Essential Yet Elemental: An Open Letter to the Left to for Vote for President Obama

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?

Letter to the Editor–Published by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, August 5, 2011

The following letter was published by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution on August 5, 2011.  The published letter was edited by the newspaper, but below is the full letter as sent to the AJC.

Dear Editor:

On Tuesday Congressional leaders and President Obama reached a deal to avoid defaulting to our nation’s creditors; what Americans had been told all summer to be an impending economic disaster.  While these leaders champion themselves as heroes for passing such legislation, they fail to realize that average American families have been in the midst of our own debt crisis for years.  Unlike that for our elected officials, there will be no ticker-tape parade for the countless middle-class and growing number working poor who manage to scrape by and avoid default daily. 

While Boehner, Obama, and others were taking to the airwaves to debate their plans, my wife and I were sitting around the kitchen table discussing ours.  The four years we have been married both of us have been in school.  We have worked through college and financed what we were unable to pay.  Like many, we managed to stay afloat by working hard.  When our 2005 Chevy, made overseas, broke due to poor manufacturing we were left over-under.  We had little savings and could get no financing.  Fortunately, our families rallied around us and we were able to get by.

An incompetent and anemic Washington has failed to create jobs and spur the economy.   Our leaders are so inept that they celebrate what has become a common occurrence in this country—rallying together to avoid impending economic disasters.  Instead of working to lift us out of this mess, they work to score points in a losing game.  The real heroes are those Americans who have been scraping by to pay off their debts, avoid foreclosure, those who are over-under on their cars and homes waiting for relief.  They are neither celebrated nor appreciated for doing what is expected of them.   Why is it that we have come to expect so much less of our leaders than we expect of ourselves?


Zachary H. Smith

We Don’t Talk with Our Kids, Why Should Obama: Moving from Abstinence Only to Ignorance Only Education

President George W. Bush is joined by school children and political leaders as he signs No Child Left Behind into law.

President George W. Bush is joined by school children and political leaders as he signs No Child Left Behind into law.

On October 1, 1991, President George H.W. Bush told students at Alice Deal Junior High School and millions of students watching live from their classrooms across the country that, “Education matters, and what you do today, and what you don’t do can change your future.”  He went on to add, “Progress starts when we ask more of ourselves, our schools and, yes, you, our students.”  Apparently, this message no longer resonates with the Republican Party George H.W. Bush once knew as there is much consternation amongst conservatives who are demanding that their schools do not tune in for President Barack Obama’s national address to students next week.  The American educational system can now include “common sense,” “patriotism,” and “civics” with “sexual education” and “evolution” in the folder stamped OPTIONAL.  What is the basis of accusations that Obama will brainwash America’s youth with socialist ideology?  Or that his speech will be a platform by which he will justify healthcare reform, the stimulus package, or government intervention in the auto industry?  How has the extreme rightwing lost its mind?    

Currently, six states including Illinois will not be airing the President’s message.  In an effort to assuage concerned parents the White House will be posting the speech the day prior online for review, and the Department of Education has already issued revised lesson plan suggestions that no longer encourage students to write a letter to themselves about how they can help the President but a letter in which they create short and long term goals.   Despite these efforts, the controversy continues to consume school districts across the country and the evening news.  The motivation for this reaction is similar to that of healthcare reform.  There is a growing irrational conservative ideology that is spreading like wildfire across all parts of this country, which is motivated by fear: fear of change, fear of a Democratic President, fear of a black President, fear of globalization and fear of fear itself. 

This fear consumes people into a state where they are obviously not thinking rationally.  American Presidents have spoken with school children throughout our nation’s history.  These children cannot vote.  They would not even understand the complexities of healthcare reform and will not become effective advocates for the President.  Most adults in this country cannot even debate the merits of the Congressional healthcare bill or even explain the theoretical framework of American capitalism.  Further, these right extremists need to take a civics lesson for their own benefit.  Barack Obama is President of the United States of America, not the President of the Democratic Party.  Republican President George W. Bush signed off on TARP that bailed out banks and insurance companies as well as made an $18 billion investment in the auto industry; both parties have spent public money much the same way.  Further, this country has a system of checks and balances so intricate that one could spend their entire life devoted to its study and all of this expressed in a document that is twelve pages.  A speech to the children of this nation is not going to create a mindless army of young people, eyes blurred, marching on Washington for a public option. 

The President’s address to the school children of this nation is nothing more than telling the children of this country that they matter.  A message that gets drowned out by endless bickering at town halls, mindless political pundits chattering at American dinner tables, the familiar sounds of video games, or by the deafening silence some kids hear when they are completely ignored by their parents.  Values voters talk incessantly about values, but cannot stand it when someone lives up to them.  Let President Obama address the youth of this nation and challenge them as all Presidents, Republican and Democrat, have done before.  Our youth deserve and need the attention.

When I was six years old, George H.W. Bush was elected President.  I remember running down the stairs in our house cheering and my brother who was seven crying because Dukakis lost.  I did not know who either man was much less their platforms.  Four years later I wrote in my school journal that I wanted Bill Clinton elected President in 1992 because he built homes for people after hurricane Andrew hit Florida and a month or two after that I wrote that I thought Ross Perot the best candidate because my father liked him.  The point is that we as adults are entrusted with the development of the next generation of Americans.  The current inflammatory partisanship is not healthy for us and is something that we cannot pass on; this cannot be our legacy.

“Let me leave you with a simple message: Every time you walk through that classroom door, make it your mission to get a good education. Don’t do it just because your parents, or even the President, tells you. Do it for yourselves. Do it for your future. And while you’re at it, help a little brother or sister to learn, or maybe even Mom or Dad. Let me know how you’re doing. Write me a letter — and I’m serious about this one — write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals. I think you know the address.” –President George H.W. Bush’s concluding remarks to school children across America, October 1991.