It was hard to hear the twinned speeches of Barack and Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention this week as anything but profoundly elegiac. Commentators focused in on the pair’s palpable sadness, the sighs, their unlikely compassion for voters who have come to simply loathe politics, and the sense that both the former president and first lady were offering up an existential plea for the soul of the nation. But even that isn’t quite the sum of what they were trying to express. Because these were both, ultimately, fluent and raw speeches not about policy, or ideals, or even character, but about voting.
Not lofty paeans to the idea of voting. They were grim, purposive pleas about “making a plan” that might involve multiple brown bag meals and waiting in line for hours. These speeches included brass tacks instructions on how to get everyone you know to vote, and how to make every last vote count. Both the former president and his wife talked about vote suppression in the same terms Barack Obama had used only weeks earlier to eulogize John Lewis, when he noted that “even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting, by closing polling locations, by targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”
Barack Obama echoed that warning this week when he explained that in a sense, all Americans are going to need to vote in precisely the manner Black Americans have voted as long as they have been allowed to vote: As though each person’s lone action were possibly futile, decidedly aspirational, and also the only path to change. When all else is lost, they suggest, it’s time to commit to “voting like never before.”
In a sense, that is what made these speeches so shattering and so hopeful and also so hopeless. Only two Black Americans could talk about the near-insanity of voting to fix what every other institution has already failed to correct. As Barack Obama put it Wednesday night, other institutions have failed some Americans since the founding:
… Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote. If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work.
Michelle Obama was equally direct about what we’re facing in November:
Right now, folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting. They’re closing down polling places in minority neighborhoods. They’re purging voter rolls. They’re sending people out to intimidate voters, and they’re lying about the security of our ballots. These tactics are not new.
What lurked beneath was the fact that for decades, Black Americans have voted even when it demanded poll taxes and literacy tests, or risking a beatdown, or having to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar for an elections registrar. The odds of their ballot being counted were always long.
Candidly, it has long been, for most Americans, a mathematical act of insanity to bother to cast a vote. The odds of any one voter making any real difference in any one election suggest as much. One 2009 study found that in the states in which any single vote was most likely to matter, one vote had an approximate a 1 in 10 million chance of determining the national election outcome. On average, the same study concluded, any one voter in America had a 1 in 60 million chance of being decisive in the presidential election.
And yet voters vote. Voters, especially minority voters, have for decades tolerated the long lines, the targeted precinct closures, the broken or hackable voting machines, the persistent and tactical vote caging, the onerous voter ID rules, threats of armed “poll watchers,” gerrymandered districts, the inequality of the Electoral College, the Supreme Court’s cynical decision in Shelby County, and the churning unaccounted-for dark money that followed its decision in Citizens United. They voted in the face of foreign election interference. People stood in line and voted even in the height of a pandemic, when the Supreme Court declined to make voting easier during the primaries, including in Wisconsin, which meant that—as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern wrote, “in 2020, some Americans jeopardized their lives to vote.”
Voting in 2020 is a possibly life-threatening, potentially meaningless public performance of civic duty—a roll-the-dice effort to be counted, as the post office slows vote by mail and voters come to believe that voting by mail is inherently fraudulent. If this is what voting while Black has looked like in America for a long time, the rest of us might just be realizing it now.
Michelle Obama’s practical advice that we “grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to” is almost exactly what historian Carol Anderson told me in February, in our Election Meltdown series, when I asked why it made sense to even try to vote in the face of so many systemic barriers:
When I talk about putting the responsibility of adhering to the 15th Amendment on the shoulders and on the backs of the individuals, that means checking your voter registration on a consistent basis to make sure you’re still registered and to make sure your voting place is where you know it is, and then making a screenshot of it. So you have evidence of it. It means knowing that the lines are probably going to be really long, if you vote in a minority precinct. So you come prepared. You come with your cellphone. You come with a battery pack. You come with water, you come with snacks, you come with comfortable shoes. Because if we don’t do that now, what comes afterwards is something that’s going to be absolutely horrific to deal with.
What is perfectly and painfully clear—in these speeches this week but also through the painful nearly four years we have endured under this president—is that this flawed system of voting is all we have left. When Donald Trump was elected, we cast our eyes variously up at the state and federal courts, at Congress, at lawyers, at the Women’s March, the Justice Department, Colin Kaepernick, the free press, Robert Mueller, the Parkland kids, Adam Schiff, the impeachment process, the street protests, the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the rule of law, Nancy Pelosi, the leaders of the military, Mary Trump, John Kelly, the tell-all memoir, and George Conway. Something would be the guardrail, the seawall, the savior. Something would be able to restore sanity. And yet, here we are, on the brink of another close election precisely because none of these checks have worked. Instead, we are realizing that the only entity that can possibly save us will be—if they can pull on their sneakers and pack a dinner—voters, voting by the millions, as they have never voted before.
No one thing in the list above has been able to stop Donald Trump. Some have slowed his roll, but here we are, on the cusp of an election that could go either way. And certainly the glossy music video, heavily scripted, what-do-people-do-with-their-hands-anyhow telethon that was this week’s Democratic National Convention offered lots of inspiration, plenty of rhetoric about America’s “soul,” and genuine moments of optimism. But there were few pragmatic answers, because the only pragmatic answer is to text the voting hotline on your screen.
What was confounding about what Mr. and Mrs. Obama conveyed this week is that the cure for a made-for-television presidency isn’t a made-for-television convention (though that was the tool they had at their disposal). It’s not the courts or the Army or the economists or the scientists, either, though we need them all to be back at their posts too. Quite literally the only institution that remains to save the country is you. With your plan and your mask and your sandwiches, battling back the cynicism and nihilism that tell you that voting was pointless before and is bonkers now.
Talking about the mechanics of voting is difficult. It’s not sexy, and talking about the ways in which the franchise is being hollowed out before one’s very eyes tends to feed the sense of ennui and futility that voting advocates hope to prevent. When professor Rick Hasen and I joined forces last winter to craft our Election Meltdown podcast series, one of the ongoing challenges we faced was that by drawing attention to the ways in which the 2020 election could be stolen, we appeared to be contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you want people to believe in voting,” we were told consistently, “stop telling them the system is broken.” And yes, that is the place where the record skips cognitively: If Barack and Michelle Obama tell you that your vote might be stolen, you may be less, rather than more, inclined to vote.
So they are clocking your cynicism while also instructing you to fight it. Because despite the ever-growing odds that the upcoming election will be a shitshow, there is quite literally nothing left to protect you but your anodyne, boring, not-glossy, unsexy vote. These speeches warned, in effect, that the vote may well be stolen and that you must vote anyhow. “This president and those in power—those who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism,” the former president said. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter.” Michelle Obama put it this way: “So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
The speeches were, in a nutshell, spun of both hopelessness and also pure aspiration: Believe in the franchise, however cynical you may be, because the alternative is nothing else. That sentiment burns going down. It’s a sentiment that could have only come from two Black people, since voting while Black has long been both irrational and the only way. But it also burns coming from this former president and his wife, people with a deep understanding of history and the Constitution, and people whose very entry into politics was founded on optimism. Despite all that, because of all that, the Obamas’ message is that now you have to make your plan. Because there is no Plan B.