I haven’t written much about mainstream politics here since that’s done to death in a variety of outlets all over the place– from private blogs to every news agency the world over, the US Presidential election has enough people saying almost everything under the sun about it. But a few nights ago I was moved to comment on the matter via Facebook; at length. I felt I’d be remiss if I did not, with some editing and additions, republish those thoughts since they speak to an often ignored debate on electoral politics. On the political left there is intense discussion about the value of the presidency and voting, and whether radical change can truly come through morally compromised candidates. What follows is a qualified discussion of the stakes, and why I stuck with this president. The first section was composed on election night. The second was composed early the next morning.
Why I Voted for President Obama
My choice this year should surprise no one. The reasons should be clear. The purpose obvious. Obama’s has not been a perfect presidency, and it was stained before its time by profound moral failure– Guantanamo, drone warfare, illegal arrests here in the US. But the reality, and the choice, we face is this: we will get all of the above with a Romney administration, and with none of the benefits of the current government.
I will vote, not for the lesser of two evils, but for the government that secures healthcare for all Americans and begins the long and difficult road to full-insurance, for a president that supports women’s right to choose– and has a holistic vision of bodily autonomy, for a government that passed legislation requiring health insurers to take trans people on board, for a government that fought tooth and nail for increased Pell Grants, for a government that allowed me to change my passport to reflect my gender, for a government that rolled back elements of the draconian REAL ID programme and made life that much more liveable for trans workers, for a government that supports an inclusive ENDA, for a government that changed INS policy to allow trans immigrants to more easily change gender markers on their IDs, for a vice president who called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time,” for the president whose first signed bill was a gender pay equity act, for a president who puts women with progressive views on the Supreme Court.
This endorsement should not be construed to view the victims of American foreign policy as an acceptable margin of error. On their backs, and with their blood, was Obama’s posturing in the third debate made possible- and that is a moral crime that must give us pause. We must never, ever be silent about this administrations failings here and abroad. However we vote tomorrow, that ballot is a beginning and not an end. A vote for Obama will not solve our woes. Every single issue that I mentioned above came to the bright lights of federal politics because of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears of honoured foremothers who fought and died for that recognition. My vote honours their sacrifice with one small vigil– but it is our life’s work that truly carries on their legacy, and that work neither begins nor ends at the polls tomorrow.
For us, Obama’s triumphs and failures are part of a complex web to navigate. I’ve found my way, and I begrudge no one who finds Jill Stein preferable. But I also implore you to reconsider the role of government in this. Keeping Obama in office is an exercise in harm reduction. We will keep fighting as activists one way or another. But we do still have a president to elect– and the choice is clear. Which ever man wins on Tuesday, we will still see drone planes terrorising people abroad, and that is a towering tragedy of this election. But Obama can be worked with– and the domestic stakes are too high to give the race to a man who will not only continue an aggressive foreign policy, but also retrench terror here at home. I will not allow that to happen.
Thus it is that I do not vote for the lesser of two evils, but see myself as voting affirmatively for the immense good this administration has done.
For all the people here that I have met through my work these last couple of years, it would not have been possible had this administration’s policy changes not enabled me to get travel ID that matched my gender. Loved ones abroad would have been much harder to visit if the Obama/Clinton State Department didn’t give me the opportunity to cross the border with dignity. In turn, this has bettered my ability to do radical work and support the organisation I work for. It is this small but potent facilitation effect that Obama’s iterative policy changes have had.
It is up to us to use these opportunities and continue the hard work of making real change happen in our communities– and a vote for this president does not undermine or compromise with that. The rights that my sisters and I have won these last four years will not be crushed beneath the weight of cynicism nor snarky leftist memes about the ‘lesser of two evils.’ I see no contradiction between my work and my impending vote.
In refuting the idea that there is a contradiction between electoral participation and radical black feminism, C. Riley Snorton and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan persuasively argue the following:
- We do not need to agree with everything a political candidate espouses to cast a vote in her favor. Voting is not an unequivocal endorsement—of a particular candidate or of the systems that structure our participation as “citizens.”
- Voting is participating in a process that allows us to select figures with whom we would prefer to engage. That is to say, voting allows us to have some say in the parameters of future political struggle. It lets us decide with whom we want to struggle. And struggle we must.
- Voting is not an end, or even a means to an end. Black feminist politics are far more expansive than electoral politics. They’ve had to be. Black feminist politics are what allows us— as young black queer and trans feminists—to fight to have liveable lives, to cherish our own survival and delight in the miracles of making it to the next year, day, hour. Voting does not interrupt our black feminist politics any more than it vanquishes the myriad structural and sociohistorical inequities that make those politics necessary.
I would argue that this is a good rejoinder to all cynical radicals on the question of voting and mainstream political participation.
The Morning After
In his victory speech President Obama echoed an idea I’ve long championed: that the exercise of citizenship does not end at the voting booth. Who do you think President Obama was talking to when he said that? There are many issues that matter to us as individuals, especially on the left where we have given voice to the voiceless for generations, where we have counted the last to be counted. There’s so much more work to be done– on voting rights, on incarceration, on trans rights, on immigration, on foreign policy. That’s where we come in over these next four years.
It is us, the new radicals who must carry the torch and do the hard work. As I said, tonight is a beginning, and not and end.
But it is also not an hour for despondency. Wall Street did not win tonight, any more than war crimes or terrorism. We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we must remember that the ‘lesser of two evils’ is not only a tired line devoid of content and meaning, but an aphorism that surely brings a smile to the faces of lobbyists, corporate plunderers, the far right, avaricious elites and so on. Why? Because when we give up on this process, the great levers of institutional power that are this state do not go away. When we cynically concede to the idea of the lesser of two evils we concede a field that our foremothers fought and died for the right to occupy. Yes, occupy. Occupy your government, and your electoral process.
When we withdraw from electoral politics and we grouse about there being only two evils from which to choose, that suits the suits just fine. They’re happy for you to think that. They want you to go away, and leave the politicos entirely in their hands, leave the process entirely in their hands. Cynicism is their friend. Why do you think it’s so popular? Why is anti-politician rhetoric so mainstream that Leno and Letterman bathe in it nightly? It hardly seems radical when “politicians are all selfish, lying egomaniacs” is practically a consensus view. Even the Tea Party is premised on this ‘politics of anti-politics.’ Thus it is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the real radical politics is whatever cuts through the pea soup haze of cynicism that cedes the colonnaded political realm to apparatchiks who will fulfil every dark prophecy made about politics.
When this president appointed a Latina from the Bronx– like me– to our Supreme Court, that was a proud hour for us that political abstinence would have denied us. Amid the arcane shadow theatre of Supreme Court politics, that moment has always stayed with me. Just as my joy at the appointment of Amanda Simpson was a watershed moment for trans women– it seemed not a little strange that for all the professed radicalism of the queer left, a feminine trans woman made it in the Commerce Department, while it can still be a struggle to see any trans women at queer events or in Gender Studies Departments across the nation.
For that reason and others, I find radical mockery of ‘inclusion’ to be harder than ever to take seriously. It remains the same arrogance that saw Judith Butler mock Venus Xtravaganza (from the pages of an academic tome read primarily by the educated middle class) for her seemingly bourgeois aspirations; this curiously hypocritical politics of perfection that has come to define certain sectors of radicalism is also at the heart of some of its anti-Obama sentiment.
And so we come to Election Night– my mother, for whom I fight, and to whom I’ve dedicated so much of my work, was crying tears of joy. She took my hand and squeezed tight, thanking me for the days and weeks I spent reassuring her that the president was going to win. Is she a dupe? She, who’d given up on voting for decades but went back to the polls in 2008 with genuine hope that four long, hard years, have yet to snuff out? She whose current interest in feminism and LGBT activism has been fuelled by the innervation of the Obama years? She does not castigate my more radical work but wholly encourages it. And she is a proud Obama voter.
I voted because I must; I voted in part because there are people trying to stop us, and with good reason. “Us” refers to a whole swathe of people: transgender people, people of colour, women, queer folk. Even from the narrowly circumscribed field of choices in this election, our likely choice frightens many of our political enemies. I still believe in our political process, and I still believe that activism must march with it, as well as lead it. I refuse to give that up.