Beyond Vote or Die: A Conversation (Part 2)

by Joshua Crutchfield and Brandon Maxwell

This blog entry is part two of our series on voting, and picks up right where the last one left off. If you missed Part 1, click here to read it.

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JOSHUA: So what is your response to people who say, “Our ancestors fought for the right to vote…” and/or “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain”? I don’t identify with either group entirely, but I do think the statements deserve a thoughtful response.

BRANDON: These are fragmented critiques.

First, sure ‘nough, our ancestors fought for their right to participate in the American political system. Too frequently, however, persons making this argument emphasize “…the right to vote,” while downplaying the reality that “our ancestors fought…” – which is quite ironic considering that the argument appeals to the fight of our ancestors to give it credence.

Though sometimes uncritical, the statement itself points to the reality that my ancestors had a contrarian relationship to the American political system. Before my ancestors could vote, they fought: they engaged in create-ive political action against the system in order to bring about change. The right to vote was one byproduct of their political action, and became one method to further their causes, but it certainly was not the sum of their political action.

Sadly, the narratives (plural) of our ancestors have been homogenized by mainstream american cultural in order to create the illusion of inclusion through the electoral process. This illusion perpetuates the half-truth, which suggests that political action begins and ends with voting; that the only way to be accountable to the struggle of our ancestors is through voting. However, I contend that, in very subtle and nuanced ways, the act of not voting – political resistance, if you will – can be just as in-step-with and faithful to the political actions of my ancestors as is the act of voting.

JOSHUA: That’s thoughtful! I definitely agree that our ancestors were some “create-ive” folks. They had to be! I’m reminded of the “create-ive” political action of Civil Rights leaders whose approaches did not stop at fighting for inclusion in the system, but went beyond the system to affirm their community’s humanity in ways that were not contingent on the political process.

BRANDON: Exactly. Their create-ive action included a fight to be included in, but not consumed by, the american political process. Our ancestors did not struggle only to vote, they create-ively struggled for freedom. I’m grateful for the freedom to choose to vote. I’m grateful for the freedom to choose not to. I’m grateful for the freedom to engage in my owncreate-ive political struggle to bring about change in the very spirit of my ancestors.

JOSHUA: And as for your response to the “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain” camp?

BRANDON: The either-vote-or-shut-up argument and all its corollaries – i.e., the “Vote or Die” movement – are byproducts of our individual and collective political imaginations being taken captive. This argument alleges that because the American political process is so clearly defined, one must participate within its confines or not at all. There’s no need forcreate-ive political action… There’s no need to imagine new ways to engage in political action together when the system has already been so clearly defined, right?

Wrong! This binary thinking further divides people who should be closely aligned. It is another tool used by the majority to skew our collective struggles for freedom, relinquish us of our imaginative power, and divide us along the lines of registered/unregistered, voting/not-voting, etc. – which is very much an extension of the ways we are divided along the lines of gender, class and race and invited to participate in whiteness (See The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter, Ch. 8). The point is, to silence one’s voice because they do not vote (read, they do not fit neatly inside the confines of mainstream culture) is counterproductive and prevents pertinent discussions that will aid in the interrogation of our political system and the ways it regularly fails us. I mean is nobody going to talk about the fact that many of us are voting, and still dying?

JOSHUA: I agree that political action does not always require the ballot. This question of why nobody talks about the fact that people – black and brown people, poor people, women people, queer people – are voting and dying is clever and pertinent. I am curious to know how voting has changed those rates of folks dying – and in our time this doesn’t always mean a physical death. It seems as though since the voting process was opened up to include colored people and women much has stayed the same, maybe even worsened. Black and brown people are disproportionately poorer; more of us are in prison and dropping out of school than our counterparts. Women are still paid a fraction of what men are paid, and are still commodified, demonized and trivialized by the political process. That’s the reality before the election, during it, and after it.

BRANDON: Seeing that we agree that voting doesn’t always equal “pulling a lever,” and that folks are voting and still dying my question to you is, how can one engage in political action that takes seriously the inequities and injustices to which you alluded?

JOSHUA: I think we first must define what political means. Of course, we have the political that has something to do with voting, polls, elected officials, public policies, etc. – all the stuff we’ve discussed so far. But there is also another type of political action named and popularized by our feminist sisters in the 60s & 70s. This is the type of political action, which acknowledges that the personal is always political! That is, everything we do means something in the larger scope of things.

When we shop at Wal-Mart, that’s not only getting what we need at a low price, it’s also political action! When we volunteer with an organization that advocates for the poor and homeless, that’s not just passing out sandwiches to fill ourselves with warm fuzzies, it’s also political action! When we protest violence against women, its political action! When we canvass for Barack Obama in battle ground states, it’s political action! When we protest the voting process itself and take a stance of resistance, it is political action!

So, to answer your question directly – we engage in political action that takes injustice seriously by understanding that everything we do has political ramifications. Political action can be and is performed without a voting ballot. Many folks in this country – namely, people of color and women – have been not voting longer than they’ve been voting. So, there is a long (and successful) tradition of political action outside of the voting process to learn from.

BRANDON: That’s helpful! To wrap things up, I want to return to your initial statement about choice. Can we really call what we have in this election, in any election for that matter, a choice? Is a forced choice – “he’s the only choice we have” – a choice at all, or is it something else?

JOSHUA: Do we have a choice in this election? I guess the way I framed my initial statement, “We don’t have a better alternative than President Obama” doesn’t help my case in this discussion. Let me be clear, I think voting in this election is important. “Choice” may not be the best way to describe the option between the candidates, but there are clear distinctions between what each candidate stands for.

My vote for President Obama is influenced by my personal politics and my stance as an ally to LGBTQ folks, poor folks, and women. Though the candidates are similar on Foreign Policy and in ignoring the poor I believe Obama’s platform is more in line with my personal politics. Furthermore, I believe his leadership will continue to move our country in the right direction in many – but not all – areas, while Romney’s leadership will take us back a few decades.

We could certainly talk about the limitations of a two-party system – I concede, it doesn’t always provide a real choice. We could also talk about the limitations of the Electoral College and the way it infringes on our votes (a choice, of sorts). I think the take away from this discussion, however, is that by broadening our understanding of political action – which can include voting, not voting, where one shops, what one protests, etc. – we get to the heart of true democracy and true political action. Political action that is “create-ive,” –sometimes exercised within the confines of the election process, but never limited to or confined by it.

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Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Part 3 of our discussion where we’ll engage in a brief discussion on the dynamics of place in politics and provide some concluding reflections on the discussion.

Read Joshua’s blog here. Read Brandon’s blog here.


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