Greetings from Trumplandia, also known as the second congressional district of Maine, which is now polling for Donald Trump. I have called Lewiston, Maine, home since 2001 when I moved there for university as a teenager. I am currently finishing a Ph.D. in Quebec, from where most of my Lewiston neighbors’ families emigrated, arriving to work in the now shuttered textile mills and shoe factories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Despite being away from Maine where I came of age, came out as queer, cofounded a queer housing collective and cut my teeth doing anti-poverty, anti-heterosexism and HIV/AIDS activism with working-class white people, I have kept more than a few toes on that side of the border.
For the last six years I have watched a disgusting Trump mini-me named Paul LePage destroy the lives of my working-class neighbors. This man was elected twice with a minority share of the vote, with the rest of the vote split between two liberal candidates (one Democrat, one independent) in both 2010 and 2014. He has kicked more than 10,000 people off food stamps; made it impossible for asylum seekers to receive general assistance; refused to expand Mainecare through the Affordable Care Act; opposed life-saving medications and services for drug users during an ongoing epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths; endorsed the vigilante assassination of drug dealers; opposed increasing the minimum wage; opposed clean energy; supported privatizing K-12 education; further disenfranchised people of the Penobscot Nation through egregious treaty breeches resulting in land/water theft; and said hateful things about queers, trans people, refugees, drug users, Latinos and Latinas, Black people, Indians, Indigenous people, HIV-positive people, journalists, public employees, and the list goes on.
This man is poison. Every day, I watch things get worse in Maine for working people and the poor. I cannot help but let out a warning cry to the rest of those in the US who have not already taken notice that Governor LePage’s leadership is just a smaller-scale example of a possible Trump presidency. In fact, LePage has more than once exclaimed that he was Trump before Trump was Trump, noting that his Tea Party-tinged political showmanship in Maine precedes Trump’s political rise this election season.
Since LePage’s election, our state has been in a Trump-style death spiral for six years and demonstrates just what can happen when a buffoon occupies the halls of state power and local branches of national right-wing think tanks like the Maine Heritage Policy Institute control the policy agenda. Similarly, Trump has demonstrated that he does not know how to govern, but there are plenty of right-wing vultures at the Heritage Institute, Cato Institute, American Family Association and others who are more than ready to pounce on the opportunity to provide blueprints for destructive policy initiatives that Trump lacks.
While I am no fan of the Maine state Democrats, the Greens or the newly minted Libertarian Party of Maine, I have no illusion that all candidates are equal in their potential for harm. Many on the left, particularly us anarchists, argue that we should not vote because we do not endorse representative democracies, or even more simply, that our vote is meaningless in a rigged two-party election between neoliberal Tweedledee versus neoliberal Tweedledum. For the most part I agree, particularly in light of endemic voter disenfranchisement of the more than 6 million people incarcerated or on parole/probation in the US. Still, I see the value of taking a harm reduction approach to elections, particularly when a candidate threatens to cause a great deal of harm to marginalized communities, including those who are barred from voting themselves.
For those that do not know, harm reduction philosophies came out of drug users and their allies’ response to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s, and has been described as a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Essentially, harm reduction accepts that people are going to use drugs whether they are illegal or not, and the best strategy for dealing with that reality is to make sure the harmful effects associated with drug use are minimized.
While I am not trying to make a terse comparison between electoral politics and drug use, I do want to take the spirit of harm reduction philosophy and apply it to our perennial electoral predicament. The elections will go on, with or without our input, and our elected leaders will wield immense power over our lives regardless of our participation in the system that got them there. If this perennial electoral process is going to happen whether we like it or not, why not occasionally take the practical approach and vote in a way that reduces the harm associated with our elected leaders and government? The choice is not between either direct action organizing or voting, but both/and. The choice is not mutually exclusive.
Despite identifying as an anarchist since I was a teenager, I have voted in every Maine election I legally could after turning 18. Each time I would exercise a harm reduction approach to help ensure the person who would do the least harm was elected to local, regional and national government. On very few occasions did I vote for someone I actually liked, who I thought would really do an excellent job, save a handful of city councilors and one mayor.
For me, this harm-reduction style voting is but a small part of a larger strategy for social and economic justice. I would like to to continue organizing under more livable conditions where the urgency of meeting immediate needs does not undermine our time and energy for activist work. Debt; unemployment; precarious work; unstable, unsafe and unaffordable housing; disappearing social safety nets; no health care to speak of… with each of these issues compounded by right-wing governments, it makes it difficult for people to engage in much-needed unpaid activist labor in their nonexistent free time. Sure, I would concede that bad times necessitate new forms of organizing and inventive strategies, but this has not come to significant tangible fruition in Maine, nor did it as a result of eight years of George W. Bush.
I would also contend that things do not have to get worse to shake people from their complacency and rise up. Things are already pretty bad in Maine and there is no awakening to speak of, just tired, dispirited, homeless, hungry and sick people — and of course, those that have moved away. For things to get worse before they get better means more death, poverty, incarceration, hunger and terror for our most precarious communities. That is not a price I am willing to pay for a revolution that may not actually be around the corner. Plus, if Maine is leading by example, things need to get organized, not worse, before they get better.
This year in Maine, I will vote to boot my Tea Party, anti-abortionist, homophobic, anti-environmentalist, gun lobby apologist “representative” out of office, and to keep a right-wing proponent of bigotry from ever reaching the White House. Locally, there are a number of ballot initiatives I am happy to push for at the ballot box, and if they lose, with continued direct action. I will vote to decriminalize recreational marijuana. I will vote for ranked-choice voting for future governors, so least-liked candidates like LePage will never win office again. I will vote for background checks on all gun sales. I will vote to significantly raise the minimum wage for tipped and un-tipped workers.
To be clear, this harm reduction strategy at the ballot box is not new and not a response to the Trump/Hillary Clinton debacle in which we now find ourselves. This election cycle has only further demonstrated the necessity for such a strategy to stave off far right-wing government takeovers that will impact us for decades.
At the end of the day, I still maintain I am ungovernable no matter who is elected, and that my dreams will never fit into a ballot box. And I am still committed to prefigurative politics and activist work that builds new structures to address immediate communal needs outside our current hierarchical, capitalist and governmental frameworks. But I do not see harm reduction voting as irreconcilable with my anarchist politics.
The 30 seconds it took me to vote today by absentee ballot from Montréal feels simple and necessary while the US government continues to exist. It took me less time to fill in a few ovals on a ballot than to brush my teeth this morning. While many of us would like to think the work of radical politics is always more exciting and poignant, sometimes it means doing things like washing dishes we did not use — and for some of us, it might mean voting in elections we do not really believe in.
You will never hear me exclaim the virtues of voting or encourage electoral politics beyond harm reduction voting, but it is one of many small strategies to make another world possible, and I remain unconvinced that never voting is a winning strategy to do anything. Elected governments will manage many aspects of our lives, despite our rejection of them. Voting is just a tool that can be deployed strategically to reduce the harm they do to our communities.