In the interest of full disclosure, let me begin by saying that I am a registered independent in North Carolina, and that last week, I cast my presidential ballot for Barack Obama. But despite the fact that I clearly felt it was important to exercise this right, I’m still not sure that my vote “counted” in any important way. And when I say that this vote for president didn’t “count,” I don’t mean it in the well worn numerical sense that we see every election cycle. I don’t mean that my vote is but one drop in the bucket and I cannot personally change the outcome of the election––for indeed, if we stopped doing all the things in our lives that do not have a concrete statistical correlation to outcomes and realities, we would simply retreat to our most base instincts. Rather, I mean to say that, unfortunately, I’m not convinced that life under either of the two candidates would be radically different. Both are interested in continuing the unchecked advance of deregulated free-market capitalism, both candidates will continue to perpetuate the Bush-era logic of drone strikes and kill lists, and (although I know that many of my most progressive friends will not like to hear this) I do not believe that either candidate will take concrete steps to change the second-class status that our LGBTQ brothers and sisters currently have in the political conversation. I would obviously be happy to have either candidate prove me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.
And when I hear the kinds of promises that candidates do actually make on the campaign trail––to create jobs, to enforce a certain interpretation of the constitution, to repeal certain specific pieces of legislation, etc.––I often wonder whether either of them has any idea what powers the President of the United States actually has. As I remember from my 9th grade civics class, it seems that those three promises I just mentioned would fall under the purview of the free market, the Supreme Court, and the Legislature respectively, not solely on the shoulders of the President. I’m obviously not saying that the personality of the President does not have some effect on broader political culture in Washington, but I am saying that it is this broader culture who ultimately makes these types of determinations, not the President himself.
Now, of course, I know that there is a tremendous amount of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to the contrary of what I’ve just said. Please understand that many of the frustrations expressed in the above two paragraphs are born out of a personal sense of disappointment from someone who was raised to believe that presidential politics mattered tremendously. But before the trolls descend on the comments section below to defend what I’ve railed against in the first half of this post, please listen to what I’m advocating in the second half.
For the past three years, I have had the tremendous honor of working with Durham CAN, a non-partisan, multi-racial, multi-faith, grassroots political organization here in Durham County, as well as its statewide counterpart, NC United Power. And what I have learned from my time with these organizations is this: local politics matters tremendously. You know the back of your ballot that you simply bubble in with Christmas trees or judge based on the comedic value of the candidates names? Well, those are the folks who make decisions on a daily basis that actually affect your communities. On the one hand, this can be somewhat disheartening and even terrifying. Realizing the personal identities of those responsible for the ills of “government” which are so often abstracted reminds us that we are to blame for so many of the problems we see around us. Back over the summer, I wrote about some of my personal frustrations with the state legislature here in North Carolina.
But on the other hand, this conceptual shift to the grassroots level reminds us that the means and tools of political change are always within our grasp. I have been able to witness the concrete effects of Durham CAN’s political actions in the voices of those Latino parents whose public schools now have more Spanish-to-English translators, in the bank accounts of those Durham City, Durham County, and Duke University employees who now make a living wage, and in the faces of those veterans and homeless who will receive assistance from fully-funded government programs thanks to our efforts. These are political changes that affect more than some abstract or existential feeling we might have about how “moral” or “Christian” our government is at any given time. It is through fighting these battles at the local level that we actually win or lose the political game altogether.
So as many of you go vote today, I encourage you to take some time and find out a little bit about your local elections and discover some concrete ways to get involved in the political process at the city or county level. Because regardless of who is elected president, those same public servants will be in your communities, making decisions that affect all of us. And if we don’t exercise our democratic rights on those folks, who will?