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. Again, we invite you to participate in the discussion! Feel free to leave a reply and we’ll do our best to respond where necessary.

Click here to read Part 2.

12 thoughts on “Beyond Vote or Die: A Conversation (Part 1)

  1. I must say, I disagree with Josh’s reading of Baldwin, here:

    “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.”

    Is this moment really historic? Is voting Obama really a choice? Or is it an extension of the problem of white supremacy in the first place? An exposition of the utility of blackness, par excellence? By this I mean, isn’t Obama simply the ultimate sign of the uses of blackness by white power?

    A quote I really like that I came across recently says:

    “The election of President Barack Obama does not mitigate the claim that this is a taciturn historical moment. Neoliberalism with a Black face is neither the index of a revolutionary advance nor the end of anti-Blackness as a constituent element of U.S. antagonisms. If anything, the election of Obama enables a plethora of shaming discourses in response to revolutionary politics and “legitimates” widespread disavowal of any notion that the United States itself, and not merely its policies and practices, is unethical.”— Frank Wilderson III, Red White and Black

    Here, this quotes rubs up against Joshua’s reading of Baldwin in a productive way, I think, as this notion of citizenship Joshua argues he is exercising in the practice of voting is dependent on a notion of the US as legitimate. A legitimation which Wilderson suggests requires the erasure of black grievance in order to be solidified. Indeed, the nation Wilderson (and I) would argue we have inherited is most trenchantly embedded in deepening the violence against black (and brown) peoples. I would ask, if this is our only choice, what kind of choice is it in the first place? And if this is the country Obama presides over, what does that mean for the symbol of the Negro?

    1. I think this is a great critique, Mo! I had similar questions of Joshua’s notion of choice. I think, honestly, the two-party american political system does not provide us with much of a choice at all. It is not accurate to suggest so. Its the equivalent of having the option between a snap bean and a pole bean – sorry, my country boy is showing. Sure, the shapes are different, one grows closer to the ground and the other climbs a poll and produces the harvest for a longer period of time: but at the end of the day, whichever you choose, you end up with beans.

      As to your read of James Baldwin (and Wilderson), I think what Obama’s presidency means for the (symbol of the) negro is a few things, not all of which I will write here… Among the most significant things, however, is that white folks will are reaffirmed in their misguided boot strap mentality – anyone can make it in America. The presidency of Obama is the apex of the commodification of blackness. Now his image can forever be exploited by the machine as an example of the fact that (fill in the blank with fragmented racial policy) worked, and maybe isn’t even needed any more (see Supreme Court case on affirmative action). I think it also displays the complexity of what whiteness and blackness have become in America and further muddies the waters of racial violence making it even more difficult to convince people that it is a reality…

      1. (upfront apologies for my lengthy response) First, I’m impressed with this effort birthed by Joshua & Brandon. Secondly, I applaud critical thinking as part of the process.

        Despite issues you’ve identified with political system in America and shortcomings with governing stances, the 2008 Election and 2012 Campaign are both historic. Please consider a couple of points…1) Barack Obama was elected 44th President of the US as a result of (what pundits call) the first 21st Century campaign in America. It was remarkably smart and his primary foes (Hillary-during the Primaries and McCain-Gen Election) never saw it coming. Ploys from the Davids–Plouffe and Axelrod combined with Obama’s smarts & charisma trumped conventional wisdom on every front. Folks scratched heads, fo’ real, day after the election. Obama is a keen strategist and an effective risk-taker–qualities larger than black or white, Dem or Repub, liberal/moderate or conservative. Healthcare Reform & the Bin Laden take-down were huge gambles. Closely examine history of US Presidencies and associated campaigns, and you will find “strategies” foremost with victories or losses. Team Obama outsmarted the Clintons (Super Delegate primary strat) and later the RNC (untapped voter segments and digital resources). No surprise, 2010 Do-Nothing Mid-term Congressional folks joined others with rock solid vows to make Obama a one-term President. 2) Also, consider for a moment–an “African” currently occupies the White House. On no terms (what-so-ever) was that picture “ever” suppose to happen in American politics. Good Ol’ Boys took it personally–offspring from a marriage between a Kenyan and one of their radical daughters “out-foxed” them for the grand prize (which BTW is less the office of President and more the matter of Supreme Court-the most power-changing function of the Executive Branch. Each Supreme Court nomination is STEP 1 (in POWER) to maintain or change “systems” in America via Federal laws. Two likely nominations with next presidential term WILL tilt the Court. If you check with the haters–no person of Color ( certainly NOT an African without a link to the Middle Passage) is worthy of that kind of power. 3) Then Barack Obama had unmitigated gall to show up with a committed, genuinely attractive, healthy partner plus Ivy League educations with few closet skeletons. Both had mastered Game rules. (Team Obama begins with Barack and Michelle–their ‘fist bump’ from ’08 still burns in minds of their haters). Assess Obama as candidate via whatever lenses you choose, but history will acknowledge (eventually) his impeccable sense of timing, his courage to take on foes & unpopular issues, and his consistent ability to attract/assemble highly resourceful people to execute effective strategies.
        He was the best available choice in 2008, and he remains the same in 2012.

        Last point, specifically to Brandon on the matter of NOT voting in this or any election. When you fully recall dangerous roads and bridges crossed by Black young people (and adults) in the 60’s to ensure your “lawful right” to vote, NOT voting (for any reason) should quickly disappear as an option. I, too, live in Tennessee, a RED state, and my vote cast for Obama in 2008 and again Oct 26, 2012, may not appear on the surface to be a winning one. However, I discovered (when I became a certified Polling Official in Davidson County-2010) Obama carried Davidson and Shelby Counties in 2008. My vote was one of those “winning” votes that “gets TN Republican’s goat” every time they review 2008 Election results. This outcome, too, was never ever supposed to happen!

        I will be at my Post, 6:00AM, Tuesday morning, Nov 6, setting up Voting machines for Precinct 33 for every voter who enters voting lines between 7:00AM and 7:00PM–no matter how long it takes for all to exercise this constitutional right. I am sworn to ENSURE each voter successfully cast an official Ballot or a Provisional Ballot-if lacking official ID. My motivation for this task stems from memory of accompanying my Mother to register to vote in AL. I watched her successfully pass a rigid, unfair test attached her Registration Application. She was one of a handful of Blacks in Tallapoosa County with that cherished privilege-one she exercised dutifully for the rest of her life.

        Race matters in every aspect of American living, especially in politics, and I hope you will have future opportunities to choose women and candidates of Color for public offices. I expect, however, this may be the last time for yet some time, to ponder or choose a Black man of Color. Savor the opportunity.

  2. The question I pose might be along the lines of previous replies, but nontheless:

    Great dialogue! I appreciate you asking and providing different ways people can engage in political action. You two creating this blog and having a World Wide Web “discussion” about it, is a “create-ive” way of engaging in political action. I really hope that others are tuning in, reading and thinking critically about ways they engage themselves in political action outside of the presidential election.
    If I may contribute to your discussion by posing this question: Do you think that the act of voting symbolizes more to our ancestor’s history than what you allude to? Like, a continued display of solidarity among coloreds and women? Yes, you are right, “our ancestors fought for their right to participate in the American political system”. So do you think by not exercising all of those fought for rights is sending a message to white America? Can you hear white folks saying, “They argued they were disenfranchised because they couldn’t vote like everyone else, but now they can they still don’t. So what was the point in keeping up that entire fuss about not being able to do something that they really didn’t care about doing?” We might as well continue on with our other create-ive ways of political activism, right?

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