Civil rights activist Malcolm X gave the “Ballot or the Bullet” speech only twice in his lifetime. It is regarded as one of the most iconic speeches of the civil rights movement and was ranked 7th in the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century – deservedly so.
During the speech, X touched on a number of issues plaguing the black community, which was still fighting for the equal protection of their rights under the law. He delivered the speech in 1964, which was an election year, and the civil rights leader did not mince words when he excoriated both the Republican and Democratic parties for their failures – or refusals – to fulfill the promises they made to African Americans still suffering under Jim Crow laws.
X exhorted black Americans to be “politically mature” and to recognize the power they carried with their vote, which was not firmly in one camp or the other. “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket,” he said.
But it was when he addressed the Democrats’ treatment of black Americans that he took on a more chiding tone, scolding blacks for continuing to support the party despite numerous failed promises:
The Democrats have been in Washington, D.C. only because of the Negro vote. They’ve been down there four years. And they’re… All other legislation they wanted to bring up they’ve brought it up, and gotten it out of the way, and now they bring up you. And now they bring up you! You put them first and they put you last. Because you’re a chump! A political chump.
He didn’t let up, even going so far as to insult the intelligence of blacks aligning with Democrats:
Any time you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that party can’t keep the promise that it made to you during election-time, and you’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that party, you’re not only a chump but you’re a traitor to your race.
Say what you want about Malcolm X – the man did not mince words. He spared neither mainstream political party from criticism.
But his words are still relevant today – and it applies to more than black Americans.
When thinking about this part of the Ballot or the Bullet speech, it occurred to me that these pronouncements could easily be made about everyday Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. Ever since the rise of the Republican Party, voters believed their only two options were the GOP and the Democrats. While third parties attempted to ascend to the upper echelons of politics, they were met with failure.
Election year after election year, Americans showed up to the polls knowing they had only one of two candidates to support. Throughout the ages, people held their noses and pulled the lever for candidates because they believed they were not as bad as the other guy. A situation in which voters were able to back a candidate they truly believed in seemed about as rare as a conservative professor on a university campus.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans continue screwing Americans over in Congress and the White House. Democrats propose new and innovative ways to expand the state while Republicans pretend to get angry about it. Democrats propose faulty ideas that will only make the government more intrusive and Republicans refuse to come up with alternative ideas, preferring instead to just complain about how crazy their opponents are.
This has created a situation in which Americans still supporting either party are treated as “political chumps.”
The hard truth is that both Republicans and Democrats view us as political chumps because they know that no matter what they do, the majority of Americans will still vote for the team they have been supporting their whole lives. Even many independents tend to vote only one way, even if they are not registered with a party.
Let’s face it: We’re a nation of political chumps.
Most of us are too afraid to vote third party because we fear that it will lead to a victory for those we don’t like. This is especially true of conservatives when it comes to potentially supporting a libertarian candidate. How does the saying go? “A vote for a libertarian is a vote for Democrats,” is what many of us have believed. Indeed, it is one of the main arguments used by Republicans attempting to frighten voters into supporting the feckless GOP.
But what would happen if, one day, enough people realized that Republicans are not much different from their opponents? We have already seen that they will bow to Democrats on gun rights and out-of-control spending – see the passing of the gargantuan omnibus bill. But this is only at the federal level. Even in statewide and local offices, Republicans are not living up to the principles they claim to uphold.
It may not happen overnight, but I believe that at some point, right-leaning voters will see that when Republicans win, it doesn’t mean we the people, win. Folks will realize that supporting the GOP isn’t different enough from supporting Democrats. When people focus on liberty over party, we might just have the slightest chance of limiting governments instead of continually handing them more and more power as time goes on.