I’m a Black Progressive, and I’m Not Voting Until There’s a Real Greater Good
Converting voting skeptics isn’t about guilt-tripping us, it’s about not shying away from actual reforms
The fact that former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be the presumptuous Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election doesn’t mean the discussion has ended. Just yesterday, after a month of infighting between old-guard progressives and their millennial counterparts, the New York Times ran an op-ed column excoriating these young shit-stirrers for not falling in line to support Amtrak Joe. “Taking a principled stand is courageous only when those taking it put themselves at risk,” wrote Mitchell Abidor, the author of numerous books about leftist movements. “Placing others at risk requires no courage at all.”
Here we are again, arguing about whether to hold our nose and vote for a candidate who represents little more than more of the same.
The moment Sen. Bernie Sanders — the last candidate standing who seemed to stand for anything — endorsed Biden, this year’s reenactment of the 2016 Democratic primary was complete. The party had effectively pulled the rug out from under anyone who would actually push the party line, leaving voters with a choice that wasn’t a choice at all. But rather than have a conversation about why that is, the “vote blue no matter who” chorus has swung into action to ensure that one alleged rapist can get enough votes to defeat the incumbent alleged rapist. This isn’t a lockstep march of bots and boomers. I’ve seen some very smart people parroting the completely disingenuous argument that both Biden and President Donald Trump might be terrible, but only one will kill Americans as a result of his policies.
So, as a nonvoter — in other words, one of the people the Democrats desperately need to win over — lemme just say it plainly. Please stop playing yourselves.
Don’t get it twisted: Voting matters. But a decades-long siege of corporate political corruption, gerrymandering, faulty voting booths, long waits, and other forms of voter suppression has reduced the act to a concept. A symbol. The act itself, despite what anyone wants to believe, has been stripped of utility — especially in Black and Brown, poor, or otherwise marginalized communities. Of course our faith in the process has eroded. Add two geriatric predators with histories of racist policies and practices to the potato salad, and you can’t exactly wonder why liberation-minded folks might be a little hesitant to show up to the cookout.
Demanding that anyone, much less Black skeptics, vote for a representative in a country where the lesser of two evils still means Black death is not just disingenuous, it’s delusional.
The problem for the Democratic party, if it’s to survive, is that it needs to get us leftmost skeptics back at the polls. To fall back once again on the canard that those of us feeling the worst of America’s oppression should vote in favor of the greater good is a losing effort. For Black nonvoters and voting skeptics, there is no longer a greater good; in fact, there never really has been.
But don’t tell that to the liberal vote-shaming lobby. In late April, when Sanders’ former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray announced she wouldn’t endorse Biden, guilt-trippers lined up to rip into her ethics and personhood. In an interview, The Atlantic smattered Gray with leading questions designed to undermine the rationality of policy demands she shares with the majority of Americans: government-run health care, universal student loan forgiveness, low-cost public college. “What’s the point of always hammering Biden for proposing [midway solutions] rather than focusing on Republicans?” the interviewer asked her at one point. The gag is, this is all over an endorsement — not because Gray said she’d never vote for Biden, but because she said she wouldn’t evangelize for his candidacy.
These arguments are all too familiar for people who show any sign of skepticism about the presumed sanctity of voting. When there were still other horses in the race, Biden’s fortune-changing win in the South Carolina primary dragged Black Americans — voters and nonvoters alike — back under all-too-familiar media scrutiny. A torrent of familiar theories flooded cable-news punditry and media folks’ Twitter timelines: Either Black voters were ignorant to how Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s policies affected Black communities, or we were too informed about the snail-paced reality of American politics and fell back on Biden because we knew he could get things done. Omniscient observers somehow found a way to blame both old heads and young folks for Sanders’ loss, suggesting essential disunity in the Black voting bloc. Much like our justice system, the language of guilt was used to root voters’ choice in the context of a greater good, when, in actuality it’s only serving those in power.
South Carolina has a history of revealing the country’s bloody connective tissue between guilt-tripping, civic duty, and the greater good. In his book A New Order of Things, University of Georgia historian Claudio Saunt explains that European colonizers actually imported the very concept of guilt. Before breaking bread with them in the 18th century, he wrote, the native Creek tribe “had a deeply felt sense of responsibility for their action but they did not believe in guilt or innocence in the English sense of the word.” In contrast, they used the term “emmu’tte” or “fault,” which Saunt translates to “cause.” The gap between those terms is a moral one. Guilt became a tool to isolate “murderers and thieves from their clans, creating a criminal class and undermining unified resistance to the enforcement of the social compact.” At the same time Europeans were creating a criminal class of oppressed people, the linkages between cultural genocide and political maneuvering formed.
Guilt in all its varieties burdens Black existence on a daily basis, whether criminalization and presumed guilt of the young Black male to the torrent of virtue-signaling White liberal guilt that pours through our timelines. It infiltrates our own conversations whenever we parrot the same tired harangues (“our ancestors died for the right to vote!”) as White “progressives” do. Those arguments are almost always in bad faith. Our ancestors did not just die — they were murdered, taken from us by the same people who have maintained the unjust policies and unlivable conditions of the last two centuries. Demanding that anyone, much less Black skeptics, vote for a representative in a country where the lesser of two evils still means Black death is not just disingenuous, it’s delusional.
That reasoning isn’t confined to a race or gender. Folks from marginalized backgrounds, too, offer up guilt as a central reason to get out there and sign away your political future. In her recent Netflix documentary, Becoming, Michelle Obama performed the family code switch to that condescending tone reserved for people that most look like them. She explains her biggest disappointment, not just with the 2016 debacle but every election (including midterms) since her husband’s coronation, by holding up the mirror at just the right angle. “Every time Barack didn’t get the Congress he needed, that was because our folks didn’t show up,” she says. “After all that work, they just couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. That’s my trauma.” It’s not a great look in what’s otherwise a fine, even delightful documentary.
And then there’s Stacey Abrams, whose game has become a little too obvious. The former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, became a liberal media darling during her impressive run, inspiring calls for her to run for president at some point in the near future. But recently, Abrams has been jockeying for the VP spot on Biden’s ticket — and she’s willing to publicly undermine credible allegations from survivors of sexual assault to do it. “The New York Times did a deep investigation,” Abrams told CNN last month when discussing Biden accuser Tara Reade, “and they found the accusation was not credible.” Not only is that a flat out lie, but it signals a tenacious careerism that is willing to go through survivors while claiming to be perceptive to the needs of the Black community.
Furthermore, the language Abrams uses to describe Black voters and why she’s an asset is really troubling: “I know that for communities of color, particularly for the Black community, there has got to be a recognition that their needs are met,” she told former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod on a recent episode of his podcast. “There has to be an intentionality to turning them out. A lot of folks can do that. I’m one of those people. And I have proven it by turning out more people of color in an election than anyone in 2018 did. Not by race, but by raw number.” Black people are used to being generalized, enumerated, and otherwise made inhuman — it just stings a little more when the faces running the numbers are Black ones.
But Black politicians aren’t the only guilt-trippers in the game. Hip-hop heads have been parroting the two-party gospel since the early 2000s. What hip-hop in politics revealed, perhaps ironically, is that the shaming doesn’t really work. In his book, Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap, Jeffrey Oghar tracked the effects of Diddy’s 2004 Vote or Die initiative. He found that the voting rate increases were “starkly high” among all young voters, “second only to Whites by a thin 2.5%.” It was the most promising result we could’ve experienced, especially as “these increases were led by Black voters who produced the largest increase in turnout among any group.” Problem is, the gains couldn’t be assigned to campaigns like Vote or Die because “while 2004 was relatively successful, 18–29-year-old Black voters voted at higher rates in the 2002 midterm elections than any similar Black age cohort in U.S. history.” Young Black people had already been voting at historic numbers; of course, we were bound to show out in the 2004 election.
The 2000s represented a marked shift from the activist-led vision of hip-hop organization. Though most heads were decidedly liberal, their efforts before then were concentrated within Black communities. In 1984 and 1988, DJ Magnificent, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, and Melle Mel all performed on the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and mayoral campaign of David Dinkins (who would eventually become New York City’s first, and thus far only, Black mayor). Reformist and antiviolence mission statements became de facto political stances for iconic hip-hop figures. But as hip-hop stars became mainstream media moguls, the new millennium presented new opportunities for them to gain more political capital — even if their impact amounted to little more than a moral victory.
After Puffy went Vote or Die, rappers became necessary accessories in the Democratic candidate starter kit. Hillary Clinton had Jay; Bernie had Killer Mike; the list goes on. But the most troubling thing about White pols flaunting Black connections is that it doesn’t get voters to ask the right questions. When Tom Steyer was still in the game and dancing with Juvenile — hey, remember Tom Steyer? — voters weren’t wondering about his health care proposal or whether he would divest from the prison-industrial complex (i.e., shit we actually care about). They were wondering who the hell Tom Steyer was, why he was dancing, and how we could make it stop.
The “blue no matter who” crowd seems to believe that Biden, as entrenched in his political ideals as ever, will at the very least return us to some semblance of normalcy. The problem is, depending on where one sits, that normalcy was pretty murderous to begin with. The choice to vote or to not vote isn’t simply two sides of an issue-based coin. It’s about the growing corporate interest of America’s political class. No matter who takes the seat, the seat is still tucked squarely in the pocket of the suits on Wall Street. If Biden ends up winning, a ton of very smart people can say they got the nicer, more polite guy in office. That’s gotta be the greatest good for everyone involved, right?