Dr Boyce Watkins: A message to black people who don’t want to vote – Your choice is perfectly fine
By Dr Boyce Watkins
I never grew up wanting to start trouble or make anybody mad. But since I was a child, it just kept happening. In fact, my mother used to say, “Boy, your mouth will either make you great or get you killed, I’m curious to see which one.”
This nasty habit of calling it like I see it only got worse as I obtained more and more education. By the time I finished my PhD, I was upsetting nearly everyone. But the truth is that, deep down, I didn’t care much if anyone liked me. Instead, I wanted people to simply listen to each other and consider alternative points of view.
Much of what I am going to say flies in the face of generations of political logic in the African American community. It might make your grandmother so mad that she might take off her church hat and hit me in the head with a piece of hard candy. But I am going to lay this out on the table of ideas for all of us to consider as we work together to make our community strong.
We’ve seen public figures on TV dancing and singing for Hillary Clinton, or believing that Bill Clinton was a cool dude because he could play the saxophone. We are often reminded by the Democratic politicians who show up in black churches to eat barbecue with the pastor that our ancestors died for us to have the right to vote. We also hear repetitive slogans like, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” or that voting for the Democrats will keep the “scary” Republicans out of office. I even saw one poor lady tell me that she was putting her picture of Barack Obama right next to her pictures of Martin Luther King and Jesus.
Some of these arguments make sense. After all, voting is an important right that should be enjoyed by all American citizens, even those who are incarcerated. In fact, when Democracy is done the right way, it can be special and liberating.
But here’s the problem. As noted political science professor Wilmer Leon once stated, “Our ancestors died for us to have the RIGHT to vote, but not the obligation.” Therefore, when you are forced to choose between two horrific options, you’re being told to exercise artificial freedom within the context of political slavery. In other words, it’s like me telling you that you have the RIGHT to choose which meal you want to eat, when I’ve closed off 99.9% of all food options to begin with.
That’s not freedom, and it’s not democracy. Some might say it’s the ultimate mind f*ck.
Here’s another problem with telling people that they absolutely have to vote. Forcing someone to vote actually takes away an important political strategy that also serves as a cornerstone of a working democracy: The credible threat of a political exit.
Let me explain it like this: A woman is stuck between two mediocre men. One of the men, her boyfriend, beats her. The other man, if she were to ever choose him, would steal money from her on a regular basis. Neither choice is any good, so she may feel forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. So, she chooses her boyfriend, who reminds her: “If it weren’t for me, you’d be getting robbed every day. I am here to protect you.”
In this situation (the kind that is often studied in a science called Game Theory), the woman has three choices:
- Protest her boyfriend’s behavior and hope that he changes his actions
- Leave her current boyfriend and either date the other guy, find someone else, or not date anyone at all
- Stay with her current man, remain loyal and let him keep beating her
The problem is that most behavioral scientists and game theorists agree that the person you are loyal to is not going to change their behavior if you have no ability to make a credible threat. Meaning, if they know that they are going to have you around no matter what, they are going to take you for granted. Politicians are logical people, so they understand this about the African American community.
So, the translation here is that, when it comes to worthless Democratic politicians, black people have three options:
- Keep yelling, screaming and protesting the blatant disrespect coming from the Democratic Party
- Leave the party to support another party, a third party, abstain from voting or form our own party
- Stay with the Democratic Party and keep giving them our votes, even though our condition seems to keep getting worse under the Democrats
Political scientists explain clearly that simply remaining loyal and doing nothing means that you are lacking a critical aspect of your bargaining capability: The credible threat of leaving. In other words, because you have nowhere else to do, you are going to keep voting for them. So, the only logical move on their part is to keep ignoring you. In fact, most Game Theoretic models would conclude that any group that is as loyal as the black community should receive very little political attention.
The fact is that we are seen as a political necessity, but also as a joke.
So, if black people want to gain the political power we desire in this country, it’s critically important that we lay all options on the table. This means realizing that the 2016 election is just one of many elections we’re going to participate in. While abstaining from voting, or supporting another party may seem to be a losing proposition, it is only a loss if you’re short-sighted. Actually, according to Game Theoretic Models, a mass exodus of the African American community would actually do the following:
- Wake up the Democratic Party and get them to work harder for our vote
- Let the Republicans know that we are up for grabs and get them to consider shifting their policies
- Strengthen a third party option for future elections so that we might actually have real choice instead of the illusion of choice.
The bottom line is this: If you play checkers, then voting for the Democrats makes sense. If you play chess, you’re thinking several moves ahead. Checkers is a game for one-dimensional, short-sighted thinking. Chess is a game where you might lose in the short-run to gain in the long-run; you may lose the battle, but ultimately win the war. In a free society, you should be encouraged to consider all options.
The problem for black people is that you have a lot of elite, well-connected, high-profile black people (many of whom might work for your favorite urban radio stations) who are being directly compensated to tell you how to vote. These people are NOT your friends and they do not have the best interests of the black community at heart. Instead, they are seeking to advance their own wealth and fame by assimilating into the pre-existing, white supremacist power structure.
The interesting fact is that by forcing you to make a choice, they are actually eliminating your ability to make a choice at all. This is unethical, destructive, unfair and hurtful to the African American community. Anyone who cares about black people won’t tolerate the suppression of our rights as American citizens.
At the end of the day, the choice is yours. But as you think about how to play this game, just ask yourself if you’re playing checkers or chess, and which outcome is going to be best for your community. The fact is that by doing what we’ve always been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve already received. Maybe this time, we can try something different and maybe shake things up.