In a recent essay in Time, “The Black Vote: History Demands a Strategy for Change,” Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. and Frederick C. Harris suggest that on Election Day, Black voters in states dominated by Republicans should cast a blank ballot for the Presidency, while voters in pivotal states should turn out for Clinton in massive numbers. I appreciated the audacity (in the best sense of the word) of their argument, and Glaude and Harris are absolutely correct that the Democrats have taken the Black vote for granted despite needing it desperately each election season. The authors are also correct that Democrats have advanced policies like the War on Drugs that have contributed to the crisis that Black America faces. At the same time, the Democratic Party’s failure to build energy around measures for equality, its recurring fear of losing conservative white voters, and its wholesale embrace of neoliberalism have left it without the power or will to enact the structural change necessary to address Black America’s deepening inequality crisis.
As Glaude and Harris point out, many Black Democratic politicians have been complicit. While they may use exciting social-justice rhetoric, in practice they have had a tendency to conclude that open pressure on Democrats somehow provided aid and comfort to the political Right.
It almost goes without saying such criticisms are correct — and that much more could be said. Yet I believe their proposal misses the mark. It is a tactic in need of a strategy — a tactic that is the equivalent of setting off a cherry bomb. It would create quite a noise and be very damaging, potentially, while producing nothing but smoke. Here’s why.
This is an election that necessitates a mass mobilization on an almost unprecedented scale. There are no “safe states” in the face of Trump’s white nationalist and irrationalist candidacy. The situation is highly unstable. In that sense I borrow from Malcolm X who, when asked about the South, responded that “the South is everything south of the Canadian border.” In our current situation, that is as true as ever. The pivotal states are all those south of the Canadian border. Those who believe that they can choose not to vote or vote independent in so-called safe states are making a risky assumption. I unite with Glaude and Harris on the importance of massive voter turnout in swing states, but I do not limit my call to just swing states.
A related problem is that, while Glaude and Harris argue that “blank voting” would be for so-called red states, my concern is that people will not vote at all. This could have ramifications on “down ballot” races that, in many of these red states, remain competitive. Nothing should be argued or advanced that gives any potential voter the idea that they can take a pass on November 8.
The deeper problem is that we need a long-term electoral strategy that addresses the legitimate concerns raised by Glaude and Harris.
Through the emergence of the Tea Party, the right wing has demonstrated what can be done via an electoral “insurrection.” Progressives must do likewise within the Democratic Party, and Black voters need to lead such an effort. The problem is that this cannot be reserved for one day every four years. The Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrated that there is a very large mass base for alternative progressive politics. The campaign was weak on matters of race and gender, yet there were, and remain, openings for Black voters to shift the discussion.
What does this ultimately mean? Here are a few suggestions:
- Immediately after the November election, irrespective of who wins, there needs to be a state-by-state gathering of progressives who are committed to working both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, in order to begin the process of mapping out a strategy to win power within the states. This is not a nominating convention, and it is certainly more than voter registration. It is a gathering of those who wish to ask and answer the question: how do we win power in these various states?
- Black electoral activists need to play a leading role in convening such discussions. One of the biggest problems when electoral strategy is discussed is that the leadership comes from whites, and those of us of color are add-ons. It’s time for us to flip the script. Black electoral activists need to help to define the strategy from the beginning.
- In states that allow ballot initiatives, they are a critical tool to advance progressive propositions, particularly those that have an impact on Black America. Even where they do not succeed, they can help lay the foundation for the sorts of progressive electoral coalitions that need to be constructed in order to ultimately win. Ballot initiatives are also frequently an effective means to build voter turnout, because the issues are right there in front of everyone.
- Our electoral work needs to involve massive political and economic education. This goes far beyond traditional voter education. The statewide electoral projects that progressives advance need to have an educational component that reaches far and deep, particularly into communities that have been marginalized. That means education programs that reach into religious institutions and community associations, as well as on the web. We must engage the population — and we Black activists must take a special role here — in helping to create a framework that explains the crisis the USA is undergoing: the declining living standard; the rise of white nationalism and misogyny; and what can be done to reverse course.
While the Glaude/Harris essay is a shot across the bow of the Democratic Party, it is not a strategic one. This election — featuring a white nationalist candidacy backed by neofascists and secessionists — is of decisive importance. Our signals must be clear to all sane voters: Defeat Trump!
Yet, as Glaude and Harris correctly note, that is simply not enough. We need a longer-term strategy that, while largely fighting out key battles within the context of the Democratic Party, introduces a political shift that advances the needs, desires and visions of the dispossessed, including but not limited to the Black voter.