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The W.E.B. Du Bois Argument for Not Voting in a ‘Phony Election’

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As President Obama made an impassioned case for a Hillary Clinton presidency on the third night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Penn., some delegates booed at the mention of Republican opponent Donald Trump. Obama quipped in response, “Don’t boo, vote!” Yet, now that the two major parties are facing off in the general election, for many voters a question still remains: vote for whom?

As Michael Barbaro, writing for the New York Times, stated, a Clinton vs. Trump contest “represents the first time in at least a quarter-century that majorities of Americans held negative views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates at the same time.”

As a result of the hard-fought and continued battle for universal suffrage, voting has become a sacred duty for many Americans. For certain, some dissenters will remain loyal and vote within their own party, while others will vote across party lines or for a third-party candidate. Yet, there are an increasing number of dissenters from both parties who are choosing to exercise their right not to vote.

Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, has written for TIME that his values are informed by the quest for economic and racial justice. He wants a president who “fundamentally transforms the circumstances of the most vulnerable in this country” and believes that the Democrats have failed miserably in addressing these issues. Come November, while not completely abandoning the franchise, Glaude—like so many others—has said that he will leave the ballot for president blank.

But, as unusual as the 2016 election may seem, those dissenters are not the first to come to such a conclusion.

A similar sentiment regarding the presidential election was expressed 60 years ago by renowned intellectual and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois: “In 1956,” he declared, “I shall not go to the polls.”

When Du Bois’ article “I Won’t Vote” appeared in The Nation on Oct. 20, 1956, the seasoned scholar-activist was 90 years old and had exercised the franchise since reaching the age of eligibility in 1889. The Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments enfranchised black men and women in 1870 and 1920 respectively, at which points Northern blacks—like Du Bois—could vote, though their counterparts in the South were often prevented by discriminatory regulations. And voting was no small thing to him. Du Bois’ deep commitment to political and civil rights for African Americans was poignantly expressed in a scathing rebuke of his intellectual rival, Booker T. Washington, in his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk, which expressed his belief that economic advancement was unattainable without political and civil rights.

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Du Bois saw presidential politics as a means to achieving racial and economic justice. He was a strategic voter. He supported (and rejected) candidates based on his perception of their “attitude toward Negroes,” he wrote, rather than on their party affiliation. As long as he had been old enough to vote, he had expressed those preferences by 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.”

From Reconstruction to the turn of the 20th century, Republicans had courted black voters, which had guaranteed the party’s political dominance; but when Theodore Roosevelt “dodge[d] the Negro Question,” at his Bull Moose convention in 1912, Du Bois and other black leaders encouraged the black electorate of 500,000 to cast their ballots for Woodrow Wilson. According to Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, Wilson “hinted that under his inspiring leadership, the Democratic Party and the African American could find a modus vivendi.” But within six months of Wilson taking office, the new president had segregated federal civil service workers. Under his administration many blacks lost their jobs. Du Bois wrote to Wilson asking the president to rescind his policies, but Wilson refused.

During the decades that followed, Du Bois continued his strategic voting like a square dancer switching from one partner to the next. In 1920 he voted for Republican Warren Harding, in 1924 for Republican turned Progressive Robert La Follette, in 1928 for Socialist Norman Thomas and in 1932 for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. When he returned to the North after teaching in the South from 1934 to 1944, Du Bois joined the Progressive Party, voting for nominees Henry Wallace and Vincent Hallinan in 1946 and 1952 respectively.

By 1956, Du Bois said, “Enough!”

He believed the rematch between Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson was a contest of “one evil party with two names and it will be elected despite all I can do or say. . . Democracy is dead in the United States.” The eminent scholar anticipated his critics’ responses to his decision to not vote, asserting, “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 . . . this might make the American people ask how much longer this dumb farce can proceed without even a whimper of protest.”

Eisenhower won by a landslide, carrying 41 states and over 57% of the vote; the two-party political system has remained unchanged.

And yet, today many Americans, irrespective of party affiliation, have again said “Enough!” Despite criticism, they view the right not to vote as a democratic exercise of conscience that reimagines a politics unchained from the mere act of casting a ballot.

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Arica L. Coleman is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.

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