Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Does it Matter Who Wins? Obama, Palin, and Strategy for Social Justice



No matter which party wins today in the presidential race, it will be an historic election. One the one hand, we might have our first African American president. On the other, we might have the first woman vice president. Either way, the end result will be an individual in a position of power who would never have been allowed there by the Founding Framers of this country.

Courtney, over at Feministing, reports on the feeling in the air in the multiracial, multicultural streets of Brooklyn, NY. If Obama wins, she writes, it will provide hope for youth, and renewed faith for elders that social justice movement can work.

Undoubtedly, we are in historic moments. Some cautionary notes:

Malcolm X, speaking in 1964, on the eve of the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, warned his audience not to be content with making reforms in the United States. He urged them to think more broadly, in terms of human rights. He said of American politics:

"Well, I am one who doesn't believe in deluding myself. I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate."

It is certainly true that an Obama administration will be different, and perhaps, more receptive to social justice concerns. But social justice will require more than just having the right people in place at the table or in the White House.

William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolishionist, refused to vote in elections because he felt it gave legitimacy to a political system that behaved immorally. I think it is problematic to think of voting as an expression of purity. There are those who will not vote for either McCain or Obama because they believe both represent compromised positions. They will vote for third party candidates, who will most certainly not win, because they cannot bring themselves to tie their fortunes to someone they consider distasteful.

There is perhaps another way to think of this. Machiavelli taught us (in the Discourses) not to think of politics as a game of virtue, or to honor our politicians because of their honorable characters. Instead, he taught that politics is an arena of struggle. If you don't participate, you risk allowing other groups into that arena who might threaten your liberty. Political action, then, ought to be strategic; how best can you defend your views? Voting should be seen as a strategic move rather than as a direct expression of your views, making sure that the political arena is open enough to allow you to manuever in it. In this sense, voting third party in U.S. elections might not be the best thing to do, since it is most certainly a wasted vote and unlikely to create any strategic space in the political arena (though it might make you feel personally good)

Garrison wrote, in 1838:

"There are those who disapprove of every form of political action, on the part of abolitionists.... We cannot yield to this reasoning. It proceeds, we think, upon a narrow view of the subject. Politics, rightly considered, is a branch of morals, and cannot be deserted innocently. …We, however, view political action chiefly as a means of agitating the subject.... To conclude this part of the subject, our true policy is not to turn party politicians, but in politics as elsewhere to stand firm by our principles, and let the politicians come to us...."

Despite whomever wins in the presidential race today, the power to make change will still depend on grassroots organizing and ordinary people who will push those in office. We will have to be strategic.

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