“To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives; it is the only way we can leave the future open.”— Lillian Smith, “The Journey”
Something’s hidden behind the curtain of the looming 2016 presidential election that the national leaders of both entrenched political parties don’t want us to see.
It’s the future.
Not just the near future, but the one that will ripple on into history, the one that will do so much to define the age in which we’re living. It’s the ideas and vision that will frame and shape and animate that future, which has two possible trajectories. One future undermines possibilities for starting to dismantle structural forms of racial, gender, economic, and disability-related violence and for realizing a much truer exercise of democracy while the other strengthens them.
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That’s why I’m #notwithher when I cast my vote in November 2016.
I’ve already said publicly I will not vote for Hillary Clinton if she’s the nominee of the Democratic Party. This is not a decision made lightly.
But it is the only right decision for me.
Not long ago, I promised to say more about my own choice, so I offer this reflection. I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, and I’m not trying to. But this is no ordinary election year; political, financial, and ecological systems are all in various stages of crisis and collapse. I hope what I say here is useful to some as we think not only about specific candidates and the election but also beyond them.
The violence I’m speaking of here is the “normal” violence of mainstream American institutions. Michael Bronski and I have recently written a book about such violence (Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics) which is widespread and massive. It kills swiftly and through the systemic diminution of life chances for Black, Indigenous, and Latino/a communities, and for working class and poor people of all races.
Rooted in ideologies that are, interdependently, white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist, this violence is a predictable structural feature, not an aberration, of the entire criminal legal system, including prisons and policing. It is a feature of many forms of custodial care. It is found within public and private educational institutions; the health care system; corporations and many workplaces; the military. This violence usually gets little attention; when it does come into public view, usually as the result of crisis and the accompanying sensationalized media coverage, there is a flurry of activity to produce cosmetic public ceremonies, commissions, or even token policy reforms that do little or nothing to get at its root causes. A designated “bad apple,” disciplined or prosecuted, often serves as the scapegoat for systemic harm.
Sociologist Everett C. Hughes, author of the essay “Good People and Dirty Work,” points out the existence of group fictions, or “collective unwillingness” to face reality that many of us cling to in order to avoid conscious knowledge of “unpleasant or intolerable knowledge.” One aspect of such knowledge is the ubiquity and normative nature of violence against vulnerable and targeted groups. To the extent that we allow it without resisting, we are complicit in it. We want to believe that shocking violence that comes suddenly to light is an aberration; “not who we are.” Many “reforms” do little more than retain the group fictions by providing cover for continuing the same old structural violence and exploitation under better disguise.
Candidates don’t produce the future, but over time, they show us, through their cumulative actions and words and records the kind of future with which their public lives — and their beliefs about governance and the proper use of state power — are most aligned.
I don’t look at candidates for public office as miracle workers. But since candidates seek election to increasingly significant leadership positions, I want to see at least some concrete awareness of the historical roots and commonplace nature of structural violence and inequality.
And I want to see a record of effort that, on balance, is generally consistent with that awareness and gives me reason to believe the candidate is capable of helping this country begin to take definite steps toward deeper structural change. For me, Bernie Sanders is such a candidate. I think his admirable willingness to speak to the urgent necessity for profound economic structural change is incredibly important. But it also is not, by itself, sufficient to challenge myriad forms of structural inequality and violence, including structural racism or address the questions of war and occupation.
In a democracy, no one should have to explain their votes — including people who describe themselves as independent and those who prefer to channel their justice work through avenues other than the electoral process. To demand that any person justify their position or to level accusations based on assumptions without knowing the people involved is to displace personal anger and anxiety onto someone else who neither needs nor deserves it.
But right now, the atmosphere is rife with tension, enmity — and demands for unity. Let me take special note of the irony of these demands.
First, Let’s Tease Out the Ghosts
Let’s get the blanket denunciations out of the way right now: “Hillary hater! Feminist Turncoat!” Purist!” “Bernie or Bust Spoiler!” “Childish, ignorant, and uninformed!!” “Whiner!” “Unrealistic and impractical!” “Petulant!” “Naïve!” “Fascism enabler!” “Traitor!” “Armchair revolutionary!” “Pie in the sky idealist!” “Bullies!”
Dump the whole box out on the table so we can all ponder these accusations together. If you’d like, give a patronizing, condescending, sarcastic, or furious spin to the pronunciation of these words and phrases, whatever suits. If any of them resonate, pick out whichever ones particularly appeal to you or visualize this as a jigsaw puzzle and start putting pieces together to form a preferred image.
Then pretend that this manufactured ghost who now dominates your own imagination is who I am and accurately reflects reality.
Or is it just an easy way to maintain a group fiction?
Let me be clear. I am not an admirer of Hillary Clinton. Based on her record in such areas as “welfare reform,” the Israeli occupation and blockade of Palestinian territories, environmental protection (aggressive global promotion of fracking before hedged opposition to it) and “national security”/war, I believe that Clinton would be a president more in the economic and foreign policy mold of Margaret Thatcher than her professed hero, Eleanor Roosevelt (whom I also greatly admire). I know many of you disagree vehemently with my assessment, but none of us can really know for sure unless she is elected to the presidency and actually wields the power of that office. If that comes to pass — I do not take anything as a given right now — perhaps we will talk again.
It has been suggested that I feel as I do because I’m a purist who is rigid and unforgiving of her complex political history. Yet many people, including me, have complicated political histories. I’d be a hypocrite to denounce Clinton’s as a Goldwater Girl. When I was in junior high, and in thrall to the virulently right-wing mother of a good friend, I was one, too, in an outfit with blue and gold accents and a cute little white cowboy hat, happily serving up ginger ale in cans marked AuH2O at the Colorado State Fair. Clinton once said that while her views of Republicanism had changed, her political views were rooted in the conservatism she was raised with. However, I deeply regret my Goldwater work and find nothing redeeming about it. Despite losing the presidential election, he helped to galvanize the right for renewed and newly invigorated attacks on New Deal economic legacies. He played a major role in promoting a criminalizing view of civil rights activism and activists.
Nonetheless, that period gave me invaluable insight. It was there I began to learn that when a powerful vision for a structurally just and compassionate society is lacking, common cause is built primarily on a foundation of bonding against enemies, real and imagined. Such bonding is taken to be proof of inherent virtue. This makes certain disastrous outcomes all but certain: indifference to the lives of people considered to be “against me/us,” steadily increasing tolerance for injustice and violence in the name of safety and security, and a rising desire for control, containment, and absolute defeat of “enemies.” It’s a seductive process because it offers a bogus sense of righteousness and a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself; this negates any critical awareness of the consequences of one’s choices. There is a difference between powerfully confronting and opposing injustice and placing enemy formation at the psychic center of campaigns and crusades.
By the time I left for college in 1967, I was in the process of becoming a very different political person. For this, I am indebted not only to local right-wingers and the cold, steel leg-hold trap heart of Phyllis Schlafly (I read her Goldwater-era book A Choice, Not an Echo), but also to a remarkable classmate who relentlessly challenged me, without dehumanizing me, and three excellent teachers who opened my eyes to the racialized nature of poverty in my hometown and possibilities of mass resistance to great violence and injustice.
OK, then, so maybe I’m just one of those self-hating or selfish women who just can’t support other women: a poster girl for the ilk for whom Madeleine Albright has generously reserved a special place in hell.
But oops. Maybe I can just be relegated to purgatory? As a student, I stormed the bastions of academe for women’s right to birth control in the late 1960s and am the co-founder of a rape crisis center (1974). I’ve always navigated the often uncomfortable, complicated boundaries between mainstream political engagement and radical possibility for actually dismantling structural violence rather than just ameliorating some of its more obvious symptoms. So while I started out as a radical, anti-imperialist feminist (soon to be a devil-may-care disco-dancing, anti-imperialist lesbian feminist), I was also, in 1972, a founding member of the now-defunct Colorado Democratic Women’s Caucus, supporting the first Congressional race of Pat Schroeder and going to the state Democratic convention as a Shirley Chisholm delegate. As a credentialed Democratic poll watcher one year, I stopped the same right-wing woman who mentored me from giving wrong information to an elderly Latina voter whose first language was not English — and, in fact, stopped my former mentor from casting the woman’s vote for her. (The voter was allowed to choose a trusted family member, who was present, to assist her in deciphering the ballot and making her choice.)
My involvement in electoral politics has always taken a distant second place to my involvement in community organizing and movements against militarism and war and for racial, gender, queer, economic, and ecological justice. But from the late sixties to the present I have been active, in varying degrees, in local, state, and sometimes national campaigns for selected Democratic candidates. Does this qualify me as “a real Democrat” or do I still fall woefully short? Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Despite being furious over so many things Democrats have done, including ceding the 2000 and 2004 elections, marked by horrific voting manipulation and suppression, I have walked wards and precincts for often flawed candidates, made phone calls, distributed signs and literature, and donated to candidates. I have made speeches and attended meetings, caucuses, and conventions so endlessly numbing that I considered setting my own hair on fire just to reassure myself that I was not already dead. I worked my butt off and donated money I couldn’t afford to Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, although, in my view, the blush was far off the rose by his run for re-election. (But he’ll provide “breathing room,” I told myself. Well — yes and no. Complicated discussion; no time for it here.)
Now I look in my outdated grey metal file box of excuses, finding nothing but some old broken pottery shards and a few pieces of lint.
As far as I’m concerned, the current national leadership of the Democratic Party is ethically bankrupt, having turned itself into more of a money-making machine than an occasional champion of justice and sometime friend to poor people. Debbie “I support payday loan sharks” Wasserman Schultz at the helm? Disproportionately appointing Clinton supporters and surrogates to the critical committees for the national convention while working to undercut any effective protest with a small cultural criminalization of Sanders supporters by admonishing them to “behave”? The Democratic Party so deeply involved with the legal but ethically compromised Hillary Victory Fund? It’s hardly the first Democratic Party machine to be corrupt; for starters, think about Philadelphia, Chicago and New Jersey. But I am now well and truly disaffected.
My reasons for not voting for Clinton are not rooted in an uncritical, magic-inflected allegiance to Bernie Sanders. I’m not at all uncritical, and have said so publicly, though I also respect him and am profoundly grateful for his campaign. I believe his candidacy helps make more visible widespread anxiety and anger about structural economic inequalities and poverty, along with the resulting suffering that accompanies them.
While I know many people have completely written him off and say his campaign has “failed,” I write this still waiting to cast my vote for him in the Montana primary election on 7 June 2016.
Many people say the remaining primaries don’t matter. But they do to those who will cast votes in them — especially if the world one perceives is larger and more complicated than delegate counts and false demonstrations of “unity” in a corrupted party system in a political and economic moment as fraught as the one we’re in right now.
The “War on Terror” Trump
Tell me that the time for national unity is now, and that the primary test for that unity, much like a loyalty oath, is voting for Hillary Clinton for president. That the dangers of a Trump presidency — which are real, indeed — override absolutely every other consideration.
Insist that it’s time to come together to fight “the common enemy” — Trump — who threatens everything good and true and hopeful about America. Send me a baseball cap that counters Trump’s white supremacist braggadocio with “America is already great.”
Remind me that we need an experienced person who knows how to “get things done” in a time of national, Trump-centered crisis. We may not have time to talk about what it is that must “get done.” It only matters that we have an experienced person who knows how to do whatever it is. (By this metric, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry Kissinger also are experienced people from Day 1.) Clinton certainly has explained to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) her views on militarism and justice with regard to the Israeli blockade and occupation. That’s a useful indicator of how, with regard to one of the great moral issues of our time, she intends to wield some of her power and experience as president.
Tell me why, with almost whiplash precision, Clinton and her surrogates offer patronizing praise to Bernie Sanders (“He’s already made HRC a better candidate and moved the Democrats to the left,” both group fictions) and appeal to Sanders’ supporters for unity while simultaneously continuing to bash those same supporters as purist interlopers who are abusive and bullying, especially to women and children. Tell me why the unity appeals to Sanders’ folks are accompanied by continuing Clinton campaign outreach to Wall Street money, and the financial/political support of many of the very same Republicans who helped get this country into the mess it’s in now. Explain to me how this is the kind of bipartisanship that will help us break “gridlock” in justice-affirming ways.
Explain to me how a person who in the 1990s immediately and uncritically embraced the false and racist right-wing framing of “inner city” (read: Black) youth as “super-predators” is the best standard bearer for the fight against bigotry and injustice.
Then explain to me how this absolutely does not constitute a kind of distorted, present-day, presidential election Twilight Zone remake of the run-up to the War on Terror. Really, it’s got all the salient characteristics:
Mobilizing through fear, anxiety, and alarm by creating a heightened sense of immediate crisis so that everything else becomes unimportant, details to be sorted out another time (except they never are).
Focusing on the defeat of an all-threatening enemy by a presumptive all-virtuous “us,” which is entirely defined by who “we” are against.
Casting dissenters as simultaneously selfish, stupid, petulant, disloyal, and even un-American (“socialists” who aren’t even “real Democrats”) if they/we don’t get with the program. And “independents”? Disruptive riff-raff. Who needs ’em or cares what they think (until the general election, anyway)?
Promoting a highly selective kind of “bipartisanship” and national unity building that also consolidates and serves the interests of conservatives, war hawks and corporations.
Locating “hatred,” xenophobia, racism, misogyny, violence and injustice primarily in the enemy (and disloyal dissenters), who are defined as “extremist” and out of touch with mainstream society, in order to obscure or even simply disappear the massive structural violence that is ordinary, commonplace, and historically consistent in the United States.
Encouraging sensationalized media attention and fear-mongering in order to preempt critical thinking and discussion, and to enlist supporters in an all-out, bipartisan war against the designated enemy.
Look what’s happening to us. A purportedly progressive (or is it now liberal or moderate or centrist?) “good guys” campaign with a new focus on fear and enemy formation. Now imagine how this is going to not only defeat Donald Trump, but shut down his many misguided followers and help lay the groundwork for transforming a society into something more compassionate, more humane, and less violent.
Is this what we want? Mobilization through siege mentality? Haven’t we been down this road to no good end too many times already?
Trump is dangerous. He is a demagogue; whether he is neofascist or not, he is a faux right-wing populist espousing a racist gospel of white nativism and appealing to an audience of people falsely assumed to be, as Scot Nakagawa says, ignorant, working-class rubes. In fact, they seem to be white people with higher median incomes who are losing ground and fearful of becoming poor in a ruthless austerity economy. As Nakagawa says, “The traditional base of support for the right are those with relative privilege, living in the anxiety of losing that privilege in a society that punishes the poor. White privilege is eroding.” But it’s not eroding in ways that are dismantling white supremacy and its structural manifestations.
Political analyst Chip Berlet points out that Trump, like other demagogues, utilizes an intentionally inflammatory rhetorical process of “scripted violence” which generates attacks on designated targets by people who are not formally or directly associated with Trump himself.
We do indeed need some sort of popular united front to stand against Trump’s demagoguery. He and his most ardent followers are volatile and dangerous. Selecting scapegoats for their anger, the message is clear: violence directed against immigrants and people of color is not only permissible but necessary. The atmosphere is rife with misogyny. Could things get worse? Could street violence in fact become routinized?
So the all-important question is how. How do we work to stop Trump without succumbing to the simplistic, and false, belief that by defeating him, we have somehow saved the nation? And while his campaign constitutes a unique threat, Trump and his followers are only a particularly visible and virulent symptom of a much deeper iceberg of everyday racism, misogyny, and economic violence. We might defeat Trump during this election cycle — or the Republicans might have a trick or two up their sleeves yet before the race begins in earnest. But keeping him out of the White House doesn’t address the reasons so many people have found his campaign so compelling. And it doesn’t address the real sources of their fear and anger, which they are violently displacing onto people of color.
How we respond to Trump and his followers as well as the rest of the events of the 2016 election will either help to expand progressive possibilities for the future or foreclose some of them.
To Leave the Future Open
Where oppressive and dangerous leadership prevails, as in the Trump campaign, it is essential to develop the kinds of relationships that open up the conceptual room and make it possible, over time, for followers to separate from that leadership.
A War on Trump based on demonizing and denouncing his followers can’t produce anything new. A better approach depends on tending the integrity of social, economic and cultural relationships, and paying attention to how those are manifested in our work. And it depends on the imagination that attends our efforts. The message “You’re safer when you stick with more of the same” may work for some people who are justifiably terrified of losing already compromised and tenuous ground, but not for many others who are equally scared and angry. Nor does it attract new support or open up room for new visions of justice. And it isn’t sustainable.
Can you discern a compelling Democratic Party/Clinton campaign message and justice vision? I can’t.
The 2016 vision pretty much boils down to this: “We’re Not the Republicans” (an arguable assertion in a neoliberal era), “Stop Trump,” “This is the best we can do under the circumstances,” “Be worried about presidential cabinet and U.S. Supreme Court appointments,” “Continue the Obama legacy (especially the Affordable Care Act”) and “Elect the first woman president.”
In other words: don’t expect much, but be terribly afraid of what more can be lost. And seriously: don’t piss us off.
Now, as we prepare to elect a new president, the implied promise is one of responsible moderation amid madness in an age of political polarization and (purported) scarcity.
So let me argue for the importance of radical imagination in a terrible time.
It may be useful to sum up the overarching trends of the present time. Since the 1970s, but in accelerated ways since the 1980s and 1990s — and with the considerable participation of a growing number of Democrats — the United States has been choosing a neoliberal future. Key elements of this future include the central role of the state in guaranteeing corporate prerogatives over the public interest and unfettered free markets; deregulation of public and private institutions; privatization of once public services and resources, including utilities, education, and public lands and spaces; and a belief in the entrepreneurial self as the source of civic innovation and goodness. The idea of a social contract in which we assume collective responsibility for community well being is replaced with a contemporary iteration of individualism. Everything — water, land, plant life, education — and everyone is commodified. There is a progressive shrinking of the concept of the public good and shredding of the social safety net. Civic infrastructure — transit, education, water and other utilities — has been crumbling for decades; as scholar Ellen Dannin suggests, crumbling infrastructure also means crumbling democracy.
This is a global politics of austerity — which means austerity for anyone who isn’t already wealthy. Its architects demand widening structural economic inequality and exploitation in pursuit of those “free markets.” This politics is generally willing to tolerate some social liberalism — the right of same-sex couples to marry, for example, the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice, and the right of women to have abortions — so long as there is no structural economic interference with market-based freedoms and there is perceived economic benefit to doing so. (Obviously there are also many on the right who, despite agreement with the principles of neoliberalism will not tolerate social liberalism.)
Will we continue in this direction? Clinton’s campaign suggests that we will. For example, the candidate and her surrogates often denounce Sander’s proposals for things like “free college tuition” or single payer health care as “unrealistic” and “idealistic.” Never mind that number crunchers show that these are eminently possible. It’s really a question of a society’s priorities. The money is there, or can easily be there. But right now, most of it is going to tax breaks for the wealthy, corporations, militarization, policing, punishment, and other social control/surveillance expenditures.
One wonders what Clinton and her surrogates — or you and I, for that matter — would have done with an idea as unrealistic and idealistic, say, as abolition of slavery. Perhaps the initial hundreds of years of struggle before the goal was achieved should be characterized as a “failed revolution.” Perhaps it would have been better to start off with a more pragmatic reform: let’s make the conditions of slavery a little less harsh, or at least hide the violence better.
In reality, it is the big, profound, almost unbelievably liberatory ideas that move a society forward, especially in hard times. As they are articulated, powerfully and publicly, again and again and again, they begin to take hold in the public imagination. As they do, talented and devoted community people involved in progressive social movements find a million different ways to begin to translate those big, bold, unrealistic ideas into ten million different practical steps that are appropriate to specific communities. (Have you ever met a really excellent and visionary community organizer who was not also practical? I haven’t.) All headed, improbably, toward fulfillment, at least in part, of the Big, Emancipatory, Unrealistic Idea. Along the way, new strategies and tactics may emerge; the vision itself may change in light of engaged discussions and sharing of experience across faultlines of race, class, gender, disability, and culture. It’s a complicated challenge to embrace and work on Big Ideas without white people and men and cisgender people taking over, but it’s possible. And necessary.
I have said before: the choice between Trump and a neoliberal/austerity/privatization future is a choice between methods of execution. I’m not going into the chamber voluntarily.
Although I won’t vote for Hillary Clinton if she gets the Democratic Party nod, I also won’t drown myself (or you) in vituperative invective. Nor will I sit things out. I’m not championing a third party or calling for a new “Move On” type organization too hastily cobbled together to have much resonance or avoid replicating the mistakes of existing organizations that think token representational diversity among figureheads is good enough for progressive work. Nor am I voting for Jill Stein, who is probably a wonderful person, but not someone I can support with even a symbolic vote for president. If I write in Bernie Sanders, I will do so with the full understanding that it takes vibrant movements for justice, not idealized individuals, to produce transformative change.
I’ll work for Montana candidates I can in good conscience support and donate to candidates for offices in other states who share strong commitments to progressive concerns. We can at least begin changing the makeup of Congress. I will make sure I’m re-registered as an Independent. And I will work with colleagues locally and around the country to build a stronger, more boldly imaginative progressive infrastructure to support long-term community organizing around a host of interrelated concerns. Learning from the example of people of color-led grassroots organizations/movements against police and prison violence in Chicago, one goal should be to hold all candidates and public officials accountable for their words and actions while avoiding being beholden to any of them.
And I will continue to educate about and challenge Trump, should he be nominated, but not in a narrow way. And not through an aggressive politics of contempt for his followers. I will cheer on, and, where possible, participate in protests that show visible opposition to and disrupt his rallies.
At the same time, I caution us all to remember: nothing is a done deal yet. Clinton and Trump aren’t yet nominated. No one’s a shoe-in to be elected. Unexpected, intervening variables — political, economic, ecological — can change things in a flash, for better or worse. And if they change, they can change yet again. The best organizing remains fluid, flexible, and always open to surprise.
The terrain is uncertain, and tectonic shifts — economic, demographic, political, and ecological — are already underway. We don’t yet know what they will bring, but we are going to find out.
Good luck to us all.
Or, as Edward R. Murrow famously said in an earlier troubled time, “Good Night and Good Luck.”