Bernie Sanders & The American Political System: Why We Vote and Why We Don’t

In the previous two election cycles, I advocated for Obama adamantly. I advocated for voting adamantly. In 2008, I wrote about the Sorites paradox in relation to the way voting as a civil responsibility gets diffused, and as an explanation to account for the feeling of impotence voting brings with it. Now, I know I made a mistake. At the very least, I made an ideological mistake. Perhaps, though, not a material one.

For one, there is no way any individual should have to, or even can, reconcile their decision to cast a vote with the massive loss of life that a United States president is almost necessarily implicated in. I candidly bear a sense of responsibility, as a voter and an American, of someone who in some small way contributed to the death of innocent people in Syria, in Afghanistan, and in other parts of the Middle East and the world. There is simply no way the moral subject can shed the relation of proximate cause that comes from participation in American electoral politics and an international system of state violence. This is something the voter can never accept, but perhaps alienates themselves from, or bears like the albatross of the ancient mariner.

Still, I had a reason for supporting Obama, and that reason was born from compassion. In my younger days, I believed not voting was an act of supreme privilege. I believed that the majority of people who consciously opposed voting were those with family members and friends who had enough money to insulate themselves from the policies of the federal government and not feel the impact of those policies on their daily lives. After all, to say Obama and McCain were interchangeable or Obama and Romney were interchangeable is intellectual dis-ingenuity of the highest order. Politicians are not the same, and they would not enact the same policies.

For me, the reason to vote was my father. My father has been unemployed from his job as a child labor attorney for the state of Florida since the end of my highschool career. As I watched my family slide from comfortably upper middle class to lower middle class, watched the disposable income dry up, watched my father’s health take turns for the worse, watched him denied coverage or charged absurd premiums for his so-called “pre-existing condition,” I knew the only solution was something like the Affordable Health Care Act. And today, my father has insurance through Obamacare that gets him lifesaving medication and treatments for his diabetes and his hepatitis B. If you ask me how I can vote and accept the albatross of drone strikes and other atrocities, that is how. But it is my privilege and geographical positioning that allow me to experience my father’s health issues in a certain way, with a certain affective resonance, and experience the massive loss of life on the other side of the world in a way that makes it manageable to me. In a way that stops me from being utterly crushed by the weight of this sin. And, really, the only thing that lets me sleep at night is that another president, a McCain or a Romney, could have taken innocent lives in even more staggering numbers — and my father and people like him wouldn’t have health care.

Still, we’re in an entirely new realm of ideological expression when it comes to the dichotomy between two emergent front runners, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I think another question that must be adjudicated here is the question of whether voting has any meaning at all. Conspiratorial readings of the American election system ring completely false to me. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that votes do not impact the result of elections, no evidence whatsoever that there is some broader rigging of the results of national and local elections in the United States. However, that’s not to say that all votes count — they don’t. I know this as well as anyone, as my parents brought me to the various rallies outside of the Florida capital in 2000 to protest the gross injustice — a stolen election — that took place. Still, I refuse to concede that voting does not matter. I would gladly hear an argument that suggests that from a material perspective, votes have no causal relationship to election results. The evidence I am familiar with suggests that they do. This causal relation is perverted and refracted through representational democracy, but it exists none-the-less. It is not a certainty that one’s vote will count, but it is likely. That likelihood, in the face of the very material consequences federal policy decisions will have on the lives of many, is what motivates me to vote.

So what of my advocacy for voting? What of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders? Yes, I’ve conceded my mistake. But if you’ve been reading closely, you should already know — I wouldn’t do anything differently. Because I am happy my father has health care and I want him to keep it, or for it to improve. Because having a black man stand in the highest office of the land sent a powerful message to society, not one of a solution, but one of a promise left unfulfilled. For every way Obama diffused the racial discussion with claims of “racism is over,” he reinvigorated the discussion three times over. And that’s to say nothing of the existential consequences of having a man like him, his discourse, his presence, stand at the head of the United States. President Obama was deeply flawed and as complicit in murderous actions as any other US president. But his presence in the White House was a profound one.

My hope is that the discourse Bernie Sanders hopes to put forward is also profound. Even if he can’t pass a single piece of policy, is stymied by the House and Congress at every turn, I (perhaps quite foolishly) believe Sanders is earnest in his commitment to many policies I agree with. I can’t help but be moved to tears by Sanders’s impassioned defense of gay soldiers serving in the US military in 1995, engaging in the sort of discourse that did not carry the political capital it does today. I can’t help but be filled with an unparalleled feeling of joy and wonder to hear of Sanders’s participation in the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That is a commitment, in my view, that one can’t fake.

Killer Mike, in an interview on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, said:

Bernie Sanders is the only politician who has consistently taken [the social justice platform of Dr. Martin Luther King developed in the last 2 years of his life] into politics. Right now we have an opportunity to elect someone who is directly out of the philosophy of Kingian non-violence … This opportunity in history is not going to come in another 20 years … If we don’t take this opportunity now, we’re going to be sitting around a campfire mad because they nuked the world to hell, I’m afraid.

This is a particularly striking sentiment, but what I feel the most is the notion of time. Time is not on our side. And, simply put, there is no way another politician can make the claim to authenticity, can display the commitment that Bernie Sanders has displayed, in a way that’s also palatable to the average American. There are people I’d love to pull out of the activist community, all of whom are not white men, who would make far better presidents than Bernie Sanders or any other politician. But there is something to be said about Sanders unique position both ideologically and in time. Killer Mike says this opportunity won’t come in another 20 years. I say this opportunity will never — never — come again. Not like this. Not when it’s so close I can taste it.

Voting should not be the end of one’s engagements with the conditions that determine the existence of our world. There are many other, far more crucial, modes of participation one should engage in for a better world. Those include direct action. Those include having certain kinds of conversations and behaving in certain kinds of ways that support a change in how we treat each other. Voting is not a strong expression of political power, and for many it is not easy. There are better ways to spend one’s time in the interest of social change. There are other ways to express commitments to certain kinds of ideologies, ways that lay beyond the horizon of my thought, ways that I am still trying to determine and lay out for myself. It is my trepidation that to engage in a course of advocating for voting, the act of voting is positioned as the most critical expression of political power for the subject. That’s not true, and we must all be creative and apply concerted and consistent effort toward our mutual goals. Still, for those who have the leisure time and aren’t being discriminated against by their local polling stations, voting might be worth considering.

So, what am I saying? I’m saying you should consider voting, and specifically consider voting for Bernie Sanders. I hope you register as a democrat and get your ass to the primary and I hope you vote in the general. Maybe I’ll regret this hope. Certainly, I could be wrong. Perhaps Sanders, like all politicians, is full of shit. And perhaps I’ll be sitting here in eight years thinking about all the fucked up shit that was done in the name of the United States done under President Sanders’s authority and by his administration. For those who choose not to vote and not be implicated in the acts of violence the United States perpetrates, I don’t begrudge you that choice and admire your commitment. I trust that you are expending your political energies in more productive venues of which there are plenty and I hope you can reach out to me to help you in your good work. But this compulsion I have to vote and to suggest that other people consider doing the same is encapsulated in a quote by Cornel West. West says, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” Never have I felt that imprisonment more than now. And what I can say now that I didn’t say eight years ago or four years ago is that if you don’t vote, I understand. It’s not your responsibility. And it’s not your responsibility to carry the albatross that many people bear — whether they chose the burden or don’t even have the slightest awareness of it. If I’m to be faulted for this position, so be it. Vote Bernie Sanders.


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