Nothing generates more insipid analysis than a U.S. presidential election. It’s a wonderful opportunity for two-party functionaries to distill American mythologies into the high-minded diction of corporate wonkery. I suppose it isn’t helpful to complain about election analysis by adding to the babble, but it does seem worthwhile to highlight the limitations of the genre.
I dislike voting as a model of political engagement, especially in a corrupt and constrained system that devalues grassroots organizing and tries to limit our imagination to mechanical support of stage-managed icons. Yet I accept that people find inspiration in public figures and express approval by casting votes, sometimes the only political commodity available to a disempowered public. We can critique U.S. elections without being contemptuous of their participants.
Most election skeptics actually value (and perhaps overvalue) their votes. Pundits who insist on voting as a precondition of respectability exhibit contempt for anybody who rejects the mythologies of U.S. exceptionalism. To be respectable, one mustn’t simply vote. One must vote correctly. Such entreaties preclude third-party candidates or acts of conscience deemed inadequately practical. We remain confined to a political canon that produced the greatest crisis of inequality in world history.
Americans are enamored of the vote as a symbol of collective power. The right to vote certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted, but deification of voting can prevent us from treating ourselves as something grander than a massive focus group curated by a few dozen affluent lickspittles. The mythography of voting has conditioned us to treat mediocrity as superior.
Election season is where most intellectuals show themselves incapable of thinking about politics beyond the limits of electoral convention. “Who are you voting for?” becomes an accusation rather than a question. The idea of civil participation overwhelms the possibilities of disobedience. People unironically use words like “revolution” and “insurrection” to describe presidential campaigns.
It is the season in which progressives reinforce their political limitations. Leftists, meanwhile, beg for a reason to believe in the same system they purport to abhor. U.S. elections always end the same way, which is exactly how they are designed: to concentrate wealth among the plutocratic elite who pilfer the Southern Hemisphere, abetted by the machinery of imperialism and its democratic mandate.
The primaries are nowhere close to done, but already, in anticipation of Bernie Sanders being swallowed by the same forces we’ll soon be urged to embrace, the finger-wagging has started. It’s gravely important, serious people intone, to vote for Hillary Clinton lest Donald Trump win the presidency. It’s early in the season to be hedging the tyrannical liberal against the right-wing tyrant. Usually we’re not treated to the hysterical shaming that is the calling card of the Democratic establishment until the primaries are finished.
The influx of unsolicited MoveOn.org emails will rev up early this year:
- THIS IS THE MOST LIFE-CHANGING POLITICAL DUEL SINCE BURR DEFEATED HAMILTON
- IF HILLARY DOESN’T WIN, UNSPEAKABLE THINGS WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR CHILDREN
- NEW RESEARCH SHOWS THAT NOT VOTING WILL RESULT IN DEATH
- OMG TRUMP
- THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE PLANET RELIES ON YOU ALONE
Should Sanders lose the primary, deciding to vote for Clinton as an impediment to Trump is a tactical question worthy of discussion. If somebody chooses that approach, I won’t quibble. The problem is that party surrogates inform those who reject the approach that they would be responsible for whatever horrors Trump might inflict as president. The moral and logical terms of this argument are brutally obtuse.
The argument is a classic form of liberal discipline meant to shame the recalcitrant into obedience. It confers responsibility for national travails onto those who choose different ways of political consumption and participation. It’s a good example of why many thoughtful people renounce the electoral system. When a complex project like democracy is limited to two airbrushed party bureaucrats, venal strategies of coercion are inevitable.
This brand of disciplining rose to prominence during Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000 and is dutifully repeated by waspish blowhards every four years. While reasonable people understand that debate will arise over voting strategies, there is little consideration of the merits of voting third party or not voting at all, which, contrary to neoliberal orthodoxy, can certainly be an affirmational act of participation. When folks with loud voices and large audiences assign blame for the terrible state of U.S. governance on people who make ethical decisions to avoid cosigning injustice, we’re no longer dealing with reason but with numbingly inane superstition.
Disciplining the recalcitrant arises from an American tradition of blaming the depredations of the powerful on those with much less power. Media elites invent imaginary black women as the culprits of an unfair welfare scheme while eliding the greatest beneficiaries of government largesse: banks, corporations, and client dictators. Cigarette smokers, overwhelmingly poor and minority, bear the moral burden of pollution while earth’s greatest polluters—DuPont, Dow, ExxonMobile, General Electric, Halliburton—poison us into billion-dollar profits.
And, of course, third party advocates or non-voters are somehow responsible for the same shitty system they refuse to validate.
Vote or don’t vote. That’s not the point here. Whatever your preference, at least have the decency to blame problems of violence and inequality on the people who actually create or sustain them: plutocrats, politicians, profiteers, potentates, and, lest we forget, the well-heeled commentators who aren’t compensated for insight but for their ability to render platitudes the currency of American political debate.
“Vote for Hillary or be responsible for Trump” is the slogan of somebody either maintaining or being played by the system.
Can Bernie Sanders be the one to undermine twenty years of election-season banality? It remains to be seen, but it’s never wise to put much stock into a singular icon, especially when some of his supporters have a propensity to browbeat those who reject the allure of iconography. This problem doesn’t belong to Sanders, but to those who police his candidacy by insisting that communities with the least to gain from electoral duopoly nevertheless skulk into the two-party tent.
We’ve seen it already with the anger directed at black writers who question Sanders about race and racism. Sanders, who has a history of civil rights involvement, responded to pressure from black activists and might do the same vis-à-vis other sites of criticism—for example, from the Palestine solidarity community or those seeking a more thoughtful foreign policy. We’ll never find out the viability of pressure if disciplinarians treat legitimate questions about Bernie Sanders as an affirmation of Donald Trump.
Sanders symbolizes broader issues of public compulsion, in particular a discursive maneuver that lambasts those marginalized by electoral convention for demanding to finally be taken seriously.
Sanders’s true measure will be revealed if he loses the primary. Without corporate money, he could run as an independent, but it’s a safer bet that he’ll proffer support for Clinton and thus redirect grassroots energy into the Democratic machine. Most of the strident anti-Clinton liberals will acquiesce. There’s always a uniquely evil Republican afoot.
Trump and Sanders embody different forms of populism, but both trade on profound fatigue of robotic politicians who piddle around the country transmitting clichés and tedium. It’s an interesting political moment. We’re seeing a corresponding desire among party bosses and captains of industry for the status quo to reassert itself. The ravenously docile commentariat is always eager to help.
Professional liberals won’t blame the resilience of the status quo on those who orchestrate its survival. They’ll blame it on people systemically deprived of power. Conferring responsibility for structural problems onto everybody but the powerful is one of the grandest traditions of American intellectual culture.
Let us then announce it in advance of the coming resentment: those who choose not to vote for an objectively horrible candidate like Clinton are not responsible for Trump—not politically, not ideologically, and certainly not morally. It would be wiser to impute those who demand that we accept deprivation as a practical reality.
Trump is a highly effective hobgoblin for neoliberal coercion. But there will be no Trump to blame when Clinton, if successful, accelerates Israeli ethnic cleansing, Kissinger-style diplomacy, imperial hubris, and free trade larceny, as she repeatedly pledges to do.
While the electorate searches for idols, the elite are ready to once again sucker us into self-satisfied compliance. It’s a clever hustle. They convince us that their continued elevation is synonymous with performing the rites of civic responsibility. So vote if you must. Just don’t pretend that opting into the system makes you a superior moral creature. It’s possible that when you pull the lever you’ll have done little more than ratify your own dispossession.