Voting Right

by Jesse Jackson

Reprinted without permission from The Nation, 23 September 1996.

"Don't vote, it only encourages them." In a scoundrel time, this well-worn quip reflects the attitude of many in the progressive community, the people of conscience and commitment who can make things happen--organizers, labor activists, engaged preachers, concerned citizens. I urge all to take another path this fall--to engage, not withdraw in the face of adversity; to vote and get out the vote in large numbers.

I know the disappointments associated with the Clinton White House. One of four children in this rich country--and one of two African-American children--is born to poverty. The President's capitulation to the Gingrich welfare repeal is indefensible, a shameful act that places millions of children at risk. His embrace of the conservative corporate economic consensus--from NAFTA to deficit posturing to tight money--continues the country down the wrong path. Politically, I know firsthand the divisive push-off politics perfected by this White House. And yet I urge you to engage, not withdraw.

All elections are about a choice. in this case, the live options are between the Clinton team and the Gingrich/Dole team. A Democratic victory replaces Trent Lott with Tom Daschle in the Senate, Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey with Richard Gephardt and David Bonior in the House. It puts Ron Dellums as head of the National Security Committee, Charles Rangel as head of Appropriations. The election will determine control of state legislatures and city councils--ever more important with the burdens now placed upon them. School board elections will be targeted by the radical right, intent on dismantling the public schools. With term-limit turnovers coming two years from now, the grooming of progressive candidates is more important than ever.

At the federal level, this election--more than most--is about something. It is a referendum on the anti-people, pro-corporate, antigovernment, radical-right Gingrich/Dole agenda. If Dole wins, Gingrich controls the House, Trent Lott the Senate and Scalia and Thomas get a majority in the Supreme Court. They will do far more damage than many admit. Remember what they tried to pass in their first year. The poor, the vulnerable and the young were their first targets. Billions in tax increases on the working poor, deep and vicious cuts in food stamps, welfare, Medicaid and Medicare, all to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy. Over a billion cut from the poorest schools in the country--an average of $5,000 per classroom. Protection of the air we breathe and the water we drink left to the tender mercies of corporate polluters. A woman's right to choose under attack.

With total control, the damage would be far worse. The Gingrich right knows who its allies and adversaries are. It systematically would seek to damage progressive forces and to bolster the forces of the far right. The revitalized leadership of labor would face unrelieved battering. Corporations would violate labor laws with impunity. Occupational health and safety rules would be gutted. Public-sector unions would be crippled. Teachers would be direct targets. Tax breaks would increase the wealth and power of the rich. Public subsidies would flow to conservative think tanks and intellectuals. The second Reconstruction--the civil rights reconstruction--would be repealed, with civil rights laws gutted, voting rights abandoned. Equal rights would be left in the ashes of burned churches across the South. Four years of Gingrich/Dole/Scalia and we could spend the rest of our lives recovering the ground that would be lost.

It takes a sense of immunity to advocate withdrawing in the face of this threat to the most vulnerable in our society. Those who suggest this are like those who voted for welfare repeal. They risk others for their own political purposes. This is a callous luxury that people of conscience cannot afford.

Second, for all of its disappointments, the Clinton Administration has pushed some things forward. Taxes are more progressive now, and working poor people get a better shake. Affirmative action has been re-affirmed. Choice has been defended, at least at the federal level. Vetoes have been issued to stop the most egregious attacks of the Gingrich program. Public schools are not crippled by private vouchers. The largest public programs--Medicare, Social Security--have been defended.

Third, we must remember how change takes place. Politicians don't make change, people in motion make change. Roosevelt ran on a balanced budget in 1932, not on the New Deal. Working people supported him because he was the best option--and the demands of working people forced the New Deal. Dr. King endorsed John Kennedy as the better option, even though Kennedy did not embrace a civil rights agenda. The courage of men and women in struggle forced Kennedy to move. Lyndon Johnson did not run on the Voting Rights Act. Then Selma and sacrifice made voting rights inevitable.

Many complain that Clinton tacks to the prevailing winds. We should not withdraw because of that; we should work harder to create a wind moving our way. This year, Clinton is the best live option. We need to re-elect him, take back Congress, recapture state legislatures and school boards -- but that is only the beginning. We must stay in motion, creating change that leadership must react to.

It is time to move. A majority of Americans look for help in an economy that does not work well for them. Gingrich and the right have mobilized people of conscience. There is new energy in the civilizing movements of our time--labor, women, environment, civil rights. Welfare repeal could generate a renewed, urgent demand for jobs and justice. If Democrats retake the White House and Congress, expectations will rise. Cynicism is chic, but costly. Surrender or withdrawal challenges nothing. We must engage, engage, engage to make things happen.

--Jesse Jackson, 9/96