Before 2015, I was more or less apathetic about election politics. I was an Obama supporter, but was registered as an Independent and, except for watching the occasional debate, did not pay a lot of attention to ‘politics,’ especially not on a local level. At that time, my impression of ‘politics’ was that it was primarily talking heads who spoke in political jargon, and a baseline mistrust of the government made me pretty dismissive of the whole thing. It was no secret that I was — and still am — opposed to most of the ways America operates. From its establishment through colonization, genocide, and slavery, and its ongoing subservience to the rich, to men, and to whites (and therefore especially to rich white men) to its extreme inequality, its levels of violence domestically and militarism abroad, and corrupted political practices which thwart democracy, I have denounced the U.S. on many occasions and will continue to do so.
However, like many millennials, I was mobilized in 2015 when Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. I remember the shock of feeling that my values were actually represented by someone with a bid for the White House. His condemnation of the corporatocracy felt like the only truth I’d ever heard from within the political establishment. His campaign, along with the candidacy of Donald Trump, induced my first full immersion into mainstream politics. I really, really, really cared about that election and about what was at stake. When Trump won, my cynicism revived. The doors to real progress seemed to have slammed in our face, and it was a horrible blow.
I did not retreat back into indifference, however. The feeling of being invested in the direction of the nation — toward the well-being of all — and of using my voice in the political arena was empowering in and of itself.
Now, nearing the end of the second year of a Trump presidency, with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on Saturday, and with the mid-term elections quickly approaching, I have had to wrestle with my contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it’s clear that the American government, while never having been morally impeccable (far from it), has at this point totally derailed. This should not have come as a surprise; when a nation was established by wealthy men to uphold the interests of wealthy men, supposedly founded on ideals of freedom and justice while practicing genocide and slavery of indigenous peoples and people of color, and in which ongoing privatization/commodification of basic human needs; systemic racism; patriarchy and misogyny have always been rampant, it should not be a surprise that the trajectory of American government has ended up here.
This perspective makes it difficult to recognize the United States government as having any kind of legitimacy. On the other hand, it’s a system that is well-established and which we must reckon with, and which unfortunately holds sway over the every-day lives of millions and millions of people. As someone who has the right to vote (for whatever it’s worth), to contribute my voice on important issues, I feel a sense of responsibility to exercise that right. I struggle with this dichotomy, this contradiction; the desire to totally dissociate from what feels like a corrupt and illegitimate governmental system yet feeling responsible to intervene.
After the news of the Kavanaugh confirmation broke, a respected mentor of mine shared this op-ed by Howard Zinn that was written back in 2005 and which exactly aligns with my own thoughts:
Knowing the nature of the political and judicial system of this country, its inherent bias against the poor, against people of color, against dissidents, we cannot become dependent on the courts, or on our political leadership. Our culture–the media, the educational system–tries to crowd out of our political consciousness everything except who will be elected President and who will be on the Supreme Court, as if these are the most important decisions we make. They are not. They deflect us from the most important job citizens have, which is to bring democracy alive by organizing, protesting, engaging in acts of civil disobedience that shake up the system…
The rights of working people, of women, of black people have not depended on decisions of the courts. Like the other branches of the political system, the courts have recognized these rights only after citizens have engaged in direct action powerful enough to win these rights for themselves…
This is not to say that we should ignore the courts or the electoral campaigns. It can be useful to get one person rather than another on the Supreme Court, or in the Presidency, or in Congress…
[But] It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.
And so, I will vote in the upcoming mid-terms for the most progressive candidates on the ballot, but I will not hand over responsibility, power, or authority with that ballot. Voting in the elections, while important, is to me the smallest and least significant way that I will effect change on a large scale. More effective is a citizenry that understands the power of insubordination; of rebellion, revolution, autonomy, solidarity, community, creativity. More effective is to build ethical communities and to champion justice and equality in our own hometown and our own circles.
Because in the end, unwieldy oligarchies will fail. Corruption eats like a cancer and brings about its own inevitable death. And that’s when we’ll need the alternative frameworks to hold us up and take us in a new direction. I want to be part of that.
My lack of faith in the political establishment and in the American government is the opposite of apathy. I care enough to take social justice personally, and I will not abdicate that responsibility to anyone else.