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.
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.