What follows is my contribution to the collection of essays to be developed on this subject by Blacklash: The Africana Collective (BTAC) for our forthcoming panel discussion and town hall. Please consider freely registering for the event and joining us that evening.
Despite many attempts to rebrand, or reinterpret him Malcolm X could not have been clearer in his approach to the vote:
…we [the OAAU] will start immediately a voter-registration drive to make an Independent voter; we propose to support and/or organize political clubs, to run Independent candidates for office, and to support any Afro-American already in office who answers to and is responsible to the Afro-American community.
Malcolm X was not advocating the prevailing “lesser of evils” approach. Malcolm X was not advocating the reduction of our platforms to a single-issue defense for supporting one or another political party whose histories and contemporary behavior make plain their disinterest in the freedom or equality of any group, much less Black people. I am a Malcolm X voter. To the extent to which electoral politics can or should be used at all toward genuine revolutionary change it can only be on the standard set by Malcolm X and his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU); an appropriate standard for any group seeking actual political power, or anything akin to sovereignty. And for what else, other than power, is there to struggle?
However, today, and far too often by people nominally of the “Left” or radically African-centered world, support for establishment, corporate, anti-Black, anti-African parties, candidates, and policies – justified by some inane claims about protecting one or another “right” – has come to dominate our political discourse and with little to no room for debate or discussion. In fact, many of those granted (lucrative) access to White and Black mainstream commercial media not only make these arguments but do so while attacking those on their political Left as if there is no logic beyond voting for, in this case, Joe Biden. This, of course, is their “Price of the Ticket” of access to such media spaces where no other form of political conversations are ever allowed.
Iconic Leftists, from across the Black political spectrum, continue to make the case that we have to vote the lesser of evil and do so every four years as if this is the election we must save for the good of the world. This has been said for decades. Most recently we were told to “Vote or Die” to prevent George Bush, Jr. Now we are told we must prevent the “existential crisis” represented by Trump while voting for a Biden campaign that now promotes itself using its now close ties to that very same Bush administration. It is just never the time to work toward, even advocate, the Malcolm X politics none would publicly decry. Never is it the right time to support, even acknowledge, the existence of other political parties. Here these “radical” Black pundits sound no different than did Michelle Obama this week when saying that we have no time for “protest” votes going to other parties. Her party won’t actually do anything for anyone but somehow the “wasted” vote is for someone else’s.
Today, we hear from, for example, Angela Davis who has come out famously in support of Biden, and Obama before him, while simultaneously representing to many the most radical of anti-capitalist and pro-woman politics. Dr. Cornel West recently tweeted a need to defend the US election in the “great tradition” of radicals like DuBois, Robeson, and Lorraine Hansberry, as though these heroic figures in their own lives and work supported mainstream politics and politicians, as if defending a Biden election is somehow part of this “great tradition” of Black radicalism. Where then is room for a discussion of what these people actually said, advocated, or did vis-à-vis the vote? This would, however, make West’s defense of Biden, Obama, Clinton, Sanders, etc. impossible. And even the African-centered intellectual giant Dr. Greg Carr has himself taken to twitter and his commercial media spots with Karen Hunter and Roland Martin to aggressively defend a vote for Biden and with vitriol only for those who would raise questions of this from his political Left.
And nowhere is there legitimate debate. Commercial media spaces will allow for conservative and reactionary conversations and for the nominally radical to score points off their rightwing colleagues. This is helpful in feeding the supporters of these “progressive” voices enough chum to keep them in liberal waters. But when challenged at all their refrain is to return safely to the confines of political canards and tropes like “defending abortion,” “LGBTQ, and minority rights,” or “liberal federal judge and supreme court” (SCOTUS) appointments. And worse, none will produce anything other than the aforementioned talking points when asked for an actual detailed argument which explains how any of these issues is worth losing universal healthcare, redistribution of created wealth, job and income protections/guarantees, an end to wars, mass surveillance and incarceration, student debt, the move toward drug legalization, and certainly the freedom of our political prisoners.
The absence of debate which includes left critics of voting or Left-of-blue politics is astounding, matched only be the condescension and ignorance around the issue. Just using the absurdity of the often repeated claim that we need to vote “Blue No Matter Who” to protect federal or SCOTUS judges I am making use of a recent article written by Samuel Moyn, professor of law at Yale. Moyn’s overarching point is that the liberal emphasis on these courts both does not return the promises of that support and, more importantly, walks us away from democracy and our ability to pass laws via Congress which would offer and protect the rights we think can only be protected by an august judiciary. I intend to use Moyn’s article and the particular canard of protecting SCOTUS or the federal judiciary to summarize my argument that: a) George Jackson was right in asking what good is the vote after the fact of monopoly capital? and b) why are we persistently encouraged by our punditry class and apparent radicals to consistently vote the lesser of evils, rather than c) radically engaging the vote perhaps in a variety of ways meant to build cohesion, political education and to heighten contradictions; i.e. becoming “Malcolm X Voters.”
For all the talk of defending a handful of “gains” or from preventing something worse, things have worsened or failed ever to really improve and, again, current patterns of voting have only seen material reality devolve from relative highs of a few decades ago which coincided with an international and domestic revolutionary activity largely absent today. Quoting a bit at length from Moyn:
On race, to take the most romanticized accomplishment, school integration in the South didn’t genuinely begin until a full ten years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), precisely because it ultimately required federal legislative action. And yet, more than sixty years after Brown, apartheid is institutionalized functionally rather than formally. There are a mere three years of progress (between 1964 and 1967) to show for those running victory laps for the judiciary. Distressingly, data shows that school integration in the North, achieved only partially there to begin with, has been even more undone.
It would be lovely to rely on juristocrats if they patrolled the procedures of the democratic process itself, making sure winners could not lock in their gains by gaming the rules in elections. Surely the judicial affirmation in the United States of basic principles—since they are absent from the Constitution itself—that everyone’s vote ought to be treated equally is worth flagging. But the judiciary has never done much to reinforce the representation of racial minorities. Its more recent track record on this subject has been particularly abysmal (emphasis added).
Then there is class. The drive for the moderation of economic inequality was the central explanation for the democratic victory of progressives under Roosevelt, and the success of their campaign essentially required judges to get out of the way. But even at the high tide of their political ascendancy, liberals couldn’t get the Supreme Court to commit to distributive entitlements of any kind. Neither a welfare state for the least advantaged, nor broader egalitarian justice in the country, is there for even the most creative judges to find under the Constitution’s authority—even assuming a transformed bench.
In short, progressives have little to lose and much to gain by leaving juristocracy to the enemies of democracy. Abandoning judicial politics in a kind of “unilateral disarmament” may seem like a foolish move. But liberals have already lost the race for the heavy weaponry of judicial control of democracy, and they can advocate for the people more consistently and less hypocritically if they press their policies democratically. There is simply no way to restrict judicial activism to one’s preferred causes any more than you can introduce a weapon in a fight with the guarantee that it will only hurt your enemies.
Lately the enthusiasm for judicial empowerment has taken the form of unseemly heroine worship, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor elevated to the status of secular saints. It is a kind of juristocratic feminism among legal elites to match the reigning neoliberal one among the professional class in general. But instead of merely reviling judges on the other side of the ideological divide while worshiping one’s own, in a pantheon of angels and demons, any serious democrat should reject the religion of the judiciary itself. Other liberals trying to get through a dark night are clinging to the hope that, cajoled by strategic genius Elena Kagan, John Roberts might tack to the center in a few crucial cases. The truth is that the prospect of a “centrist” coalition is more of an anxious fantasy than a political opportunity. Even if it works, it is a distinct improvement on full-scale reaction at the Supreme Court in the same way that a chronic disease is better than a terminal diagnosis (emphasis added).
Many reform schemes circle around restoring partisan equilibrium and undergirding the “legitimacy” of the institution that right-wing hijinks have eroded. That approach would be less embarrassing had liberals not spent generations ceding reform arguments, like the democratic premise itself, to the right, in their zeal to present the Supreme Court as a legitimate source of rule as long as they controlled it. Yet the real problem with the liberal cause is not really that it lost control of the judicial power it built but that it built it in the first place.
The point made by Samuel Moyn, that outsized power given to SCOTUS discourages society’s own democratic self-governance and derives in recent history mostly from liberal fantasy of the court, reflects so much of our own confusion over Black liberation and electoral politics. When we are encouraged away from radical engagement or disengagement from the vote due to a need to protect courts we are being further encouraged to our own abdication of self-governance and sovereignty. Moyn again:
It has been a disaster for the democratic premise that the people themselves choose their own arrangements, shunting decision-making to a council of elders supposedly possessed of unique wisdom. And in exchange for its antidemocratic premises, juristocracy has not delivered the goods that popular interests and needs require. Only democratic politics can (emphasis added).
Even Moyn seems to know what many of our brightest Africanists do not, that our empty and disorganized transfer of power to another’s “council of elders” assures that our own potential power will be transferred as well.
But juristocracy is a congenitally American malady. Turning to judges as secret agents of political transformation is quite another matter. When the U.S. Constitution first became attractive in the late nineteenth century, it was among conservatives facing the frightening prospect of mass suffrage and finding in James Madison’s handiwork a device for potentially weathering the coming tempest.
And who was Madison other than the enslaving brute who divined a system of “representation” which would assure forever that the vote could not be used to make significant change by the aggrieved and oppressed created by Madison’s protected “minority” of rich White men?
In the end, the crux of my own question for us, what “gains” have we really achieved or can hope to achieve by maintaining current mainstream adherence to blind and politically empty voting patterns, is summed up again by Moyn:
The returns for converting democratic politics into judicial selection have been very meager for the left. The point is not to gainsay some good things that judges did at the zenith of liberal power. But it is worth asking whether the courts were necessary to the outcomes—and whether it was worth depending on an antidemocratic power that the right has now turned against progressives.
 Jared A. Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs. A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X. Black Classic Press. Kindle Edition.