Symbols Are Not Satisfying for Democracy

Symbols aren't important for democracy

I’ve shared nine pieces that my penpal Lacino Hamilton wrote and sent me (this is the one I typed out in the middle of last month) before he was released from prison, and this piece, fully titled “People Who Believe in Democracy Cannot Be Satisfied With Symbols” focuses on why symbols are actually a detriment to those who believe America is a functioning democracy. He and I agree on essentially every issue, so if you want to read more of his published work, this is a link to his articles on Truthout. As always, I have not edited or changed any of his writing for this post.

I am well aware that for years political and ideological differences has sustained a wide chasm between how far the new suffrage movement should go in fighting for the voting rights of felons. I’ve been in prison 25 years, following all the ups and downs. however, it is long overdo to bring hard-headed realism rather than well-intention idealism to bear on a long-standing contradiction in U.S. democracy. Positions adopted because they seemed right have usually failed. Even if legislators or the Court eventually conclude that no one of voting age in the U.S. can ever be denied the opportunity to vote, ordering incarcerated people’s names to be placed on voting rolls would be more symbolic than anything. Indeed, bringing a ballot to the cell of someone incarcerated would add a veneer of progress to the debate of felon voting rights, but that is no progress. The U.S. has demonstrated that it is quite capable of extending “democracy” into almost any field without altering its fundamental structure or existing power relationships.

It’s not difficult to fill multiple libraries with criticism about voting rights, particularly directed at felony disenfranchisement. Criticisms blossomed during Reconstruction (1865-1877) when state after state amended their constitutions to restrict voting eligibility—sometimes permanently—to thwart formal political power of people of color. These criticisms were kept alive through the twentieth century as the civil rights movement grew, and later as U.S. incarceration rates skyrocketed to historical numbers. And criticism has grown dramatically in the past few years as an estimated 7 to 10 million people with felony convictions have begun to receive the increased and sustained attention of a new suffrage movement.

This new movement emerged with three goals in mind, (1) to make it easier for individuals convicted of a felony to regain the vote after they complete probation or parole; (2) to follow the lead of the 14 states that immediately restore voting rights upon release from incarceration; and (3) to ultimately allow individuals to vote from prison. As a popular colloquialism puts it, it is time to “get real” about voting and probe beyond rhetoric and symbols if we wish to determine the substance and meaning of democracy. That is, democracy is the inclusion and broadening the scope of human agency and human capacity to equally participate in controlling the destiny of the country and everything in it

We tend to forget, or most people are simply unaware, that under the law, incarcerated men and women are civilly dead. In the vernacular, incarcerated men and women are “state property.” Incarceration disrupts and defiles qualities that attest a person has human agency, the very hallmark of democracy. It disrupts and defiles self-determination, autonomy, and freedom of action. For example, I have to request permission to briefly talk on the phone, to read certain newspapers, to mail letters, to take a 5 minute shower, to see family and friends, to shave, to go outside for a very short period at a time, to use the bathroom, and so forth. Does anyone really believe that bringing me a ballot will permit me to equally participate in controlling the destiny of the country and everything in it when I am forced into a submissive and suppliant role unnatural for an adult? We need a more realistic perspective.

There is confusion about the relationship between human agency and incarceration—there is none. Incarceration is a purely totalitarian system where all aspects of life are conducted in close quarters under a singly authority: where every activity is imposed from above, where ideas are heavily censored, where everyone is herded like animals and required to do the same things at the same time; and where everyone better do exactly what they are told because degrading consequences more severe than anything encountered in the “free world,” are routine.

In such a system voting would be an updated version of the glass trinkets and combs used in Africa a few centuries ago to trick tribes into thinking they were getting power, when they were really getting symbols. A symbol, tenuous at best, that those whose old economic and political power can absorb and negate in the end. This is a hard-to-accept fact for some people, but merely having the vote is not sufficient to participate in democracy.

Felony disenfranchisement does not pose the real threat, rather it is greed and privilege over hundreds of years enshrined in corporations and institutions which cannot be voted out of their positions of power by the public at large because the base of their power lies outside of the formal political sphere. This must be acknowledged not as a call to abandon the fight to abolish felony disenfranchisement, but as a call to change existing and effective power still remains in the hands of the major owners, managers, and directors of the giant corporations, banks, and foundations which dominate the economy and society as a whole.

If the statue of the Black population before World War II is studied, a situation strikingly similar to felony disenfranchisement is immediately evident. Blacks were denied the right to vote. Many Blacks believed that if they could vote it would lead to equality and self-determination, but this has proved not to be the case. Even after receiving the votes, in places where Blacks constituted clear voting majorities, political power was usurped by the courtesy of a shame-faced renunciation of the principles of democracy—principles upon which the country was supposedly founded.

The suffrage movement has worked hard to restore felony voting rights, yet disenfranchisement continues under a myriad of guises. That’s because laws and policies stem not from participatory, inclusive, need-meeting thinking, but from the necessities of the socioeconomic system and its political manifestations. Unless existing power relationships are changed, more laws on the books will do little to broaden the scope of the human agency and human capacity. Even those robust efforts applauded and hailed as successful will produce no more than short-lived triumphs that slide into irrelevance as efforts to limit official political power adapt in ways that maintain the status quo.

The goal should not be to abolish felony disenfranchisement, but instead the social structure that permits it. The social structure that works to silence millions of people. The social structure that sentences juveniles to life. The targets people of color. That rationalizes state-sanctioned murder (the death penalty). That centers justice on profit and punishment, for it is only if the total society structures is changed, that the possibility of genuine democracy can be realized. Therefore, not abolition of felony disenfranchisement as the elimination of anything, but as the founding of a genuine democracy.

I cannot say exactly when social structures will repeat the so-called democracy we live with now, only that people who believe in democracy cannot be satisfied with the symbols generated by a social structure where it makes sense to cage parole for part of or all of their lives. Only that the founding of a new democracy will come in a form we cannot yet see because right now what masquerades as democracy, is in the way. It limits the ability to see beyond it, limits the ability to find each other, and limits the ability to access the possibilities which lie outside of it.

It is necessary to devise transitional programs which will agitate, educate, and generate new ideas until such time we see conditions develop that will make possible a genuine democracy. To that end, there is definitely a role for the new suffrage movement. These programs must be aimed at finding more effective ways to challenge existing power relationships and promote change through social justice education. The goal of which is to enable all of society to develop the critical analytical tools necessary to understand those relationships, and our acceptance of them as legitimate and inevitable, so as to interrupt and change behaviors within ourselves and in institutions that perpetuate the status quo.

This is a great time to be fighting for social justice. A great time to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about voting. About how incarceration is antithetical to having a voice in democracy. A great time to contribute to practices that will have more potent and sustained impacts for justice, fairness, and equality.