The Ballot or the Bullet
A long time ago, Malcolm X gave a speech entitled “The Ballot or the Bullet,” arguing that if blacks weren’t given the right to vote – the ballot – then they would resort to violence – the bullet. As Malcolm X put it, there’s a choice to be made and it has to be made. If black people didn’t have a meaningful right to vote, then there would be no peace.
That Malcolm was correct is evident today in the United States. For some time now, the right to vote has been denied or compromised for a lot of people. Some are denied outright, e.g., as felons. Others are denied covertly, e.g., by actions that are allegedly needed to keep the voting rolls “clean.” Still others have their votes compromised by gerrymandering schemes. And then of course there is the fact that the votes of non-wealthy are compromised by the ways the wealthy are given a privileged position in determining the outcome of elections, ala’ Citizens United.
And guess what? Our political process has become increasingly violent, with violent rhetoric and even threats of violence commonplace. “Lock her up!” “Send her home!” are cries that reverberate throughout our political debates, along with increasing appeals to violent-laced politics at home, abroad, and in the borderlands. Guns exist in very large numbers throughout the society and are seen by many as indispensable to their safety and wellbeing.
Malcolm X was correct: We have a choice, politics by ballots or politics by bullets; a relatively peaceful politics or a politics characterized by violence. One key to a peaceful politics is the ballot; that is, the widespread and generally equal access to voting. Give people ballots and they won’t need bullets. Why? Because when people have ballots, have meaningful votes, votes that can actually create political change, they have power. They are empowered even though they might be unarmed. Peaceful change is possible.
Take away meaningful ballots and people feel and are disempowered. And when human beings are disempowered, they will try to acquire power any way they can, “by any means necessary,” including by turning to violence. This has been true throughout recorded history and is still true today, as illustrated by the politics in the United States. People of every political stripe feel and are disempowered, primarily because they are being denied a meaningful ballot, a meaningful or realistic way to create change. And they have turned to violence, to “the bullet” to get what they want, to be powerful.
Malcolm X wasn’t simply making a threat. He was stating a political truth. Human beings have a choice: Empower the people, give them the right to vote, or create a violent politics and a violent society. Take your pick. But you have to choose And your choice will matter. Voting or bloodshed: that’s the choice. And if you choose the latter, don’t say you haven’t been warned.