In 2016, the first year I was eligible to vote, I was a very enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter. He made me, and millions of other people, excited about the potential for real progressive change in this country. His campaign exposed me to democratic socialism, so I owe him a good deal in my political development as a leftist. I was genuinely sad when I didn’t register in time to vote for him in the primaries. I held my nose casting my first ever vote for Clinton in the general election.
If I had been the same person I was back then, I’d no doubt be a die-hard Bernie fan again today. However, a lot has changed in the past four years, and as the 2020 Democratic primaries are in full swing, I look at American electoral politics with deep skepticism and ambivalence.
At this point, I’ve come to the following conclusion: electoral politics won’t bring us a political revolution. Why not?
In 1956, W.E.B. DuBois refused to even register to vote, arguing that “democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no ‘two evils’ exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.” Over half a century later, Democrats and Republicans alike are still beholden to the interests of the wealthy and the elite.
Although Democrats are fond of posturing as though they care about people of color, poor people, immigrants, LGBTQ folks and other communities they need to tokenize in order to win votes, their rhetoric fails to hold up when it comes to actual policy. From Bill Clinton’s devastating 1994 crime bill to his signing of the Defense of Marriage Act or Obama’s reputation as 'deporter in chief' to his bailing out big banks, after a certain point, it becomes difficult to see how Democrats have any legitimate claim to a “moral high ground.”
It has been disheartening, though not surprising, to see how even the most “progressive” or “radical” of Democrats fall in line on the issue of American imperialism. Check out Bernie Sanders’s unqualified “yes” in response to questions like whether he’d consider military force for a humanitarian intervention or pre-emptive strikes against Iranian or North Korean missile tests or his lack of support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Or his track record of voting in favor of nearly every instance of American interventionism in the last two decades.
This isn’t meant to be an attack on Bernie in particular but rather an attempt to highlight how even the most “radical” promises to change the system are still working from within the status quo. After witnessing the debacle in Iowa, it’s clear that the Democratic National Committee is doing its best to sabotage Bernie (as it did in 2016!). The DNC is tripping over itself to block a mere democratic socialist from the nomination. The system is blatantly rigged. Why are we pretending it’s a legitimate avenue for change?
Maybe seeking to “change from within” a position that by default makes you deporter in chief; head of the greatest military threat in the world; and leader of the white supremacist, settler-colonial, capitalist, imperialist project called the “United States of America,” isn’t the right path to a revolution.
But where does this leave us?
Du Bois had an answer. “When again we can hold a fair election on real issues, let’s vote, and not till then,” he said. “Is this impossible? Then democracy in America is impossible.” My apprehension about voting does not come from a place of “purity,” in which I supposedly refuse to vote for a candidate who doesn’t satisfy all of my requirements. No, that’s not the issue at hand.
I’m haunted by Du Bois’s words that “democracy in America is impossible.” I am unsettled, agitated, agonized by the realization that our so-called democracy is a fatally inadequate means of redress. The historical and ongoing subjugation of poor brown people around the world, Black people in the United States and Indigenous people on Turtle Island is the foundational violence that sustains this country. How are we to wield democracy against this America that birthed it?
When Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country,” he might have been onto something. The prospect of socialism in America and imperialism abroad, gains for the working class in the imperial core at the expense of the exploitation of the people of the Global South, is not an ideology we can—or should—accept.
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People radicalized by Bernie in 2016 and principled socialists and anti-imperialists in 2020 should remember that our mission is not to change America from within. Our vision of justice necessitates a completely unrecognizable United States, and we can’t vote our way there.
Perhaps voting for Bernie is a strategic step, but it can never be the final goal. And in the event of a Sanders presidency, are we prepared to wage simultaneous battles against the inevitable conservative and liberal backlash to a democratic socialist president and against that same president himself?
We need to be honest about the reality that voting is not going to save us. But people have already been organizing for affordable housing, land repatriation, the abolition of ICE, a $15 minimum wage, an end to American interventionism, climate justice, reparations and so much more—and they will continue organizing to win a world no matter who is in office.
The enormous amount of energy and passion that goes into electoral politics can be so easily put into organizing around grassroots issues that can make an actual, material change in people’s lives—especially the most vulnerable people who only seem to matter to politicians once every four years and who are abandoned in the off-cycle. Every four years, millions of people look for someone to save us, but we, the people, are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, “planting seeds,” runs on alternate Mondays.