Beyond Vote or Die: A Conversation, Part 1

By Joshua Crutchfield and Brandon Maxwell

“Are you voting?” “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain!” “Have you sent in your absentee ballot?” “Your ancestors fought/died for the right this right!” “You know you can early vote in your state, right?”

As November 6th draws near, you may find your phone, email inbox, twitter timeline, or facebook newsfeed being bombarded with any of the aforementioned questions/declarations. Frequently, such questions come biennially, and are the extent of the dialogue around voting and the political process in America. However, in what continues to be a polarizing election there is a need for further dialogue. The following blog entry is an introduction to a series of postings that we hope will contribute to the conversation on voting and politics. Our intent is to let the conversation develop somewhat organically around the themes of political apathy, political (in)action, and spatial politics.

To get started, we both want to locate ourselves in the discussion. Additional entries will follow, in which we will question one another and attempt to respond thoughtfully and honestly. Neither of us claims to be political gurus, to have all the answers, or to say anything that hasn’t already been said another way. However, we will offer honest reflections from two different vantage points and invite you to join in the dialogue as well! So, without further adieu…

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For the past two months I’ve been studying abroad in Germany. The number of hoops I’ve jumped through to make my temporary residency here legal would amaze you. Being bogged down by German bureaucracy, the presidential election has been the furthest thing from my mind. Well … that’s not entirely true. Quite honestly, I’ve watched all the debates, critically read the platform of each candidate to the extent they are outlined on their websites, and not a 24-hour period passes that I don’t check a news source for updates on the election. My Internet browsing history looks something like: Huffington Post, NBC News, NY Times, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, BBC News, Facebook … Repeat.

However, my browser history might betray the reality that during this presidential election I have chosen not to vote. It started off quite innocent, honestly. I kept telling myself that I would get around to requesting an absentee ballot, but something else always grabbed my attention – I mean, I was (am) in Europe for the first time with so much to explore! Fairly quickly, however, not requesting the absentee ballot became a bit more intentional.

Could I be joining the camp of allegedly “politically apathetic 18 – 20somethings” that have given up on what’s left of the mess we call the American Political System? No, not entirely at least. For starters, I would not call myself apathetic: I have a tremendous amount of concern for what goes on in politics, particularly in this election. A little person on the inside of me is rooting for Obama in a loud whisper. I decided not to vote this go around, however, for two main reasons. The first is simple – my state is red (R)! In the past 10 presidential elections, Tennessee’s electoral votes have gone blue (D) a mere 3 times in ’76, ’92, and ’96. All signs point to the red trend continuing in this election cycle. I find it difficult to muster up the strength to cast a vote that will seemingly count for nothing in the grand scheme of things. (So, maybe there is a little apathy there?)

In some ways, this leads to the second reason I’ve decided not to vote. Over the past few months I’ve come to realize that for all the ways Obama and Romney are different, there are just as many ways they are exactly the same – well, depending on which Mitt Romney comes out to play (see Foreign Policy Presidential Debate, see Presidential Discussion on Poverty – sorry, couldn’t find a link for this one). The point is the way that our election process is structured does not allow room for the type of conversations that should be mandatory in any election process. Candidates don’t really have to spell anything out, but can just run on the fact that “I’m not the other guy!” As a result, we typically get black and white, left and right debates that are merely two sides of the same coin – whether its heads or tails, it is still the same coin.

Furthermore, the things politicians say during the election and the things they do once elected tend to be night and day. Regardless of their extreme right and extreme left talking points politicians will inevitably govern to the center. Sure, the Democrats will shellac their platforms with identity politics and Republicans will always engage in economic pandering and class warfare. But at the end of the day, both Republicans and Democrats are concerned with maintaining, what bell hooks has called, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Democrats maintain it using honey, and Republicans maintain it using vinegar.

I could go on, but this is supposed to be a conversation. So I’ll stop there for now to leave room for dialogue and allow my brother in the struggle, Joshua Crutchfield, to introduce himself.

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“Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day—thirty years, if I’m lucky—I can be President too….what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.” —James Baldwin

I recently ran across this quotation while reading some James Baldwin for class. I chuckled. Now while this prophecy wasn’t fulfilled right on time— it was fulfilled. And in only a way James could do, the important question was asked—”what kind of country [will he] be President of?” Now this is a loaded question, but a good segue into this discussion.

I’ve been a volunteer for the Barack Obama campaign since the summer. I’ve put in countless hours in an effort to get this president re-elected. Just as recently as last week I’ve taken a trip to North Carolina, a battleground state, to canvass for the president. Yes, I voyaged those hills of Asheville in hopes of persuading Obama supporters to early vote. It was hard work, for sure.

Now, why am I putting in all this hard work? (And it is hard!) Do I think Barack Obama is the leader this country needs? Do I agree with every policy he has to offer? Has he fulfilled every expectation I had of him? Well, the answer is complicated. See Barack Obama is, in fact, a politician. He has policies that I abhor—specifically his foreign policy and his focus on the middle class without mention of poverty and the poor.

However, given this historical moment in race relations we’re currently experiencing in this country with a black president in The White House, a two-party political system that has never represented everybody, and a horrible alternative to President Obama… He’s the only choice we have! (And not a totally horrible one at that!) THIS is the kind of country we find ourselves in with the first black president. But I won’t belabor the point much longer.

So, I early voted a few weekends ago. I still think voting is an important part and signifier of citizenship. Are there problems in this voting process? Absolutely! These include but are not limited to: racism, ageism, crappy voter ID laws; an electoral college that does not reflect a true democracy and that essentially renders the votes of many ineffective; and the aforementioned two-party political party system. These flaws have not persuaded me to give up voting. It has only encouraged me to participate in the system and to work to change this system. Steps for that change are hard, long steps, but I think it is possible. I’m a prisoner to hope.

I do hope that this conversation will be fruitful. I know it will be. Brandon Maxwell is a great thinker and even greater friend.


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