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The Un-Election Year

Has electoralism ever rung more hollow?

As the protests over the police murder of George Floyd extended into their fifth, then sixth, then seventh nights, politicians from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama urged demonstrators who sought revolutionary change to go to the polls in November—we need to start “the work to replace” President Trump, said Clinton, while Obama counseled that in order to “make this moment the turning point for real change” protestors would have to “elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” Even as police met protestors with pepper spray and rubber bullets, local leaders from Georgia to New York kept up the refrain, pleading with demonstrators to express their discontent in a more amiable and orderly fashion—“If you want change in America, go and register to vote,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that protestors should “demand . . . change, and if government leaders won’t do it, or can’t do it, or don’t know how to do it then you vote them out.”

The flimsiness of this electoral argument is so clear that it hardly needs to be explained, but a few points bear repeating. Millions of people in this country do not have fair or adequate access to the vote in the first place: when Election Day comes they find they have been purged from the rolls, shuffled off to a distant polling site, or deprived of their franchise on the grounds of a prior criminal conviction. Even those who do manage to vote do so within a framework that is manifestly undemocratic, choosing congressmen in gerrymandered districts and a president by means of an Electoral College created as a compromise between slaveholders.

Millions of people in this country do not have fair or adequate access to the vote in the first place.

Even at the local level, where the government is supposed to be more responsive to the popular will, the power of the vote is limited at best. Transforming a broken, segregated city is not as easy as voting “nay” on the question of the status quo—even if you hate your mayor, you have to find someone with which to replace them. Minneapolis has one of the most liberal political establishments of any city in the nation, and indeed its mayor was elected on the promise of police reform; the same goes for Chicago and Atlanta. If these promises have turned out to be dubious, is that the fault of the voters? What alternative did they have? In New York City, where the police have spent days plowing into and pulling guns on peaceful demonstrators, we have a mayor who was elected and re-elected on a promise not just of reform but of radical change. As yet, I am aware of no viable candidate for major office who has called for the police to be defunded or abolished. The candidates who will not only endorse but execute the protestors’ vision for a better world have yet to reveal themselves, and we can forgive anyone who does not wish to get duped in the meantime.

But as the other events of this year have made clear, the hypocrisy of the exhortation to vote is not limited to the issue of police brutality. As protestors gathered by the thousands in American cities this weekend, where they were policed by officers who frequently declined to wear masks, some almost certainly infected others with the novel coronavirus, which as I write this continues to strain the global economy to the point of collapse. Our representatives in Congress, the fruits of our past exercises in democratic selection, have managed to respond to the ongoing pandemic by granting Americans a pittance of material relief that for many of them has already run out. Tens of millions of families across the country are without work, without money, without food. People in such circumstances are apt to make new calculations.

Just as no politician could have stopped the coronavirus altogether, the fact that it has so thoroughly devastated our country is not (or is not merely) proof that we did not vote the right way. The pandemic demands nothing less than a reorganization of our entire society: we must end our rapacious relationship to nature, rethink and humanize our supply chains, and reorient ourselves toward an ethic of mutual obligation. Certainly the astounding stupidity of the incumbent president has contributed to the failures of the disaster response, but to say this is his “fault” would be to give him too much credit, as it would be to blame Commodus for the fall of a dynasty that Augustus built.

Consider too the virus response strategy that has been proffered by the electoral opposition: Establish a response team. Ramp up testing. Listen to Dr. Fauci. The almost petulant refusal of the Biden campaign to offer any coherent vision for the country is due in part to the retrograde political instincts of the candidate himself, but the emptiness of his campaign is deeper than that. Biden is not promising to reimagine our society in the wake of the pandemic because he knows that the office he seeks can never be a vehicle for such a reimagining, that indeed the best he can do is restore the nation to the unsustainable stalemate it was in the last time he was in the White House. His nostalgic campaign messaging—“nothing will fundamentally change”—is a vow to deliver us from the operatic lunacy of the current administration to the structural lunacy with which we are more familiar.

This choice between two dim visions of a national future, one medieval and the other merely maudlin, is a choice that Americans have been presented with before. Indeed the prevailing political consensus of the past half-century is based on the assumption that a large portion of the country’s citizens—young people, poor people, and people of color—will recognize that choice for what it is and will reject it as such. This electoral consensus has become so entrenched that it is almost impossible to challenge it on its own terms: the promised turnout revolution of Bernie Sanders’s campaign was defeated earlier this year by an actual turnout surge among suburban and older voters, the factions of the electorate best served by the two-party system and by the socioeconomic status quo. It was these voters who dragged Joe Biden over the finish line to the Democratic nomination, and it is these voters who seem poised to get him into the Oval Office this fall. The winner in November will be whichever candidate can win over more of the gerontocratic sub-electorate that our present system was built to serve, whichever septuagenarian man most devotedly woos the well-heeled suburbs of Pennsylvania and the retirement communities along the Florida coast.

Not in spite but because of this mandate, both candidates have remained insulated over the past few weeks from growing social disorder. Joe Biden has been cooped up at home in Delaware, making sporadic video call appearances with potential running mates; Donald Trump, meanwhile, holed himself up this weekend in the presidential bunker, turning off the lights in the White House as police tear-gassed protestors outside on the lawn. To an outside observer, this might seem like a contradiction—how could the people with the most power have such a minimized presence?—but in fact it is a faithful representation of the small and faltering power that our political system has to ensure the welfare or the suffering of the collective population. No doubt the decisions of the president, the chief justice, and the senate majority leader help to preserve or destroy innumerable American lives, but the events of the past three months have shown conclusively that there is always a bigger fish.

Just as none of us elected to live under a massive armed constabulary that patrols the streets with military-grade weaponry, there will be no opportunity in the near future to vote for the dissolution of that occupying force.

This in turn is the reason the political elite are so devoted to the narrative that voting is the best avenue for achieving a better country: no matter which way the Electoral College swings, certain things will not change. The safe bet in generations past has been that most of the country will not show up and disturb this equilibrium: the most marginalized and vulnerable can be counted on not to participate in what is essentially a coin toss between avarice and apathy. The older and better-off cohorts that make up the core constituencies of both major parties, on the other hand, are more than happy to play this quadrennial game: no politician from either party will ever lay more than a finger on their assets and their livelihood, so they don’t feel the need to demand any vision more substantial than a Democrat or a Republican sees fit to offer.

But now that millions of people are without their rent and grocery money, now that millions of jobs are vanishing by the week, the same demographic cohorts who have shunned the electoral process have found another avenue for their anger. The existence of a bad-faith protestor here and an agent provocateur there would not undermine the simple truth that the looting of pharmacies and Chanel stores is the expression not just of discontent but of privation, and as such the provenance of these protests is not that the American political elite is at risk of getting voted out but that the economic superstructure of the country is in danger of being destabilized, or at the very least rattled until things start to come loose.

It is possible that a week of torched police cars and charred Chase Bank branches will foster some near-term shift of the electoral Overton window, and for years to come many future city council members and state legislators may find themselves forced to espouse a heretofore unprecedented skepticism of the police. (At least seven New York Democrats have announced they will redistribute donations received from police and correctional officers to bail funds and mutual aid organizations.) But just as none of us elected to live under a massive armed constabulary that patrols the streets with military-grade weaponry, there will be no opportunity in the near future to vote for the dissolution of that occupying force. Neither will there be a popular referendum this fall on whether to dismantle the colossi of fossil fuels and factory farming—you cannot vote out what is not on the ballot.

Thus if as November approaches we find ourselves thinking that an election has never felt less important, we should take it as an indication not that this was an unusually eventful year, but that it was a year in which the independence of the world from the world of politics was made painfully, refreshingly clear. None of this is to say that one of the outcomes of the election is not better than the other, because one of them is better. But there is a world better than any candidate present or future can promise to deliver. As the calls for civility ring out once more, we might do well to see elections large and small for what they really are: brief interludes in a much longer story, a side-hustle in the long struggle toward justice.