“The United States is full of ballparks. My black vote, which has not yet purchased my autonomy, may yet, if I choose to use it, keep me out of the ballpark long enough to figure out some other move. Or for the children to make a move. Or for aid to come from somewhere. My vote will probably not get me a job or a home or help me through school or prevent another Vietnam or a third World War, but it may keep me here long enough for me to see, and use, the turning of the tide–for the tide has got to turn.”
– James Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage” (The Nation, 1980)
Recently, I have seen some backlash on social media in response to pleas for people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Some people feel that they are being forced to vote for a candidate or to settle for a candidate in what they perceive to be a lose-lose situation.
Quite chillingly, Baldwin’s fitting words in the context of the 1980 presidential election validate these feelings of disenchantment with a political system that seems stuck in the past–unaware of the movements that have sprung up in critical fashion of flaws in the core of our government that we view as normal (I use “we” to invite readers of my generation as well as our collective humanity). Our generation is all too aware of how the political system was designed by our founders to advance the interests of elite, white males. However, if we shift our vision of voting from being unwavering, full support of a candidate to one where we consider voting to be a long, deliberative process of accountability, we can think of voting as an exercise of agency and autonomy.
Think for a second. If our vote wasn’t so powerful, if our vote didn’t matter, then we wouldn’t be seeing massive voter suppression efforts in the form of stringent voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and blatant voter purging to disenfranchise predominantly racially and economically marginalized groups.
This year, when we vote, it is not a one-time thing. Of course, in short advertisements and speeches, slogans such as “vote like your life depends on it” and “let your voice be heard” may suggest a resolute and satisfying finale to voting. Sure, voting in of itself is a powerful homage to those who have secured these rights, but voting is also a marked point in the timeline of sustained civic engagement. Before voting, there is showing up to council meetings and statehouses, grassroots activism, interest group mobilization. These acts continue after voting as well.
From this perspective, I view voting as accountability. We’ve seen all the social media posts about taking on the mantle–deciding what substantive issues we want our country to take action on now. Our generation has taken major strides to becoming a powerful voting bloc, so let’s make the jump. Let’s continue this energy. The elderly voting bloc are consistently courted because of their high voter turnout. If the 18-29 demographic shows high voter turnout too in this year, our elected officials may be more responsive to our policy concerns.
Voting as accountability means that there is little loyalty to individuals, rather loyalty to democracy and our democratic ideals of fairness, liberty, and justice. Make no mistake, these abstract ideals have been threatened and will continue to be threatened, as there will always be interests working against the mobilization of young progressives. Even in states that have a record of being staunchly “red” or “blue,” accountability still matters.
The behaviors and actions of politicians are often centered about political survival–appeasing one’s constituents enough to continue to be re-elected. But, voting for me means that regardless of how favorably I may view a politician, I never want any single individual to get too comfortable in office. Certainly we can praise politicians who align with our core values or possess symbolic/descriptive power in our political system. However, we must remember that politicians are elected–not entitled to be in office. The fact remains that they must be responsive to their electorate. From the presidential election to the down-ballot races for state representatives and city council, voting is our opportunity to be vigilant watchguards.
So, again to those who have felt frustrated with the state of politics in our country, I leave you with the words that the late activist, congressman, and champion for civil rights John Lewis Jr. spoke 53 years ago during the March on Washington:
“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, twelve hours a day.”
When we vote this year, it is more than just a vote. Those of us who have this privilege to vote and who can exercise it without undue burden, we carry this civic responsibility, a living artifact of the embodied and bloody sacrifices that guaranteed us these rights. This vote that we cast on November 3rd will likely not change much right now. There are still black and brown individuals who fear a criminal justice system engrained with predeterminations of what a “criminal” looks like, there are still people who cannot afford health insurance or co-pays or premiums, there is still the question of how to reconcile disparate solutions to climate change, there are still individuals at the border separated from their families living in squalor conditions denied of basic human rights, there is still a devastating global pandemic.
We have so much work left to be done that feeling disillusioned and feeling disenchanted is normal. But, as Baldwin said, eventually “the tide has got to turn.”