Voting as Harm Reduction

Call white voters bigots or don’t. But in good times and in bad, in peacetime and in war, in sunshine or in shadow, white America votes for those candidates it believes are most likely to keep people of color “in their place”—either outside the country altogether, or in the most servile and subordinate condition possible within it.

—Kevin Baker, “Losing My Religion,” Easy Chair column, Harper’s Magazine, March 2020

I am finally sitting down to write a new blog post at the end of February 2020. My new book Hidden San Francisco just came out, and I just hosted yesterday the inaugural Twilight “City Front” Bay Cruise too. I hang out with my almost 3-year-old granddaughter twice a week, and Shaping San Francisco continues to chug along, underfunded but sustained by our commitment; the reward is that it is interesting and engaging most of the time.

I often feel a palpable nausea when I wake up to another day of life in the U.S. And I don’t have much to complain about personally. My personal situation is very comfortable thanks to my land trust apartment and its relatively eviction-proof low rent, and my low cost of living thanks to not owning an automobile, and paying the minimum for a high-deductible health insurance. I can proudly say that I’ve made it from 23 to 63 years old without having to have a regular 40-hour+ job (in fact, I’ve not had any “real jobs” all that time beyond self-employed small business gigs and the occasional college class to teach). I’ve enjoyed a remarkably free life, intellectually and socially, and I continue to enjoy the fruits of that freedom every day. A lack of financial hardship of course has been a blessing throughout, not because I ever got rich or had a lot of money, but because I was able to save some of my limited income (and the small payout I got from the only time I owned property) by keeping my overhead as low as possible. Lucky me. But the world around me, in San Francisco, in California, in the United States, and certainly across the planet, is going to hell. And there is nothing on the horizon that gives me much hope that we can halt this disaster and turn towards a liberatory abundance rooted in our common wealth.

Taken during our inaugural Twilight “City Front” Bay Cruise on February 28, 2020.

The bizarre ritual of American politics is fully underway, and it’s difficult to discuss politics or political issues without it devolving into a comparative popularity contest of the various candidates. My own long-time antipathy for electoral politics and especially presidential politics, makes this spectacular ritual all the more repellent. But like everyone, I too succumb to the daily reporting on the horse race, much the same as I follow a baseball pennant race, or the NBA regular season. But in the case of presidential politics it’s hard not to try to interpret the polls and primary votes as having some larger political meaning, if only because so much of the U.S. population that chooses to pay attention to politics invests nearly all its energies into this narrow and symbolic “choice.” The half that tunes out is mostly tuned out of any sense of politics or historical agency. In any case, there is a shortage of broad grassroots organizing going on outside of the “electoral imperative.”

Like most people with a critical mind and a heart, I have been a bit traumatized by Trumpism, especially its blatant white supremacist ideology. On one hand, I saw the turn to xenophobic nationalism and racist trolling as more of the same that we endured in the 1980s under the equally dim-witted TV president Reagan. But this is decades later, and the revanchist efforts to restore American primacy launched by the ruling class in the mid-1970s through the embrace of the marketizing, privatizing neoliberal attack on the social and the public has largely run its course. We’re left with a profoundly atomized and fearful population. The bonds of solidarity and mutual aid, probably strongest among the poorest and most oppressed communities, have largely been destroyed among working- and middle-class people. Most seem to accept the prevailing sense that There Is No Alternative, and that you’re on your own. Instead of Freedom = Slavery we get Kleptocracy = Meritocracy, and for some bizarre reason an awful lot of people actually believe it (it may be one of Trump’s most useful qualities, his willingness to openly and brazenly flaunt the norms that keeps the corruption buried, most recently in his flurry of pardons for white-collar criminals who were convicted of all the things he’s been doing all along). The bigger public secret remains War = Peace, which masks the insane expansion of the U.S. military budget, and the pointless murders, slaughters, and lost wars that should have long ago discredited the Pentagon and its apologists.

We are on course to fill the world’s oceans with more plastic (in terms of sheer weight) than life. In the face of this ecocidal absurdity, private investors in major oil companies are expanding plastic production by over 40% in the near future. The United States claims to be the best of all possible societies, even when things are deteriorating all around us in such dramatic fashion—from the collapse of daily news sources to the brutal unhousing of ever more of our neighbors, the rapacious destruction of the limited environmental protections we managed to develop since the 1970s, the abandonment of public lands and public resources to venal profiteers, etc. etc.

A surprisingly large number of people continue to believe in their underlying well-being, especially if they own a house. Somehow the decades-long inflation of property values is expected to continue forever, and the long-term disconnection between income and the cost of shelter is to be ignored. For the 40% of the population that cannot handle a $500 emergency due to lack of savings or resources, property values offer no hope, and for most of the bottom half of the population, endlessly rising housing prices and rents only exacerbate an already untenable situation.

Thought about in this way, maybe Bernie Sanders has a chance. But even if he were to win, and somehow bulldoze the inevitable obstruction in Congress (where millionaire Nancy Pelosi and her plutocrat allies will be among the most intransigent), the idea that jobs and economic growth are in themselves a good thing will go unchallenged. A Green New Deal may finally begin to direct our daily productive lives towards some of the real transformations that are already decades too late. But it also threatens to complicate even further urgent attempts to break with the growth paradigm that drives capitalist accumulation and ensures that we will eventually go headfirst into the abyss.

So I’m happy to see Sanders doing better than anyone else in the current campaign. Some friends on the left are certain his candidacy is doomed to repeat the McGovern 1972 catastrophe, and they may be right. It’s hard to imagine enough young voters turning out to swamp the gerontocracy and its millions of elderly white supremacist voters. Though they do conveniently keep dying, there are deep currents running through whole swaths of the country that are too easily tapped by demagoguery and open appeals to whiteness, America First, and other ideological ghosts that have chased us all through the 240 years of U.S. history.

If this election turns on anything, I think it is a generational opportunity to repudiate for once (and let’s hope, for all) the persistent white racism that has had its last gasp of self-congratulatory power while firmly planting its head into its collective ass during the Trump era. Surely there must be a substantial majority who are sick of the backward-looking, reactionary, incredibly dumb people who are running the show, Trump only being the figurehead for a brazen strata of comfortable criminals. Their criminality takes all the usual forms—stealing public resources and money, exploiting millions of people while brutalizing others, destroying common wealth in pursuit of their own profits, and irretrievably destroying a potentially abundant future that should belong to everyone on earth. So sure, vote the bums out. But voting is not enough, not nearly enough.

3 comments to Voting as Harm Reduction

  • Thiago

    Good to hear your words about it. Even considering all the trouble and limitations Bernie will face with the Democrats/billionaires/status-quo, it’s probably a key moment for a slight shift in US that can mean a big shift for the world. Not only due to climate emergency, but in geopolitics: four more years of Trump means four more years of Bolsonaro here in Brazil, probably some more years of Orban, Erdogan, etc, etc… Maybe it’s just a “rolling stop” in the catastrophe, but maybe the “rest of the world” can take the push and make their own changes to avoid the global shrinking ship. It’s not enough, but the situation here in Brazil is so dystopic and reaching unprecedent peaks of “normalized violence” and generalized destruction (of the environment, human rights, social security, knowledge, etc, etc) that any shift in the US could mean any hope (?) for us and maybe for other parts of the world. Abraço!

  • Miguel

    Here’s the interview:
    Like his consistency in referring to both climate crisis and nuclear crisis. He seems to invoke “existential cris” to encompass both. More of this thinking and linkeages please.

  • Miguel

    Thoughtful as always CC.
    Read an interview with Noam today which also resonates:
    …in the real world conditions are not ripe for large scale institutional change to true democratization and popular participatory control of social, economic, and political life – though in fact seeds of such developments do exist and can flourish. Like it or not, the urgent issues of today will have to be confronted within the general framework of existing institutions, while at the same time serious efforts should be undertaken to rid ourselves of oppressive institutions and move forward to greater freedom, justice, authentic democracy, cooperation and mutual aid in all spheres of life.

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