Why I’m Voting for Barack Obama
Fredrick C. Harris brilliantly articulates the failure of black intellectuals to hold President Obama to the same measure of critique afforded to prior presidents such as George W. Bush or the popular (among African Americans) Bill Clinton. Harris correctly argues that,
[T]he triumph of “post-racial” Democratic politics has not been a triumph for African-Americans in the aggregate. It has failed to arrest the growing chasm of income and wealth inequality; to improve prospects for social and economic mobility; to halt the re-segregation of public schools and narrow the black-white achievement gap; and to prevent the Supreme Court from eroding the last vestiges of affirmative action.
The prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, regardless of political winds or social pressures, has a long history. Ida B. Wells risked her life to publicize the atrocity of lynching; W. E. B. Du Bois linked the struggle against racial injustice to anticolonial movements around the world; Cornel West continues to warn of the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism” that King identified a year before his death. But that prophetic tradition is on the wane.
Harris concludes that despite Obama’s shortcomings, he deserves African American electoral support–though met with harsher intellectual critique. Disappointingly, Harris fails to build a case supporting Obama’s reelection bid; conversely, arguments against Obama have become seemingly ubiquitous in recent weeks. Conor Friedersdorf makes a civil liberties case against Obama, while most recently Matt Stoller argues that Obama’s presidency has led to greater social and economic inequities.
Friedersdorf, Stoller and others have persuasively articulated Obama’s shortcomings and I’ve great sympathy for their respective positions. I’ve never been an Obama fan, either as a presidential candidate or as president, or quite understood the adulation and reverence he commands; I’ve always viewed him as the lesser of two evils.
But I voted for Obama in 2008–and will do so again this year–because, as Jamelle Bouie reminds us, “presidential elections are not the place where meaningful change occurs.” Social change does not occur on election day; presidential elections underscore the importance of speaking truth to power and organized constituencies. Perhaps there is little that distinguishes Obama from Mitt Romney, but what is a voter to do? You’ve two options, sit out the election or make a protest vote. Lesser of two evils permeates our political system; there are no perfect candidates, and in almost every scenario we as voters are asked to compromise our core values.
Electoral politics is the practice of lesser of two evils; I propose we devote more intellectual energy to speaking truth to power and concerning ourselves with how meaningful change happens. It requires more work and is far more daunting an activity than voting. But whether Obama, Romney or Gary Johnson, the trajectory of American political culture is unlikely to change unless we rediscover the prophetic voice of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois.