Sixteen years ago to the day, as a freshman in college, I finally went to bed after a long night of following returns in the Election of 2000. I rested comfortably, believing Al Gore had just narrowly defeated George W. Bush. And then I awoke to learn that he hadn’t. Over the next several weeks, my roommates and I watched nervously as the recounts continued, and as Bush v. Gore was shoved through the courts—and ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court.
Angry, deflated, and empty, I watched as Al Gore stepped aside, reaffirming the strength of our democratic institutions, and the long tradition of peaceful transfers of power between political parties after presidential contests. I was eighteen years old.
Fast forward. I’m 34 now, and as I’ve watched the mud wrestling, demagoguery, and demonstration project politics that have colored the Election of 2016, I’ve developed a deep fear for my country. I’m concerned that the great hope of the Founding Generation—that a truly republican experiment in government might actually work and persist—has been torn into a thousand little pieces. Somewhere along the way, perhaps amid our captivation with the usefulness of political parties in consolidating support amongst far flung masses of people with often competing interests, we’ve forgotten that the allegiance is owed to the people, not the party; that parties exist to serve the people, not dictate policies to them; that parties reflecting anything other than the will of those they purport to represent ought not exist at all.
Our parties have failed us.
So why do we continue to pledge our allegiance to them. Take a moment to ask yourself a simple question: Why am I registered with my party?
Think long and hard about your answer. Support it with facts, quickly devise arguments—prove it. Ask yourself how your party demonstrates its commitment to you and the values you hold dear. And if you can’t adequately defend your party, then you’ve got to ask another question. What good am I serving by voting for folks solely on the basis of the curvature of the letter next to their names? Is that intelligent?
Last week, I released my first novel. It’s called We Hold These Truths. I wrote this book, and sacrificed a lot personally to finish it, because I wanted people to see what happens when we stop questioning our politicians (including those who look and speak like us), our politics, and ourselves. While I’m truly amazed by the progress we’ve seen over the last eight years, I’m equally disgusted by how much WE THE PEOPLE left on the table.
Is hope something we’re owed? We’ve certainly been acting like it. Is change something that’s guaranteed? Please remind me of how Barack Obama shut his eyes one frigid November evening in Chicago, waved a wand, and woke up to find himself inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, because I don’t remember that one.
Today, many things are on the ballot—but Obama’s legacy isn’t the thing you should be concerned about. Your future is on the ballot. The health of our experiment in democracy is on the ballot. America is on the ballot. Will you vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s not Donald Trump? Or will you be voting for Donald Trump because he’s not Hillary Clinton? If your answer to either question is yes, you’ve got to dig deep inside yourself and ask why we aren’t demanding more of our system. Ask yourself why we’re left choosing between the most scandal-ridden politicians in modern US history.
Your vote is your voice. You’ve only got one, so don’t waste it. Don’t use it to condone systemic inertia; instead, use it like a scalpel to remove that which does not further your political and social ends; that which is inconsistent with the ideals our nation has spent more than two centuries trying to match.
You might say, “Well, what can I do? Who can I vote for?”
Aha! Now you’re using your head as something other than a hat rack.
I can’t help you with your vote today, but my advice is that you start taking action that ensures we never end up in this situation again. Start demanding more of our politicians, and OURSELVES, starting today—we have only ourselves to blame for the choices we have.
Our system is stricken by a virulent disease called complacency, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are merely symptoms of the malaise that is crippling our democracy. Recently, President Obama has taken to characterizing this election as a referendum on his legacy. It is not, and that’s precisely the wrong way to frame this election. He’s also called on democracy-loving Americans to express their dissatisfaction with Trump with their votes rather than their “boos.” Allow me to twerk his message ever so slightly.
To be sure, there is plenty to boo about, and you should do just that. Boo the fact that in 2010 many of us sat home on Election Day while a cadre of bloodthirsty conservatives took control of the House of Representatives, effectively stifling President Obama’s legislative agenda. Boo the fact that the Democratic Party still pays mere lip service to its stated goal (articulated most forcibly in election years) of expanding opportunity to the most marginalized members of our society. And finally, boo the fact that we keep electing folks who aren’t serious about the change our system must undergo in order to meet our most pressing domestic challenges: poverty, inequities in education and housing, and limited access to economic opportunity.
When the sun has set on today’s election, no matter who wins, there will be a lot to boo about. But don’t let your zeal for (or, perhaps more appropriately, against) any one candidate distract you from the larger problem we’ve got to start honing in on. The hard truth—one I know many of you don’t want to hear—is that about 40 percent of what that bigot named Donald Trump says about America is 100 percent accurate. In him, we find a personification of the worst of the complex characteristics of the American experiment in democracy: brutish, unsuccessfully successful, schizophrenic, and perhaps most dangerous, perpetually in denial.
Making America great (notice I didn’t use the qualifier “again”) has nothing to do with Hillary or Donald, and everything to do with you and me. So what are you prepared to do? Are you ready to fight an establishment that says, “Take it our way or the highway”? Let me tell you, it won’t be easy. Actually, let me just level with you completely. It will be extremely difficult, and will require major sacrifice. But our grandparents’ generation did it. Why haven’t we picked up the baton and completed the next leg of the race?
In part, because the baton keeps getting slapped out of our grasp—but we knew that would happen. The other part is that we’ve grown lazy.
We’ve permitted the significant progress we’ve seen to dampen our resolve to demand the full measure of equality and justice we still aren’t guaranteed. And in case you haven’t noticed, electing a black president didn’t do the trick. Have we already forgotten Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (took you a second, didn’t it?)? Black men are still murdered daily on the streets of a nation with a black president sitting in the White House. Think about it. There have been more mass shootings on Obama’s watch than during any prior presidency. Think about that for a few seconds too. We’ve been blinded by the partial access our system grants us, but don’t let the smooth taste fool you—Selma is happening every day in American streets.
It’s not about Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. It’s about us. What are we prepared to do to change our circumstances?
Here’s a hint: no president, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, can do for us what only we can do for ourselves. Let’s leave top-down party politics in 2016, and in 2017, let’s put the system on notice that we won’t settle for the status quo politics of lip-service progressivism simply because the other party is totally out to lunch. Let’s start voting our conscience, and let’s take the long view rather than voting out of fear of the inevitable purgatory we must suffer through in the immediate future in order to make America great. Period.
Perhaps tonight you’ll fall asleep believing your guy or gal won—and then wake up, like I did sixteen years ago, to find something different. If you look closely, you’ll see that our elections—and politics—have pretty much always been a reflection of who we are as a people. The politicians are just part of the magic act. Let’s toss the black top hat, rabbits, magic wands, and empty rhetoric into the garbage.
Today, take a long look in the mirror. What do you see?
Boo—go ahead and boo long and hard—and then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go vote your conscience. Then hold our politicians accountable, and make sure they keep their promises. But more important than that, hold yourself accountable, and stay loyal to the truths you profess to hold.