In an Election that Pits Inspiration Against Evil, How Should We Treat Political Dissenters?


Last Friday, Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike — who’s been a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders throughout 2016 — gave an interview to TMZ wherein he suggested that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were essentially identical. This has been a claim that’s been heard from the fringes of the pro-Sanders movement — the so-called “Bernie or Bust” faction — and it’s been met with dismay by the rest of the left and by centrists, who fear that Sanders supporters refusing to vote for Clinton might have the unfortunate effect of ushering Trump into power.

When I heard that Killer Mike had apparently joined the chorus of Bernie or bust, my immediate responses were befuddlement and a defensive need to dissociate: I enthusiastically supported Bernie Sanders during the primary, and still have moments of lamentation for his candidacy. I was impressed and moved by every talk Killer Mike gave for the Sanders cause. But come November, I’ll definitely be voting for Hillary.

In his pro-Sanders speeches, Killer Mike spoke vehemently about racialized socioeconomic injustice, and helped bring rhetoric about the intersection of classism and racism in the country to both the campaign trail and the media. His statement about Clinton and Trump, however, suggested that perhaps his logic may not have been as unwaveringly sound as it had appeared.

Here’s exactly what Mike said to TMZ:

We had one candidate this year, who had a strong chance of winning, who was anti-growing war, and that was Sanders, and we didn’t vote him in, so we’re getting what we asked for. We’re asking for more war. And, if you don’t want any war, you’d be voting Jill Stein. If you want less government and war, you’d be voting Gary Johnson. But if you’re voting for Trump or Hillary Clinton, you’re voting for the same thing. All of us, as citizens, need to kind of get over our classisms and vote for the betterment of us all.

This is the same sort of disconcerting reductiveness that’s characterized other celebrity statements (most notably, Susan Sarandon.) It’s given plenty of “told you so” fuel to Sanders skpetics like Samantha Bee (whose elections coverage I’ve thoroughly enjoyed except for her cynicism toward Bernie supporters.)

The rapper also said that he was undecided about who he’d be supporting come the actual election, but that it’d be neither major candidate. At face value, then, his statement is easy to criticize. What’s frustrating is that he had plenty of other things to say in the TMZ interview, and many of them were totally valid. For example, he dismissed Trump’s recent, ridiculous statement about Obama “founding” ISIS as ridiculous, but also noted:

I do think our government has done a great job at destabilizing countries and creating enemies. And, you know, as Americans, we have to understand that, in the world, we’re an empire.

This election cycle has been one of extremes, and part of that has been fed by the way the media latches onto the most headline-worthy aspect of statements by candidates, commentators and anyone else with anything to say on the election. Mike’s statement about Clinton and Trump being “the same” is ill-advised, but it doesn’t mean his voice should be cast aside entirely, which I will admit was my first instinct when I read TMZ’s headline. The idea of silencing anyone who might damage “the cause” has also been a defining characteristic of the 2016 campaign: I even partially felt this way about protesters at the DNC when I heard them interrupting speeches — a part of me just wanted them to shut the fuck up so the anti-Trump cause wouldn’t be harmed by insider discord.

The overarching discourse of this election season had made me, and many others, fear the very thing that should bolster political campaigns: debate. Following the cheerleading of the DNC, and the cheer-led responses I saw, I’m now likewise unsettled by this election’s eradication of the discussion of grey areas — not just by belligerent bulldozers like Trump, but also by a great deal of his opponents across the media, both “mainstream” and social. Trump’s crude rhetoric of absolutes has rubbed off on “us,” and that’s also scary.

I understand the impulse to create a shield against Trump’s evils by building up a morally invincible notion of what his opponent is. But just because Trump is horrifying doesn’t mean that Clinton, or even Obama, are avatars of perfection and inspiration, as their uncritical meme-ification following the exciting (insomuch as social politics and representation were concerned), but also off-putting-ly jingoistic Democratic National Convention suggested.

Obama delivered one of the best presidential speeches in recent memory — and indeed, has been one of the best Presidents in decades. But our need for superheroes to fight the threat of the bloviating supervillain across the aisle seems to have stifled nuance. Even “good” politicians can — and, indeed, inevitably do — exist as positive forces who’ve also ordained ugly things. Just a week before Obama’s speech, over 60 Syrian civilians (including children), mistaken for ISIS fighters, were allegedly killed in a US-led military attack outside of Manbij, Syria. Back in 2012, the New York Times wrote about the frighteningly casual judgment of drone strikes:

Some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official.

Though it was widely reported, it felt like the accidental massacre in July — which caused the alleged highest amount of civilian deaths in an attack by the coalition to date — was also under-shared on social media. Why? Possibly because all else was overwhelmed by the self-congratulation of the DNC, and possibly also because of a sense that to respond with anything but excitement would risk bolstering Trump. (This idea, that liberals who are in any way critical of Clinton are basically Trump supporters, was taken to hilarious extremes today in The Daily Beast, a publication that has not, it has to be said, been having a good August.)

The inspirational fervor surrounding Clinton on my social media feed following the DNC was coupled with similar ire towards so-called saboteurs: anyone who doubted that Clinton’s intersectional speech would be genuinely followed up with actual policy in the case of a victory; anyone still dubious about signifiers of social justice coming from the person married to the man who signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (which funneled $10 billion into the carceral system) and devastated the welfare system, or from someone who now seems to unwaveringly support Israeli policy; anyone dubious about her ties to Wall Street, her plans of all-too-incremental environmental progress during a frighteningly hot summer punctuated by climate disaster, her inarguable hawkishness. In other words, anyone who still wasn’t totally on board with the ascendancy of Hillary.

All too often I see people tear apart prospective third party voters as idealists voting strictly out of a sense of contrarianism (or some misogynist or unfounded opposition to Hillary — which exists, but not across the board) as opposed to people with their own strategic endgames and coherent political philosophies. Friends who consider voting third party don’t do so out of any wild delusion, but rather to end the bipartisan underrepresentation of the left.

The fact remains: we have one extreme right mainstream party and one moderate mainstream party. And the Democratic Party’s treatment of Sanders — regardless of your views on the merit of some Sanders’ supporters rumblings about electoral fraud, the DNC’s antipathy toward him has been clear since the start — demonstrates that there’s no legitimate platform for a genuine leftist candidate. Diverting 5% of the vote towards, say, the Green Party, would get that party federal funding in the next election, and be a step toward dismantling the capitalist inevitability of our current bipartisan system. Having third partiers poll at 15% would allow them into the debates. (And if third party votes are balanced across the extreme Left and extreme Right, they may cancel each other out; as it stands, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is polling three times as high as Green Party candidate Jill Stein — so there’s currently more of a third party threat to Trump than Clinton.) It’s understandable for people who aren’t in swing states to contemplate the potentials of this, particularly if they feel like they’ve never been politically represented by a mainstream American party.

Overall, these people should be seen as potential allies, people it’d be great to convince to vote pragmatically this time around as opposed to enemies who need to be strong-armed with a threat of social ostracism and scorn. People trying to shame their third-party-oriented friends into voting for Clinton should understand that what they’re asking is for those friends to accede to another four years of political underrepresentation within a system that they don’t trust — it’s an important thing to ask, but it shouldn’t go unacknowledged that that’s what it is. Obviously people’s feelings aren’t the biggest issue when a potential authoritarian dictator could be our next President, but perhaps the best way to remind people of the importance of preventing said dictator isn’t belittling them.

In particular, the notion that a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump is tied into the very idea of bipartisan hegemony that third-partiers resist: that their vote actually belongs to one of two parties, and that in refusing to direct it to one of those parties, they’re essentially throwing it away. It’s important to understand that while neoliberal voters — even the ones who don’t love Clinton — are pretty much voting in a way that aligns politically with their thinking, a Democratic vote from someone who considers themselves a socialist, an environmentalist, a war opposer, or (to a lesser extent, as Clinton’s been best at revising her old politics on these issues) a fighter for radical social justice constitutes a leap across ideological lines.

Instead of suggesting that these people should surrender to their political futility by simultaneously voting for Hillary and being quiet, “sucking it up,” and not making it worse for everyone else, a better argument to emphasize is how much easier change would be to enact from the Left under a Clinton administration than under Trump. Think about the movements that emerged under Bush the second: an anti-war movement and an anti-Bush movement. Think about the movements that emerged under Obama: the genuinely radical and agenda-pushing Occupy and Black Lives Matter, even the Fight for $15.

Noam Chomsky notes in his (mostly) fantastic eight point brief on lesser evil voting that “The suffering which [Trump’s] extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalized and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency.” This is far and away the most important thing to stress in this election; but one can do it while acknowledging that Clinton is not exactly a Deus ex Machina for ending oppression — and perhaps while even acknowledging that Stein-curious people’s hyper-awareness of this is a good thing that could be valuable under a Clinton presidency. As Jane Sanders said in Rolling Stone after encouraging people to support Hillary (an interview I recommend everyone who wants to urge people on the far Left to vote for Hillary to read):

And we will hold [the Clinton campaign] accountable because we are endorsing her. We are that much more committed to making sure [she follows through on her promises], instead of saying , Oh, it’s politics as usual, people change. We’re not going to let that happen. Not without a big fight, if anything. If the Democratic Party starts backing away from the platform, ever, we will fight like crazy to support the work that all of these millions of people did.

Vote for Hillary, and hold her accountable is, I think, some of the best advice I’ve seen. I don’t agree with “Bernie or bust-ers,” and I do worry about the ramifications of people who seem arbitrarily opposed to Hillary in swing states. But I worry more about lazy/uninspired Democrats not voting at all than I do about the votes that, prior to the primary, would likely have gone to third party candidates in the first place. And I also fear that the total verbal abuse I’ve seen on social media for anyone who dissents from the mainstream will only further galvanize these people and turn them further away from a practical decision at the ballot box. When have you ever changed your mind about something because someone condescended to you and called everyone with your views — regardless of the fact that it’s a multi-gender movement — uninformed manchildren and bros who just don’t get it?

Instead, let’s try to embrace the potential of this voting bloc, both now and after a hopeful Clinton victory. After all, through Hillary’s campaign against Bernie, Hillary took on a far more leftist stance than she would have otherwise: from her minimum wage policy to her opposition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hillary also didn’t start out as particularly supportive of Black Lives Matter — as Deray McKesson noted, it took pressure — but it was a pressure she ultimately acknowledged, at least for her campaign; it is not a pressure Trump would ever give into, unless everything we know about the universe is false. With similar heat from the Left — and from a Congress that’s perhaps not as right-wing as that which Obama faced — Hillary could, especially if she aims for reelection, continue to feel the need to respond to grassroots activists who are the unsung change-makers in political discourse.