I Don't Want to Have to Talk About This Again
So, yes, I have been thinking about anti-Asian violence. I’ve been thinking about it all year, and after the shooting in Atlanta, I am sad and scared and so, so tired. It’s on my mind, of course. But I haven’t been talking about it much online.
Partly, I rankle at the idea that I as an Asian American need to talk about anti-Asian violence in America. I’ve talked about racism a lot over the course of my lifetime, and I’ve talked about it a lot more as an activist over the past few years. I think it’s important to talk about. And certainly I know that waiting around for white people to fix racism is untenable. But I still feel that the time it’s most important for me to speak up is when my own communities are the ones perpetrating or benefiting from injustice. It shouldn’t need to be Asian people speaking out about anti-Asian racism, just like it shouldn’t need to be women speaking out about misogyny or queer people speaking out about homophobia.
But also, I find myself just getting tired of yelling about things online, and wondering how much it ends up mattering in the first place. There’s a conversation to be had about bearing witness, I think. And I think that there are ways that increasing awareness can affect the world in more material ways. But shouting on Twitter isn’t the same as organizing or activism, and at least for me it’s not even particularly cathartic anymore.
What I want to know is what can we do on a practical level to actually make things better? Donating to a GoFundMe for a victim’s family or to a grassroots organization working in vulnerable communities is a good thing to do, surely, but I’m thinking about how often small orgs end up being overwhelmed by donations after a tragedy, and, even more, how many people let a small donation be the end of their involvement. What’s the amount of money you can donate before it’s okay to stop thinking about an issue? And is it okay to just throw money at a problem and hope that someone else will do the work? My point here isn’t to shame anyone else or discourage you from donating, these are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too.
I’m skeptical of calls for more policing or hate crime enforcement, not only because of the ways that our law enforcement and criminal justice systems so often treat white suspects so differently from BIPOC suspects, but also because of the ways that our criminal justice and immigration systems are often the sources of violence against marginalized communities to begin with.
I’m skeptical, too, that just talking to our racist uncles is going to stop racist violence. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk to our parents or uncles or spouses or kids—I think we should have those conversations, assuming we can do so without putting ourselves or others in danger. It’s just that I don’t think the people who most need to hear these messages are likely to be open enough to receive them. Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I’m glad people want to try, but I just don’t have it in me most of the time to be the one to try to educate people about why racism is bad, or what racism even is.
Maybe it’s just because my activism focuses on legislation and public policy, but more and more I find myself thinking that the best thing we can do is make policy changes that materially help marginalized communities. And not through things like hate crime laws or increasing police presence, but rather things like immigration reform or healthcare reform or policy to address wealth inequality. In California right now there are, for example, bills to provide universal healthcare regardless of immigration status, and to establish a pilot program for community-based alternatives to policing. There is a bill to provide food assistance to all residents, regardless of immigration status. There are a number of bills to try to provide affordable housing. Those are all things we could advocate for to our elected officials—and I plan to do so. It’s not that immigrant and BIPOC communities having access to housing and healthcare and education and other resources will stop a racist gunman from opening fire. But it makes more and more sense to me that racist attitudes change after material conditions change for marginalized races, not before. That racism is not the cause of inequality but a tool invented to justify inequality, and so by addressing the inequality first, we provide a path to addressing attitudes.
But, look, I am tired of having to talk about racism and injustice. I want to talk about art and books and podcasting and interviewing. I want to talk about nostalgia and longing and the bittersweetness of watching my children grow up. I want there to be a good time to talk about things that aren’t dire and global. Maybe it’s a selfish desire to have and insensitive to admit it out loud—probably it is, I don’t know—but I am just worn out. The world goes on being awful no matter what I want, of course, but sometimes I need to look away for a while.
And I think that maybe what drives my feeling of resentment is that even still, the people who should be taking responsibility and should be the ones looking and speaking up, many of them aren’t. It’s not to say that none are—indeed, I’ve been glad to see lots of white and other non-Asian people speaking out over the past few days. But as heartening as it is to see non-Asian allies stepping up, I still have to know and even see that there are so many people who think America doesn’t have a racism problem, who throw around the model minority myth, who are just shut into their little bubbles and refusing to see what they don’t want to see.
I don’t have a big conclusion to wrap all this up. I’m tired and angry and sad and scared. I’m heartbroken for the victims and their families. I want people to be better. I’m trying my best.
Yes, I did cry during the inauguration, which I hadn’t planned on watching. I did watch it, though, and I did cry, in part because of something like relief or catharsis after four years of rallies and marches and meetings with my Congressman and phone calls and text banks and policy research and vote tracking and postcards and, and, and. All of the time and energy and fear and hope I put into trying to make things better over the past four years, or at least trying to slow down the damage being done, all of it came back to me all at once and filled me up until it overflowed out of my eyes. Joe Biden was inaugurated and yes, I cried, and everywhere I looked—which is to say, mostly online—people shared that they, too, were crying and celebrating, finally letting their shoulders come down, their jaws unclench, breathing easily for what felt like the first time. I wanted—want—to join in, to sing along We won! We won! We won! We won! but all I can feel is how upside-down the world is.
I know it’s important to celebrate the wins, even the temporary ones. I have spent the past four years telling people the same. It is surely good and right and sensible to celebrate in this moment, to relax, to revel in hope. We earned it, we did. But I haven’t relaxed, and I can’t celebrate. 400,000 people are dead in the past year of a virus that could have been controlled. And children are still separated from their families, migrants are still imprisoned in camps, police are still gassing protestors, and so, and so, and so. I am pulled not to celebrate but to mourn, not to a festival but to a funeral.
And I am angry, too. I am angry that in his first speech as President, Biden called for unity without saying unity with whom, for what, and at what cost, and who will bear that cost. I am angry that the local newspaper ran an op-ed this week from a rich philanthropist calling for civility and denouncing cancel culture, as though facing criticism for one’s actions is as bad as violent insurrection or virulent infection. I am angry that my senior Senator defended her colleagues’ attempts to undermine and destroy our democracy. I am angry that lying House Republicans are not being ejected from Congress but are apparently walking unchallenged onto the House floor with concealed weapons. I am angry that so many of us are so ready to move on, to forgive, to forget, with no real reckoning, so desperate to “heal” that we will leave our wounds to fester. I am so angry, and I don’t know what to do with it.
Maybe I’m tense and anxious and sad and angry and tired because after all of it, I still love this country. I’ve always loved it, even knowing for my whole life that it didn’t love me back, even knowing all the ways it has never lived up to its promise, all the ways it has failed and been cruel and terrible. Despite everything, this is my home—and look what they have done to my home. I feel like I’m looking at a house that was destroyed by an arsonist who took the time to piss on the ashes before he left, and, yes, it is good and important that he’s gone but there’s still so much to do just to clean up, let alone get started rebuilding. The embers aren’t even done smoldering yet.
(I know, too, that consistent anxiety doesn’t just disappear when the immediate threat passes, and that it often just transfers to something else. I know that however well-reasoned I may think that my worries are, I’m not immune to the ways my brain works.)
But, look, I am trying. I see, too, the acknowledgements that the work isn’t done. I see the organizers rolling up their sleeves, I see the people who are writing clear-eyed analyses of where we are and how to get where we need to be. I’ve been watching the Executive Orders and memoranda roll out, and I saw Schumer say no to McConnell this morning—I know this is in large part due to the work of activists all over the country. I’m trying to take heart from all of that, and to turn toward the opportunity we’ve made. I’ll get there; I think I will.
Necessary But Not Sufficient
It’s been a hell of a week, hasn’t it?
It’s scary enough, of course, to watch a group of traitorous insurrectionists violently take over the seat of legislative power in your country. It’s scarier still to consider that this week may only be a prelude to what’s yet to come. What’s making me feel all the more uneasy is that at least some of our leaders still seem not to grasp the gravity of the situation or the nature of their responsibility.
Look, I’m not saying there’s been no response. Nearly 200 House Democrats and more than 30 Senate Democrats have called for the President’s immediate removal, and signs are there that impeachment will move quickly in the House next week. There will be investigations into law enforcement’s inaction during the attack, and the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms and the Capitol Police Chief have all resigned under pressure.
Nevertheless, I’m concerned that this will pass without serious consequences for most of the people responsible. Asked in a press conference whether he thought Senators Cruz and Hawley should resign, President-elect Biden said only that he thought they should be beaten the next time they run. And this was after he spent a good three minutes praising Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney and talking about how the Republican Party is going to have a come-to-Jesus moment.
A goodly number of centrist Democrats seem to be working under the fantasy that all it will take to meaningfully change the hearts and minds of Republican politicians and Trumpist voters is a show of decency from the top. Indeed, this was the fundamental message of Biden’s campaign: unity and a restoration of decency. But if the past 10 years have shown us anything, it is that reaching out in compromise to the Republicans and giving them room to build power can only result in them continuing to destroy the institutions that we depend on for our way of life.
Joe Biden should know this better than anyone. In 2008, as now, the United States voted Obama and Biden into the White House, and Democrats into control of the House and Senate. After two years of attempting to work with Republicans and offering compromise, treating their opposition as legitimate and principled, Democrats had little to show for their efforts and lost the House because of it. Four years later, after being continually stymied by both Republican obstructionism and their own fear of overreaching, Democrats lost the Senate as well.
I’m not saying that decency isn’t important in a President, or in any politician. Indeed, the past four years have shown us exactly how necessary simple decency is. But it is not sufficient. You cannot reconcile with people who are determined to continue opposing you. You cannot unify a country while also giving power and legitimacy to people who are determined to divide it. You cannot heal when your opponents haven’t even stopped attacking you. And you cannot keep yourself and your party in office without concretely demonstrating that you deserve to be there.
Later in the video clip I linked above, Biden compared Senators Cruz and Hawley to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The rhetorical point was apt enough, but if we are going to be making comparisons to the Nazis, we must also keep in mind the ineffectiveness of appeasement. Republicans like Cruz and Hawley—and they are far from alone either in Congress or among the public—are without remorse and are perfectly willing to continue inciting the kind of violence we saw this week. If we are truly going to restore American democracy, Biden must take care not to become the Neville Chamberlain of a second wave of American fascism.
The Party of Stasis
In a few days, I and several of my colleagues will be meeting with our Congressman for the first time since the election. I believe this will be our 17th meeting with him over the past four years, though to be honest I’ve lost count. That’s just to say that I’ve met him enough times now to know him and his positions well, and how these meetings go. My Congressman is a centrist through and through, not out of practicality, as he likes to think, but out of ideology. This has led to a lot of frustration on my and my colleagues’ part, and in the aftermath of the election it’s making me extremely worried.
Last month, Senator Joe Manchin said in an interview that “Democrats have to be better at defending what they stand for.” I don’t agree with Senator Manchin on much of anything but I do sort of agree with that, though I’d go a bit further: Democrats don’t need to just defend what they stand for, they need to define what they stand for. Right now it’s not clear that the Democratic Party actually stands for anything, and I think that’s why they have so much trouble with so many constituencies.
That is, Democrats talk a lot about healthcare and working families and diversity and climate and stuff but the policies they as a party actually work toward are mostly small tweaks to the existing system. The fundamental ideology of the centrist Dem is that the system is mostly fine as is. I think this has a lot to do with why Democrats struggle so much in so many parts of the country and why there’s so much in-party fighting. They struggle because the system as-is doesn’t work for a lot of people, and they don’t actually present an alternative. Moreover, they don’t really want to present an alternative.
But people whose lives are in danger from racist cops, mass incarceration, and the by-products of segregation are not going to be helped by new police training standards. People whose communities’ economies have been tanked by dwindling natural resources and corporate greed are not going to be helped much by things like wonky tax credits and minor tweaks. People who are being threatened by climate change are not going to be saved by things like tax credits for electric cars or streamlined permitting procedures for new hydro plants. The system as it is just doesn’t work for a lot of people, especially not the people who are the actual core constituencies of the Democratic Party. It’s hard to turn out a vote from those people when what your party demonstrates is a commitment to the status quo.
Whatever else we can say about the Republican Party, they are actually committed to changing things. They’re committed to changing things for the worse, of course, to making things more racist and sexist, to taking from the poor and giving to the rich. But it’s something.
Centrist Dems all over the country have been screaming that they lost (or almost lost) because Republicans are tying them to stuff they don’t actually support from the progressive wing of the party and from activists. But if it were clear what they actually stood for, you couldn’t do that. That is, if somebody lies about you and a lot of people find that lie plausible, I think it’s worth taking some time to understand what it is about your character and behavior that is leading people to find that lie plausible.
This is fundamentally what electoral politics is about. You need to define what it is that you stand for. You need to make it clear. You need to demonstrate why your way is going to help your constituents, both in your messaging and in your actual governance. If you say one thing and then do another, people aren’t going to trust you. And they shouldn’t. Right now the Democrats only real redeeming virtue is that they aren’t the Republicans. “Same” is, at the end of the day, better than “worse.” But that’s not ultimately sustainable.
Really, what both parties are doing right now is looking backwards. Trump explicitly calls back to a pre-Civil-Rights-era America in his campaign speeches, and we rightly denounce him for it. But it seems to me that a lot of the Democratic Party messaging is calling back to the Clinton ‘90s or the Obama years—Biden did that a lot during his campaign. They’re making an appeal to some imagined past when everything was better and more decent. But were we ever decent? Maybe our political rhetoric was less obscene, but Obama still deported more people than any President before him, climate change was already underway and accelerating, and billionaires were still looting public instutitions—they were just quieter about it and most Americans were comfortable enough to look the other way.
I know that when I sit down for that meeting next week, my Congressman is going to talk about the need to avoid alienating Republican and moderate voters, about the need for bipartisanship, about not being too extreme. But we are past the point where incremental changes can solve the problems we face—if, indeed, there ever was a point where incrementalism was sufficient. My fear is that if big changes aren’t made in the near future, the kinds of change that meaningfully affect people’s actual lives, the backlash in 2024 will be more than we can handle, and certainly more than what centrists like my Congressman are expecting.
Things aren’t hopeless. Even somebody as milquetoast as Chuck Schumer has acknowledged that we need more. I just hope we have time to get there.
A Kind of Optimism
A couple of days ago I wrote a post about the fact that so many people voted to re-elect the President, what that means for us going forward, how the work is not done yet. And all of that is true. By the latest count, almost 70 million Americans voted for Trump, and they did that having seen hundreds of thousands of people die of COVID while the President undermined doctors and scientists, having seen the President egg on white supremacists, having seen his Administration separate families and put children in cages, having seen him do his damnedest to subvert and destroy American democracy.
What I’m choosing to think about this morning is that almost 74 million Americans voted for Biden. And they did that having seen Biden and the Democratic Party call explicitly for listening to scientists. They did that having seen Biden and many prominent Democrats admitting the reality of systemic racism, acknowledging that Black Lives Matter. They did that having seen Biden talk about the existential crisis of climate change.
We may not be able to say that every one of the 74 million people who voted for Biden supports defunding the police or BLM. But we can say that none of them were so turned off by the idea of racial justice that it prevented them from voting for a Democrat. And that, to me, shows a glimmer of hope for our future.
What I see in Republican voters is a strong current of “I don’t want this to be true, therefore it is not true.” And, yes, I understand that one can’t talk about large groups in monolithic terms. Nevertheless, movements are a result of patterns that are observable, and its useful to take note of those patterns. Again and again, what I’ve seen from conservatives is a refusal to engage with ideas that, if true, would require them to experience discomfort. Despite all sorts of available research, I’ve seen people deny the existence of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry; deny the reality of climate change; deny the need to take measures to control the virus. And there is a logic to this refusal: if these problems are real then not only do we have to make big and potentially difficult changes to the way we live, but we must also reckon with the ways that we, ourselves, have been complicit in the problems. Nobody wants to feel shame, and in that way it is understandable if not excusable that so many people would respond well to the message that they have nothing about which to feel shame.
Over the past four years and especially the past five months, Americans have been talking about bigotry more than in any other period of my lifetime. These conversations have been happening in the media, from our politicians, and in our homes and between friends and family. And we know that this national discussion has provoked a conservative backlash, one that has even become violent in its denial. We know this without question—Republican politicians have made opposition to BLM, gay rights, and feminism centerpieces of their messaging. It is dismaying that nearly 70 million Americans voted for a man who rode that backlash to the White House and doubled down on it at every turn.
But if we must reckon with the fact that so many Americans rejected the needs of marginalized communities, we must also be buoyed by the fact that so many more Americans heard these same conversations and didn’t turn away. This doesn’t mean that we are done talking about bigotry in America, but it means that we can and must continue talking about it, and we can do so with the knowledge that at least 74 million Americans watched this conversation unfold and then voted for Joe Biden. I choose to see this as a demonstration that although we are not done with bigotry, we can at least see the path ahead of us and feel hope that we can move in the right direction.
That path is shown to us most clearly in states like Arizona, where Native and Latinx organizers have been hard at work. It is shown to us in states like Michigan and Georgia, where it wasn’t the white moderates who swung those states but Black organizers who built strong enough networks to overcome voter suppression the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations. It is shown to us in states like Texas, that may not have flipped yet but where grassroots organizers, especially in Latinx communities, have pushed a former conservative stronghold into a competitive battleground. As I write this, my social media feeds are full of liberals singing the praises of Stacey Abrams, and rightly so. And what Abrams has shown us is that it is possible to build a base of power without compromising our ideals, without abandoning Black and brown people—that when people come together in power, we can win.
The road ahead of us is still long and difficult. We know that we will have little opportunity to rest—indeed, organizers are already gearing up for the Senate run-offs in Georgia. But I am letting myself be optimistic about what’s coming. We can’t stop pushing, but I think what we’re seeing right now is that when we push together, we can move something even as big as America.
It is Friday today, and normally I’d be delivering you a list of things to read or watch. As you might imagine, I haven’t been able to concentrate on much besides the election this week.
Still, as I’m always saying, the articles and poems and podcasts I share in my weekly round-ups are just a portion of what has mattered to me. I am deeply grateful to the grassroots activists who have worked so hard to get us this far, especially my colleagues in the activist community here in San Diego—it has mattered to me a great deal to get to work with them.
And, in case you didn’t know, you matter to me. Thank you so much for spending your time with me.
We Need Better Democrats
For the past couple of weeks in my city, one our City Councilmembers has been getting a lot of praise—and rightly so. Councilmember Monica Montgomery was elected in 2018 to represent the 4th Council District here in San Diego. A criminal justice advocate and former City Hall staffer, Montgomery ran on an explicit platform of police reform, vowing to use her time in office to champion efforts like banning chokeholds and establishing an independent Commission on Police Practices. Since taking office, she has done exactly that. Since the protests began in our county just over a week ago, we have seen both the mayor and most of the city council come out in support of a ballot measure to establish that Commission, we have seen the police union back off of opposing it, and every police department in the county has now banned neck restraints. Of course, we cannot give all of the credit for these changes to Councilmember Montgomery, but she was and is an important part of it.
It’s on my mind, though, that Montgomery was not expected to win in her election, because her opponent was the incumbent Council President, Myrtle Cole. I mentioned that Montgomery had previously been a City Hall staffer; in fact, she had worked in Cole’s office, but resigned after Cole made remarks arguing that police were justified in racially profiling Black people. Despite those remarks, Cole received the backing of both the local Democratic Party and all of the major labor unions. With that kind of institutional support, the power of incumbency, and close ties to the Mayor’s office, Cole was expected to easily hold her seat. According to her own statements, she didn’t even really mount a campaign. Instead, she came in second to Montgomery during the primary, and then again in a Dem-vs-Dem general election that November.
What this highlights for me, and what’s on my mind as I think about the organizing around the next few elections, is that it’s not enough just to have a D next to a candidate’s name. That not all Democrats are the same. That it matters which Democrats we elect. Both Montgomery and Cole are Democrats. Both are Black women. They do not stand for the same things, and did not have the same priorities in office. This November in San Diego County, three of the five San Diego City Council races, one of the County Supervisor races, one of the State Assembly races, and one of the US House races will have two Democrats facing off. In these elections also, the candidates are not all the same.
It strikes me, too, that the organizations we trust to help us make these decisions don’t always have our best interests in mind. As I mentioned, Myrtle Cole was endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party and all of the major labor unions. On the most recent episode of Matt Strabone’s podcast Show in Progress, back in March, Party chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy said that the Party is required to defend incumbents, which explains their support for Cole. I don’t know why labor backed Cole over Montgomery, and I don’t want to speculate as to the reasons. But it is worth taking the time to understand that both political parties and labor unions are organizations that exist to accrue political power unto themselves, not to do “what’s right.” Often times, both parties and unions will come out against good reforms, and while I’m not privy to their decisionmaking processes, it has struck me that those reforms are often the ones that might decrease their own influence over elections, even while helping marginalized communities or candidates. You can make your arguments about whether or not that’s a good thing, and it makes complete sense to me that a political party or a labor union would want to protect and increase their political power. But if the cost of this is undermining necessary changes, is that worthwhile?
This year, many of the downballot elections that I get to vote for will be Democrats facing off against Republicans. And I will and must vote for the Democrats in these cases, and I will urge everyone I know to do the same. Part of the work I do with grassroots organizations here in San Diego is legislative research and tracking the votes of our state and federal representatives, so I am intimately aware of how much it matters to have Democratic majorities in our legislative bodies that can and do stop the worst offenses of the Republican Party. I also know that even the most centrist Democrats are almost always much more susceptible to pressure from their constituents to move left than moderate Republicans are. I’ve seen this personally with my State Assemblymember, whose voting record flipped dramatically after he left the Republican Party to become a Democrat. Part of that came from pressure from the state Democratic leadership, and part of that came from pressure from his Democratic constituents. Having met over a dozen times with my right-leaning Democratic Congressmember, I also know how many bills we’ve been able to bring to his attention that a Republican would have ignored—if we’d even been able to get a seat at the table in the first place. So I will obviously be voting to keep those Democrats in office, to defend their seats from their Republican challengers. And for the exact same reasons, I’ll be voting for Joe Biden, too.
And yet, in a time when more and more people are realizing that incremental changes and targeted reforms are wholly insufficient to meet the issues we face as a nation, whether that’s racist policing, healthcare, or climate change, as I look toward 2022 and beyond, it is on my mind that simply defending Democratic incumbents is not enough. The Assemblymember that I and my colleagues have been able to push on a few issues also routinely abstains from controversial votes, and is mostly known for introducing bills about pets. The Member of Congress who I mentioned frequently meeting with prioritizes working with Republicans and fundamentally believes in small, incremental bills as the appropriate and most effective kind of legislation. Both of these men are personable and, I think, mostly well-meaning, but their approaches to government cannot and will not give us the changes we need, and neither the Democratic Party nor the local labor unions are at all likely to support a more progressive primary challenger in the future. Just today, Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that he does not support defunding police departments. We need Joe Biden right now, because as the Democratic nominee he is the only viable alternative to Trump, and four more years of Trump would be a disaster, and lethal to so many people in vulnerable communities. But when we look to 2024 or 2028, what could we accomplish with a President who truly understands and enthusiastically advances the systemic changes we need, instead of one who we merely hope we can push to the right side of history?
If we are serious about making change, then I think we need to do more than just exhorting people to vote. By the time we get to a general election ballot, the choices we have are constrained, sometimes to trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. Even in a primary election, our choices are still often constrained by a candidate’s money or lack thereof, by the way institutional pressure and obstacles are deployed to defend incumbents and insiders. It’s not that a candidate can’t win without the establishment—Councilmember Montgomery is proof of that. But it’s an uphill battle even in the best of circumstances. We need to do better at keeping the issues and real solutions front and center in the public’s minds, and finding and supporting candidates who will enact those solutions. Because, yes, it matters who we vote for, but it matters, too, who we have the opportunity to vote for. I don’t know exactly how to do all of this, but I know we need it. I hope we can get there.
In This Post, I Am, Unfortunately, Talking About Electability and Joe Biden
Before I say anything else, let me make something clear: if you like Joe Biden and are happy to be voting for him, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. In fact, I’m not trying to talk you out of voting for him even if you’re not happy to be doing so. I don’t know what you value or how you arrive at your decisions, but I do think those decisions are yours to make. What I am going to do here, though, is talk about why I’m not going to vote for him. If that sounds like something you’d rather not read, for any reason or no reason, that’s fine and there are no hard feelings.
Because the people in my life know that I am politically active, there is a thing that’s been happening to me for the past six months or so, which is that basically any time I go to a family gathering or large social event, people will approach me and ask me who I’m voting for. And, more often than not, those same people then talk to me about Joe Biden.
“You know,” they’ll say, “I don’t really like him that much. In any other election, I’d probably vote for somebody more like who you probably want to vote for, Mike. But we can’t mess around this time. We have to beat Trump, and I really think the only person who can do that is Biden.”
I’m not really sure exactly what kind of a response people are looking for from me when they have this talk with me. Maybe they want to be confirmed in that choice. Maybe they want me to talk them out of it. Maybe they know that I disagree and are trying to convince me. So far, I don’t think any of these conversations have wound up satisfactory for anyone involved.
But I want to talk about this particular form of tactical voting for a little bit, because I honestly do believe that if Joe Biden gets the Democratic nomination, then Trump will be re-elected.
As I understand it, the argument for Biden goes like this (and I’m going to do my best not to misrepresent this perspective): Progressive candidates like Warren and Sanders are too far to the left for most American voters, and they will scare off too many centrists. On the other hand, a centrist candidate like Biden will bring in those centrists, and progressive voters will still show up for him because they know how awful Trump is. Also, Biden has the best chance of bringing back those swing voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and then voted for Trump in 2016.
To understand why I disagree with this reasoning, we have to look at the 2018 midterm elections and the so-called “blue wave.” If there is one lesson we should take away from 2018 it is this: turnout wins elections.
In 2018, the Democratic Party had a net gain of 41 seats in the House of Representatives. That coincided with the highest midterm voter turnout in the previous 104 years. Moreover, even in elections they didn’t win, Democrats made incredible showings in elections in 2017 and 2018 in a number of deeply red districts. These wins and near-wins did not happen because Trump voters in those districts decided in large numbers to change their minds. As far as we can tell, most people who voted for Trump in 2016 are pretty satisfied with him and will likely vote for him again in 2020. No, what drove the blue wave was convincing people who stayed home in 2016 to show up in 2018. That’s an entirely different proposition.
In 2016, about 69 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and about 66 million people voted for Donald Trump. But about 95 million voting-age citizens—about 40%—didn’t vote at all. Of course, when we look at those numbers it might be tempting to lay the blame on the two candidates’ unpopularity—and, according to polling data, Clinton and Trump were the two most unpopular candidates ever recorded. But it must also be noted that voter suppression, disenfranchisement, alienation, and general apathy also played a role in turnout. And we also have to note that turnout rates were about the same in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and were even lower for the previous 30 years’ worth of presidential elections.
Still, the path to a Democratic victory in 2020 is mainly going to come down to not winning back moderate Republicans but at how effective both the Party and the grassroots are at getting people to the polls. Turnout is key in any election, but in order to surmount the Electoral College, voter suppression laws, and active foreign interference, it’s going to take a rise in participation that the United States hasn’t seen in over a century, since the period we now call “the Progressive Era.” Getting that many people to vote is going to be difficult under any circumstances, but I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be more difficult without a candidate that actually excites people.
And here’s the thing: I don’t know anybody who is actually excited about voting for Joe Biden. As you’d expect, given my own political leanings and the activist circles I move in, I know a lot of people who are excited about Sanders and Warren. But I also know a lot of people who are excited about other candidates. I have talked to people who are thrilled about Bloomberg. I know people who talk about how much they like Buttigieg. I know people who are all-in for Yang. I know people who love Klobuchar. And before they dropped out, I heard from a lot of people who were excited for Harris or Booker or Castro or Gillibrand or Inslee. But, so far, every person who has talked to me about why they’re voting for Biden has made a point of talking about how they don’t actually like him, but that they feel they have to vote for him. I don’t think that a candidate that people feel not excitement for but only obligation can drive new voter registrations and get people to show up on Election Day in the numbers that we need. I don’t think that Joe Biden can win.
I could be wrong, of course. One person’s anecdotes about the conversations he’s had is not the same thing as reliable data. I live in one of the most reliably Democratic-voting states in the country, and I work with an openly progressive activist organization. So, yes, my experiences may not be representative.
Moreover, it’s also quite possible to look at the 2018 blue wave and come away with the conclusion that centrism works—certainly the majority of the freshman House Democrats are moderates. We can argue about how progressive candidates would have done in any of those districts, but in most cases it would just be speculation. And it may be that beating Trump is enough of an incentive to get historical turnout numbers in 2020, even without a Democratic nominee that people actually like.
Ultimately, each of us is going to do what we think is best. We’re going to make our decisions for our own reasons and on our own terms. I’m certainly not going to tell you who to vote for in the primaries, and if Joe Biden wins the nomination, I will do my best to get out there and get people to vote for him in November.
But what I would like is for each of us to try to look past what we fear and try to figure out what we really want, what we think will actually make this country and the world better. Because I really do believe that voting for what we actually want is not just the idealistic thing to do, it makes good tactical sense, too.
From time to time, people close to me have asked me why I decided to get involved with politics, and what I've told them is that after the 2016 election I was upset and angry and depressed. I was upset with the outcome, of course, but even more than that, I was upset because I knew I hadn't done anything to prevent it from happening. I didn't want to some day be on my death bed regretting not having done something.
As I write this, it seems all but assured that a rapist is going to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, and what I keep coming back to is that idea of leaving it all on the field. The idea that you can feel comforted in defeat by the knowledge that you did everything you could. It's that "everything" that gets me, because I know that whatever I have done, I could have done more.
I've had a lot of talks with people over the past year and a half as we've worked together to try to build a movement. At times we all deal with exhaustion, burnout, depression, and what I say to them is this: you have to take care of yourself if you want to be able to stay in the fight. It's not just good to take breaks and recharge, it's necessary. What matters isn't one person's effort, but the collective effort of all of us, working together. You don't have to do everything; you just have to do something. It is, of course, a lot harder to apply that advice to myself than to others.
There were plenty of times where instead of canvassing a neighborhood or registering voters or phonebanking or helping to organize a protest, I chose to read a book or work on an art project or watch TV or something else that feels frivolous on a day like today. In the abstract, I know that never taking time for myself would be self-defeating, that self-care is as important for me as it is for anybody else. I needed some of that time for myself. What eats at me is: did I need all of it?
I'm not so arrogant as to think that one hour more or one hour less of my efforts would have made much of a difference either way, not in a struggle big enough to bind up the entire country. The question is always: what's enough for me to feel OK with myself?
It feels like I'm asking you for something, but this isn't the kind of question that anybody else can answer. No one can give you permission to stop, or absolution if you do. No one can tell you what your limits are, what you're capable of, or how much you need in order to recover. You have to decide all of these things for yourself—which is to say, I have to decide for myself.
I think that being hard on myself helps me go further, but only to a point, and being clear-eyed about where that point is is difficult. I guess that what I hope is not so much that you can tell me what to do, but rather just that sharing a burden might help lighten it a bit. And I don't know everyone who receives these letters, but I've often found that these things go both ways, that when I read about someone else's struggles, I often feel better, too.
So, thank you. And take care.