The 2008 presidential election was my generation’s 1992 or 1960. It was a moment brimming with hope and what many believed would be an equal amount of change in the country. The United States had just elected its first African American president, making everything else seem immediately possible. So when the new president promised to usher in a round of progressive reforms, we held our breaths like children with their faces pressed against the window on Christmas Eve.
Six years and one re-election later, progressive voters are feeling forgotten and ignored. Latinos doubly so. While Latino progressives want the same thing non-Latino progressive want —universal health care, closing of Guantanamo, equal rights for the LGBT community, a less militaristic approach to foreign relations, etc.— Latinos are understandably incensed that their one unifying issue, immigration reform, has been kicked down the road like a rusty can by Obama and the Democrats, while the Republicans just don’t care.
When Obama announced he would delay taking executive action until after the November election, reneging on his earlier promise to take action during the summer, a few Latinos threw up theirs arms and decided that a boycott of the midterm elections would punish the Democrats and serve as a warning to any party that dares neglect Latino voters.
This “Don’t vote” mentality is particularly popular with some young Latino voters, with the belief that it would somehow lead to a destabilization of America’s political system. Mostly these young voters are just angry and won’t vote out of spite, as a jilted lover might apply the silent treatment. However, some are genuinely annoyed by how the Democrats and the Republicans tend to behave like two wings of the same corporate-sponsored party preserving the status quo.
Let’s consider that last point for a second, because it seems to be a running theme nowadays. It’s true that the Democratic and Republican parties are alike in too many ways, specifically in their approach to financial reform and foreign policy. As it stands, one could argue that the Democrats are a centrist party (or even center-right), whereas as the GOP is a right-wing party controlled at times by its far-right fringe. The point is there isn’t a truly progressive party with any actual influence in American politics.
Were the Democrats and the Republicans effectively members of the same party —which I don’t believe is true— boycotting an election or two would change next to nothing. If, on the other hand, the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is substantial, then not voting for the Democrats, and allowing the Republicans to gain greater influence in various levels of government, would work against the goals of progressive Latino voters. Ultimately, the “Don’t vote” strategy is either pointless or harmful.
A person’s stance on voting depends on if they view voting as a top-down or a bottom-up affair: that is, whether they think the government controls society or vice versa. No one could hardly be blamed for believing that society is ruled by a government which itself is puppeteered by big money. But there are plenty of times in the nation’s history when grassroots movements brought about major changes that the powers fought all the way through—the Civil Rights Movement being the most prominent.
Nonetheless, no one can convince me that voting isn’t a powerful tool of the masses when every election year I see one party trying to suppress voters and major corporations spending billions of dollars trying to buy results. At the end of the day, after all that money is spent, after the weeks of attack ads and misinformation are in the books, whichever candidate receives the most votes wins (except for that one time in 2000). So many people wouldn’t spend so much time and energy trying to control the outcomes of illusionary elections if votes didn’t matter.
Whenever I hear people talk about the government as though it were an entity separate from the American people and outside of their control, I’m reminded of my favorite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” Simply replace “man” with government and “woman” with voter, and you get the gist of representative democracy.
Of course, Latinos shouldn’t simply tow the party line and vote faithfully for the Democratic ticket. Voting for someone who doesn’t represent your interests is crazy and truly undermines the system. Nonetheless, telling Latinos not to show up to the polls on Election Day is even crazier.
To start, it must be said that Latinos don’t exactly have the best track record of showing up to the polls. Even during all the excitement of 2008, Latino voter turnout was still less than 50 percent, and Latinos continue voting at a far lower rate than both whites and blacks. Latinos need to build a tradition of turning out in solid numbers on Election Day before they can even begin threatening to boycott. After all, boycotting a business only works with a pool of regular customers; according to the numbers, Latinos have been boycotting the democratic process for years. Maybe a lack of Latino votes is the problem. Not enough muscle strength in that neck.
Plus, while many Democrats have betrayed the trust of their constituents by giving in to big business or the Republican Party (redundant?), there are some Democrats who are doing what they can to see to it that the interests of progressives are heard in the halls of Congress.The most emblematic is Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, who at the moment is contemplating a bid for the White House in 2016. If Sanders does choose to run against the Democrat’s presumptive heiress, Hillary Clinton, he’ll be the strongest, most authentic candidate the party has offered up in decades—assuming he chooses to run on the Democratic ticket, as he’s currently the longest-serving independent to serve in Congress in U.S. history.
In my home state of Illinois, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez has been an outspoken leader on many of the progressive issues I’ve mentioned, mostly notably on immigration reform, having first introduced the DREAM Act bill way back in 2001. Months later he was joined by Senator Dick Durbin, also from Illinois, and the two have consistently championed the immigrant cause in their respective chambers ever since, often voicing their disagreement with the government’s policy toward immigrants no matter who’s sitting behind the president’s desk.
Senator Durbin is facing a strong challenge by rich investment manager backed by the Tea Party, and any progressive Latino in Illinois would be a fool to boycott that election. There are bound to be other Democratic representative across the country with similar records of fighting for the kind of changes that the party is supposed to advocate. Those are the very people who deserve to be reelected.
I understand the frustration many Latinos feel toward the countries two governing parties, but abstaining from the democratic process doesn’t do anyone any good, except those who want to enact policy antithetical to the Latino population. If Latinos really want to make their presence known, they should try to show up in big numbers—say, at least more than 50 percent. Show up and vote for the people who represent you and vote against those who don’t, no matter what party they belong to. There are a number of decent third-party candidates running for local, state and national offices. Vote your conscience.
The last thing Latinos should do is stay home on Election Day. Especially when that’s basically what the system wants and expects them to do.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.