Over the past few weeks, I have heard ongoing rants suggesting abstainers and independent voters bear primary responsibility for the results of the 2016 election. It’s as if the masses are unwilling to critique how choosing the “lesser of two evils” supports the maintenance of our flawed two-party system. It ensures our uninterrupted participation in binary thinking and limits our ability to imagine radical alternatives for the people. I am not interested in limiting my thinking. I believe we can think up new possibilities when we aren’t forced to choose between two problematic options.
In school, I was taught to trust in the greatness of America. I was taught to believe I lived in a democracy, that the option to vote granted me access to a democratic society. For years, I questioned the legitimacy of this widely accepted fallacy. I never heard a president espouse viewpoints that, at the very least, offered long-term solutions to reconcile the vast needs of America’s most vulnerable citizenry (here citizenry refers to any and everyone that lives in the U.S.). I never saw a president that looked like me. I was led to believe my apprehensions were naïve, a consequence of my youthfulness. I would come to learn that this was a common excuse offered by adults unwilling to explore historical realities.
But I was still hopeful. And in 2008, I took my hope to the voting booth.
The first time I voted, I was filled with inherited pride. Finally, I had the opportunity to contribute to the political landscape in the nation of my birth, and I was thrilled. I was in my senior year of college and was engaging in discussions daily that challenged me to decode and deconstruct messages in televised news, newspapers, radio, and classrooms. As I prepared to cast my first vote ever in the 2008 presidential election, I felt the faint footsteps of my ancestors beating within me. This was an obligation, I thought. My ancestors have stained the streets, trees, and fields with the blood of their bodies for my right to vote. So I must cast it intentionally. I must not let their collective struggle be in vain.
At the same time, through my coursework, I was beginning to learn about the striking similarities between both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and what I learned was alarming. Both parties have been responsible for: restricting educational funding; defunding welfare initiatives; pushing standardized assessments; high rates of deportation; mass incarceration of Black and Brown peoples; supporting zero tolerance policies that disproportionately suspend and expel youth of color; aggressively increasing defense spending; remaining in a perpetual state of war and unrest; backing the militarization of law enforcement agencies; overlooking the importance of free universal healthcare; monitoring Americans’ private lives; and refusing to redress historical and ongoing injustices systems of oppression have imposed on Black people and other people of color in the United States. When examining our so-called democratic, two-party system from this lens the parties don’t seem so distinct.
Unable to stomach the political implications of abstaining, I continued to associate the voting process with ancestral responsibility. Images of slavery, auction blocks, beatings, lynchings, uprisings, Jim Crow, marches, burning buildings, arrests, water hoses, and sit-ins swarmed my mind. Voting had been impressed upon my consciousness as the most instrumental civic engagement tool in a free society. And I shared this sentiment with any friend that voiced their reluctance to continue participating in electoral politics.
In 2016 an inner shift occurred.
This year, I did not go to the poll booth, and I didn’t fill in my absentee ballot. I exercised my right not to vote. I wrestled with my decision for months following Bernie Sanders’ failed democratic nomination. To choose not to vote felt like historical dismissal. I wanted to support a presidential candidate that had a history of prioritizing progressive social justice initiatives and inspired me to vote with a clear conscience. I discovered Dr. Jill Stein. I introduced her name to friends who were oblivious of her political platform and resisted reductive reasoning that declared a vote in her support as a vote for the Republican Party.
If we truly live in a democratic society, how could that be? How could voting for someone you believe best represents the issues that impact your day-to-day life, and the lives of millions more, be the equivalent of a wasted vote? It seems obvious that the likelihood of electing a presidential candidate outside of our current two-party system would significantly increase if more people would abandon two-party politics that more closely resembles a single-party agenda. With deficit-based thinking—the nation’s prevailing ideological framework—shaping the bulk of our public imagination, I wondered how a Stein administration would convince a largely homogenous Congress to grapple with police brutality, anti-Black racism and other forms of structural oppression, economic disparities, environmental degradation, restorative justice, education as the practice of freedom, etc. Ultimately, I was dissuaded by historical evidence.
Voting has not shielded us from death. It has not protected us from political loopholes that attempt to stomp the life out of us long before we die physically. Even with anti-discrimination laws in place, we haven’t been able to sidestep disparate treatment. We’ve placed too much weight in the vote. We’ve accepted that voting is the primary means to amplify our voices, to stimulate change. But what exactly are we voting for? Both the Democratic and Republican Parties offer limited, if any, solutions to the type of challenges that impact my everyday life, and the everyday lives of many people of color from working class and lower income households. And as Tricia Rose correctly observes in Longing to Tell, “The kinds of [narratives] that have worked to marginalize, pathologize, and condense the lives of [B]lack women, [and Black people as a whole] cannot simply be legislated out of circulation.” Often, the only suggested recourse presented to Black folks is the ballot.
But is the ballot enough? What can we be doing on the periphery of election years? What can we do in our respective workplaces and industries on a regular basis to disrupt systems of domination? What can we do to address the particular needs of our communities? What can we be doing to interrupt dominator discourse in our homes, in our relationships, in every facet of our lives? What can we do across socioeconomic backgrounds to lift each other up and lean on one another throughout the year? What else can we be doing to think more imaginatively? These are the questions we have to contend with as we commit ourselves to grassroots activism.
And to some extent, I understand the emphasis on electoral politics and legislation. If elected officials are going through such lengths to institutionalize voter suppression laws, there must be some power in our vote. This observation cannot be understated. My choice not to vote does not justify external efforts to strip me, and historically disenfranchised people, of that right. As a sexually fluid Black woman, I also have the right to marry, but ultimately I decide whether marriage is the right path for me. It isn’t. Until there is more promise in electoral politics shifting the United States’ foundational practices of domination, exploitation, and profit-generation, I will disengage from this charade and redirect my energies elsewhere.
While the implications of voting are far-reaching, we can’t expect the same system that was erected to negate and exclude us to turn on itself and topple. We have to think differently. We have to organize differently. We have to open ourselves up to new forms of resistance.
We need to change shit substantially before we continue to stress voting as the most instrumental civic engagement tool in a free society, especially when that so-called free society in which we live is entrenched in imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.