W.E.B. Du Bois wouldn’t vote in 1956. Now, 60 years later, his reasons still matter
W.E.B. Du Bois was a prolific Black scholar and educator. He was also a writer whose critiques of American democracy and racial inequality in this country have resonated with every generation since each of his published works appeared for mass consumption. Now, faced with an election where many young people are asking themselves, “Should I vote for Hillary Clinton just to prevent a Trump presidency?” Du Bois’ strong reasons for avoiding the polls 60 years ago seem all the more relevant.
In the Nation, in 1956, Du Bois wrote this:
In 1956, I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say. There is no third party. On the Presidential ballot in a few states (seventeen in 1952), a “Socialist” Party will appear. Few will hear its appeal because it will have almost no opportunity to take part in the campaign and explain its platform. If a voter organizes or advocates a real third-party movement, he may be accused of seeking to overthrow this government by “force and violence.” Anything he advocates by way of significant reform will be called “Communist” and will of necessity be Communist in the sense that it must advocate such things as government ownership of the means of production; government in business; the limitation of private profit; social medicine, government housing and federal aid to education; the total abolition of race bias; and the welfare state.
These things are on every Communist program; these things are the aim of socialism. Any American who advocates them today, no matter how sincerely, stands in danger of losing his job, surrendering his social status and perhaps landing in jail. The witnesses against him may be liars or insane or criminals. These witnesses need give no proof for their charges and may not even be known or appear in person. They may be in the pay of the United States Government. A.D.A.’s and “Liberals” are not third parties; they seek to act as tails to kites. But since the kites are self-propelled and radar-controlled, tails are quite superfluous and rather silly.
Du Bois’ clear disillusionment with the political process looks eerily similar to our own today. The choice between a tyrant and a tyrant of another gender seems to be the conundrum we are facing.
In the case of Trump, it seems some are saying that a decision not to vote is the same as not voting at all (a patently false equivalency meant to strong arm us into supporting the Democrat). In the case of Clinton, the DNC has spent days trying to convince us that she is breaking barriers and is invested in communities of color. But, honestly, we have receipts.
Du Bois troubled with some of these same issues so long ago.
I have no advice for others in this election. Are you voting Democratic? Well and good; all I ask is why? Are you voting for Eisenhower and his smooth team of bright ghost writers? Again, why? Will your helpless vote either way support or restore democracy to America?
His questions underscore the ways that minority voters are often called to support a system and party candidates who do little more than offer rhetoric and jargon to changing our political landscape.
He finished by delivering a searing message about the loss of democracy in American politics.
You will take large part and bravely march to the polls, and that also will make no difference. Stop running Russia and giving Chinese advice when we cannot rule ourselves decently. Stop yelling about a democracy we do not have. Democracy is dead in the United States. Yet there is still nothing to replace real democracy. Drop the chains, then, that bind our brains. Drive the money-changers from the seats of the Cabinet and the halls of Congress. Call back some faint spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln,and when again we can hold a fair election on real issues, let’s vote, and not till then. Is this impossible? Then democracy in America is impossible.
Du Bois couldn’t be any clearer: our votes don’t really matter in a system that isn’t committed to changing the conditions facing marginalized groups. In fact, elections themselves aren’t even fair enough to ensure that each of our votes will be counted. Is this the time to hold our political leaders accountable or press forward and prevent a Trump presidency?
The question is simple: What are you going to do in November 2016?
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