Summary: By making traditional political engagement a set of behaviors that is associated with judgement, blame and shame, we only alienate populations from politics. We must resist messages from politicians that encourage us to blame our own communities for today’s socio-political climate. If we want to create a more just and sustainable world, we cannot ignore the importance of affirming emotional practice when developing and supporting the political habits of others.
In the days leading up to the 2014 mid-term elections, one of the things I became increasingly aware of was the psycho-emotional tone of liberal Get Out the Vote efforts. There seemed to be a generalized panic around whether or not millennials and black Americans (of all ages), would show up to vote. As a result, on voting day I found myself encumbered by status messages, memes and articles, that sought to shame, scare and push everyone within a one hundred mile radius to vote.
The picture at the top of this blog, is an example of such a effort. According to BET.com “Rev. Joy Thornton, the senior pastor of Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis [used] an image of the lynching of two Black teenagers from 1930 to get people to the polls…”
The pastor was not alone, throughout the day I saw memes that featured Civil Right’s activists, images from Selma, images of lynched black Americans, and a number of other emotionally charged photos that all sought to impart that if you did not vote, the efforts of these ancestors were in vain.
The emotions of the day were very much about shame, blame and fear.
Pointing Fingers After the Election
Following the election, the emotional sentiment seems to have remained the same.
After the GOP won the Senate and the House, I’ve noticed a number of folks on twitter and facebook pointing fingers. The general mantra seems to be somewhere along the lines of “I hope that all of you who didn’t vote are happy, now Obama is never going to be able to get anything done.” There seems to be a strong sentiment that had young people and black Americans turned out in larger numbers, all would be well politically.
What Actually Kept People from Voting
These sentiments totally ignore the socio-structural barriers put in place by lawmakers prior to the election, that deliberately made voting difficult for certain populations. Intense voting ID laws, voting irregularities and long lines deterred voters all over the country.
How Blaming Others Reduces Future Political Participation
The problem with this culture of political blame is that it fails to hold politicians in power responsible for systematically disenfranchising populations. Instead, the last few election cycles have been successful in priming African American voters, especially those with higher levels of education, to point to a lack of voting within their own community as the problem, even after record breaking turnouts in 2008 and 2010. The reality of the thing is this; even after multiple election years with record turnout, Obama is still one of the most fiscally conservative presidents we’ve ever had. Could some of this be blamed on the GOP-led Congress? Somewhat. But at some-point, marginalized communities, particularly middle-class communities of color have to be willing to accept that Obama just didn’t pursue the agenda items he said he would, period.
There seems to be a fundamental unwillingness to hold current government responsible. Instead, Obama and his team have asked us to blame each other. Over the last seven years the Obama rhetoric has been very consistent: black young men need to “pull up their pants,” our “cousin pookie” needs to show up to vote and our communities need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
By turning on one another and making traditional political engagement (voting, organizational work, protests, etc…) a set of behaviors that is associated with judgement, blame and shame, we only further alienate marginalized populations. If all folks know is “if I don’t vote people are going to judge me and make me feel bad” more often than not those folks will just silently not turn out. This is why the shape and form of our communication about politics matters so much. It may sound hokey to talk about kindness and joy in relationship to politics, but without a positive emotional foundation underneath our political practice, it is unrealistic to expect enthusiastic and consistent participation of any kind.
Responsibly Creating Joy in Our Political Practice
Our words develop the citizens around us. As a community we must take responsibility for making political engagement a joy-filled and encouraging experience. No matter the age of the person we are talking to, I believe that we have to take responsibility for the emotions we teach others to associate with politics.
For me, the central question is, as individuals, how can we be more responsible about who we hold accountable for American socio-political life?
I cannot encourage you enough to think critically as days continue to pass by in the aftermath of the midterm elections. Make sure that in your speech you are supporting and affirming of all of the members of your community, young and old, even if their political engagement didn’t match your own this time around. Beyond that, consider shifting your sense of blame from your fellow community members, to the politicians who perhaps have not been doing their job or keeping their promises