certainly, these actions are necessary and you will undertake the work regardless who is elected. Thus, voting is essentially an assessment of which candidate will present the least amount of friction for social change.
President Obama is a far from perfect. Some promises have been broken and many remain unfulfilled. He has continued many of the Bush-era policies and has executed them more efficiently than his predecessor. No one can deny the President’s shortcomings, but he should not be discounted either. For the first time in American history, all Americans will have access to health care. Mitt Romney wants to roll this back. While the President did not weigh-in on the North Carolina same-sex marriage ban; he declared his support for gay marriage, refused to enforce DOMA, and repealed DADT. Mitt Romney does not support gay marriage, will enforce DOMA, and will reinstate DADT. The President has continued and expanded the use of predator drones and continued the War on Terror, but he ended the war in Iraq and will end fighting in Afghanistan. He has increased VA funding and benefits and plans to reduce military spending. His opponent will continue indefinite hostilities in Afghanistan and increase military spending. The President has failed to address poverty, but his opponent has castigated the poor as hopeless government dependents. President Obama’s evolving stances on some issues display an ability to be pushed forward, while Mitt Romney’s positions are regressive requiring reengagement of previously settled debate and law.
But do we need Barack Obama? Is he necessary for the Movement? The better question is, “Doesn’t Barack Obama need us?” By the time President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaves were well on their way to freeing themselves during a devastating war. President Johnson fought for civil and voting rights legislation after years of demonstrations and protest. Neither of them was absolutely necessary to free the slaves or for integration, but both were willing to move issues of equality and justice forward. Both were pushed to use the bully pulpit and executive power by an organized, political Left. This willingness to be pushed resulted in systemic legal change.
President Obama has shown a willingness to move some issues forward, but he still needs us. Like Lincoln needed Frederick Douglass and Johnson needed King, Obama needs today’s Left. This push must come not only through your work, but through your vote and continued political engagement at all levels. Abstaining from this election will not make the struggle for justice any easier. The Left cannot be naïve enough to think it the only group of people compromising values or beliefs by making an all-or-nothing decision between the President and his challenger. Certainly the Tea Party does not think Romney is the ideal standard-bearer, but that will not cause them to sit this one out. So, why will you?