I know. I was surprised at the notion myself. A tireless champion of Civil Rights, a participant of the Niagra Movement and one of the founders of the NAACP, one would expect DuBois to argue the moral responsibility of voting–particularly for a people recently disenfranchised.
But in a piece entitled, “Why I Won’t Vote,” delivered on October 20, 1956, DuBois made an eloquent case for not voting at all. The entire speech really should be read; it’s haunting in its description of themes and tensions in 1956 that could as easily apply to 2012. DuBois begins with a kind of biography of his voting record:
Since I was twenty-one in 1889, I have in theory followed the voting plan strongly advocated by Sidney Lens in The Nation of August 4, i.e., voting for a third party even when its chances were hopeless, if the main parties were unsatisfactory; or, in absence of a third choice, voting for the lesser of two evils. My action, however, had to be limited by the candidates’ attitude toward Negroes. Of my adult life, I have spent twenty-three years living and teaching in the South, where my voting choice was not asked. I was disfranchised by law or administration. In the North I lived in all thirty-two years, covering eight Presidential elections. In 1912 I wanted to support Theodore Roosevelt, but his Bull Moose convention dodged the Negro problem and I tried to help elect Wilson as a liberal Southerner. Under Wilson came the worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that we had experienced since the Civil War. In 1916 I took Hughes as the lesser of two evils. He promised Negroes nothing and kept his word. In 1920, I supported Harding because of his promise to liberate Haiti. In 1924, I voted for La Follette, although I knew he could not be elected. In 1928, Negroes faced absolute dilemma. Neither Hoover nor Smith wanted the Negro vote and both publicly insulted us. I voted for Norman Thomas and the Socialists, although the Socialists had attempted to Jim Crow Negro members in the South. In 1932 I voted for Franklin Roosevelt, since Hoover was unthinkable and Roosevelt’s attitude toward workers most realistic. I was again in the South from 1934 until 1944. Technically I could vote, but the election in which I could vote was a farce. The real election was the White Primary.
Then he comes to explain the dilemma of the 1956 election:
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.
For DuBois, democracy must entail genuine choice and the proper exercise of voting rights requires actual alternatives. The “lesser of two evils” was not for him the modus operandi but a terrible exception. He would view the now commonplace strategy of voting for the “lesser evil” as a terrible indictment against the entire system. He insisted that voters ought to have a more compelling reason for casting their lot than “this guy isn’t as bad as the other guy.” He denied that a “helpless vote” could restore or bolster American democracy.
So, he protested and “voted” by not voting. This election a small number of African-American pastors are telling their congregations that there is no “lesser evil” with the two parties. These pastors recommend that their members not vote. For their efforts, a much larger collection of ministers will vilify them and proclaim they betray the long struggle for the franchise. But I wonder what the majority would say to DuBois? I wonder if the majority see with as much clarity, insight, and foresight as DuBois did in 1956? I doubt it because no one seems to see the continuing deterioration of the country. Oh, I know that people on both “sides” decry the other side as the rot weakening America. But that’s just election year rhetoric, partisan prerequisites, senseless soundbites–not real analysis and thinking.
And as DuBois could see in 1956, there’s no real difference between the two parties. Bush bailed out banks; Obama bailed out auto manufacturers. Bush responded to 9/11 by taking us to war; Obama has continued the war. Bush didn’t put an end to abortion; Obama would multiply them. The differences are slight to non-existent. Both parties are destroying America because both parties live, not for America, but for the party.
Is this despair talking? Some might think so. Apparently DuBois faced the same criticism. He answered it head on and eloquently:
Is the refusal to vote in this phony election a counsel of despair? No, it is dogged hope. It is hope that if twenty-five million voters refrain from voting in 1956 because of their own accord and not because of a sly wink from Khrushchev, this might make the American people ask how much longer this dumb farce can proceed without even a whimper of protest. Yet if we protest, off the nation goes to Russia and China. Fifty-five American ministers and philanthropists are asking the Soviet Union “to face manfully the doubts and promptings of their conscience.” Can not these do-gooders face their own consciences? Can they not see that American culture is rotting away: our honesty, our human sympathy; our literature, save what we import from abroad? Our only “review” of literature has wisely dropped “literature” from its name. Our manners are gone and the one thing we want is to be rich–to show off. Success is measured by income. University education is for income, not culture, and is partially supported by private industry. We are not training poets or musicians, but atomic engineers. Business is built on successful lying called advertising. We want money in vast amount, no matter how we get it. So we have it, and what then?
Is the answer the election of 1956? We can make a sick man President and set him to a job which would strain a man in robust health. So he dies, and what do we get to lead us? With Stevenson and Nixon, with Eisenhower and Eastland, we remain in the same mess. I will be no party to it and that will make little difference. 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.
I would never presume to tell others how to exercise their conscience on this matter. I would simply ask, as DuBois did, “Why are you voting the way you are?” Unless something dramatic happens in the following weeks, something far more substantive than tonight’s over-scripted debate, I’m “voting” by not voting. To quote Luther: “My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. And to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”