Cruel optimism. It’s a concept theorized by University of Chicago Professor Lauren Berlant about how our attachment to objects or dreams can be the very obstacle to our ultimate goals, consuming our optimism. It’s heartbreak and betrayal from the very things we invest our energy and hope into. It’s repeated disappointment that saps away your ability to aspire. It’s the disaffection of marginalized voters, not because of “ignorance” or “laziness,” but because of an intimate knowledge that electoral politics has never been the source of survival or liberation. It’s the cruelty of cultivating that hope anyways.
Voting for Biden is less than the bare minimum. It’s politically ineffective. Not only is the only good president no president at all, but electoral politics, even strategically, is something we need to start divesting from. Time and time again we’ve been forced to vote for a different flavor of oppression, with ”no strategy to ratchet back the rightward creep” of US politics. Presidential elections, specifically, are seen as the end goal, rather than part of the struggle, enabling a sigh of relief as structural violence is once again made respectable.
Frankly, I cannot think of a single policy that differentiates Biden in any meaningfully liberatory way. Joe Biden told people not to “sully” Breonna Taylor’s memory by holding non-peaceful protests, yet he’s promised to give more funding to the very same forces who murdered her in her sleep. Watching the debates makes it clear that Biden’s priorities include more aggression in forwarding imperialism by force abroad. To those wondering about the empty seat in the Supreme Court, a reminder that abolishing the carceral state includes abolishing, not reforming, courts. It’s clear that voting only for the lesser of two evils has established “a slippery and ever inclining slope, a race to the bottom that has skewed American politics such that the “liberal party” is well to the right of American voters.”
Those who have wrestled with this question, but have ultimately decided that voting is still redeemable, believe we can organize and vote. However, political energy is limited and the priority should be direct action. A significant number of the “go vote” crowd are not actually involved in the struggles for marginalized people. They’re not committing to getting homeless folks into homes, with addresses they can place on IDs to register. They’re not fighting for DV survivors who can’t make their addresses public. They don’t fight for childcare, to free up time for Election Day. They’re not fighting for immigrants, who are barred paths to citizenship and the right to vote. The real hypocrisy and privilege is shaming people to vote once every four years, while not acknowledging or organizing around the real barriers and hurdles it takes to vote and live freely in the United States.
Democracy itself is incoherent on stolen land. Citizenship and all of its “privileges” are only available if violence is committed against those that are excluded from it. It’s not brave or revolutionary for colonizers to contribute to our own sovereignty and representation even as we deny it to Indigenous nations. I ask you to consider: What does it mean to vote on stolen land?
It’s baffling to me how the strategy for this year isn’t to go out into the streets, or even, at minimum, to nominate a progressive candidate. We’re redoing 2016 and hoping for better results, and the re-emphasis on voting is very much preparing people to place fault on individual people instead of interrogating the Democratic establishment’s political uselessness and violence. People heard “being apolitical is a privilege” and interpreted it as “not caring about electoralism makes you privileged” because voting is the only form of resistance we are allowed to imagine.
I’m planning on going to the Karsh Center today and checking the boxes for progressive local candidates, but leaving the presidential vote blank. Vote if you’re inclined, or vote because it informs the conditions in which people organize. Just know that uncritical faith in electoralism, in two parties both pushing for disaster capitalism and neoliberal violence, is what’s killing us. Not just Trump.
If voting is all you have or could ever conceive of having, you’ve long lost whatever war you think we’re fighting. Rather than feeling despair about this election, believe in a revolutionary optimism instead. See you in 2021.
Celine Wei is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "a spectre is haunting Duke," usually runs on alternate Fridays.
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