One of the most upsetting arguments I've heard this election season (well, the most upsetting not to come from the right), is that those who don't vote Democrat this election are exercising some sort of identity-related privilege in not doing so. Most disturbing, is that this argument has not just come from the usual tepid liberals, but from those who might call themselves leftists, from those who, in their usual, non-election season, non-swing state personas would probably be the first to call Obama a one percenter, or maybe even a war criminal.
So, if my Asian immigrant, male comrade, with no job and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt makes the case for not voting for the lesser of two evils, it's not out of a principled political position, but because he has the male privilege not to have to care about what happens to his reproductive rights.
And if I, a white woman with a low-income job, whose reproductive rights are under immediate threat, discuss my decision to vote for a third party candidate, then this is because I have the straight privilege to not have to worry about marriage rights. Or, perhaps it's because I have health insurance and don't have to worry about what Romney would do to the health insurance industry.
"Surely," this argument seems to imply, "if you had it bad like me, or bad like them, you'd share my politics."
This tortured reasoning came out in Mother Jones about a week ago, as the writer directs an absolute stomach-churning screed against radicals:
In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it's that the people in question won't be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.
An undocumented immigrant writes me, "The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with." Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, "Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don't vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters."I want to try to get past the incredibly asshole-ish tone of the piece (you'll see what I mean, if you read more than just that tid bit; she actually calls this left-wing voter suppression) and finally unpack this argument, because it's now the fourth time I've had it directed at me or a friend in the past months.
Here are a few of the wrong assumptions this argument rests on. I'm going to start with the least serious and work my way to the most serious:
Assumption #1: That the reason any progressive would disagree with the progressive-in-question's political assessment must always be his/her identity.
The absurdity of this assumption, of course, is demonstrated by the scenarios I laid out to start about how the argument shifts and transforms based on who the person is who doesn't want to vote Obama. If, by definition, not voting for the democrats is looked at as a privileged position, then you'll always be able to find out what privilege it is that any person who doesn't vote Dem has and chalk up the decision to that.
There's no real way to disprove privilege in this case either, since, within privilege theory, it's the ability to engage in privileged behaviors that classifies you as privileged. So, no matter how disadvantaged I am, and no matter how much that informs my political consciousness, I can never convince a person I am leading with my sense of disadvantage, rather than privilege. Once you've made the conversation about identity, there is no way for ANY person to win the debate and defend themselves against this charge, which should lead us to suspect that maybe this has nothing to do with identity at all!
People with a very diverse set of privileges and disadvantages have a diverse number of political positions on this election. So, let's go ahead and say things are more complicated than that and actually engage the political questions, shall we?
Assumption #2: That privilege theory itself would condemn the person not voting Obama rather than the person voting for Obama.
I don't usually go in for this reasoning, because of point 1. This is a good way of proving nothing, dodging political questions, and, in a way, moralizing people into your viewpoint, rather than genuinely winning them to it. But, it should be noted that I could easily turn the logic of privilege back on the Obama voter by bringing in the greatest possible degradations created by Obama policies, and fault them for having too much privilege to care about this degradation. For instance, I might suggest that someone only supports a president who drone bombs innocent children in Pakistan, because they have the privilege of not being one of those children. Once we've reached this point, how can they possibly defend themselves against the charge that they are indeed more privileged than these children? They can't.
"Okay, drone bombing is bad, and that's something we need Obama to stop, but--but--" No. No buts about it. By their own logic, which said, no matter what valid complaints we might share about Obama's policies, nothing excuses the privileged move of letting less privileged people suffer (an assumption we'll get to in a second), because of my privileged political complaints.
It's not such fun territory to be in, is it? Like I said, I wouldn't go down this path for real because it's an irrefutable, accusatory, and moralistic path to go down. But, sometimes bringing this possible route up to your accuser might at least help to shake them of this certainty that everyone who disagrees with them has simply failed to consider the stakes involved.
Assumption #3: That voting for Democrats is a practical way of helping the disadvantaged.
Phew. I'm glad we finally progressed to the point where we can address the actual political reasoning behind not voting for Obama. This is the big, incredibly important assumption that these privilege arguments seem to rest on. Now, I know our Mother Jones writer assures us she knows everything it is we "privileged" leftists have to say about Obama. Yeah, yeah, she insists, she and the other Obama apologists know this stuff too! You don't have to keep "leftsplaining" about drone bombs and attacks on civil liberties and such.
Well, apparently we do. Because this is one you don't hear us on. Let me be clear.
Not voting for Obama is not just a symbolic move, or a decision I make to reinforce my sense of moral superiority. It is a protest against a party that causes great harm, that crushes and paralyzes mass social movements, thus keeping in place a system that has devastated nations, the earth, and countless individuals on a daily basis, that prevents the turning of the political tide to a different world. It is a protest against a two-party system that will continue killing and destroying lives unless we, a mass of people, stand against this sham masquerading as democracy.
The Democratic party does not protect my reproductive rights. Its failure to protect those rights is a direct cause of the ease with which the right could go on a full-force offensive against them over the last two years, and of my inability to actually access or afford many reproductive services even now (because of restrictions and economic inequality they don't even pretend to want to address).
The Democratic party will not give us federal gay marriage. The Democratic party will not protect social security or medicare or any other of these important programs the working-class in this country has won. We may get those things, and it may be while Democrats are in office, or it may be while Republicans are in office. But they will have come from mass movements that force the parties into these concessions, not from the parties themselves. Parties don't give us things out of kindness; they give them when they are demanded. And what pressure do the Democrats have on them to give us anything when they know that no matter who they drone bomb and how often, or how much money they redistribute to the 1%, progressives will vote for them loyally, as long as the Republicans exist?
So, these progressives can go ahead and vote Democrat. I'm not going to assume they do so out of privilege, but because we have a legitimate debate about how change will occur and about the fundamental nature of the Democratic party.
In truth, I live in a swing state, and I'm tired of talking about it. I don't think it's the most pressing question of our time (or even near the top). Building the mass movements that move the world is at the top of my agenda. And so, whatever will bring you back to those movements as soon as possible, is what I advocate that you do. So, let me simply end with this note a friend of mine posted online after social networks exploded with ranting and raving about last night's debate:
Will you join my N7 movement?
It's actually not a new one, but an age-old one rebranded for right here, right now. The November 7 movement, that is. The people who recognize that on the day after the US election, no matter who wins, the social, political, and economic inequalities we are fighting against will continue to exist...and the solution will continue to be grassroots organizing against these representatives of the 1%.
60-100 or so schools will still be on the chopping block in Chicago. Palestine will still be under occupation. Unions will still be in decline and under attack, even though union jobs are better-paying and more secure jobs. Brown and Black people, LGTBQ people, anyone who is marginalized and oppressed, will still be seen as less than normal, less than equal, and will face direct and indirect targeting. Women will still have legal abortion rights but limited access--and all of those issues which are inseparable from women's rights (jobs, health care, education, wars, poverty, etc.) will continue to be devastating the lives of women. And on and on.
You want to put aside your reservations and vote Obama because Romney is so #@!#$ right-wing? Well ok, I get it. But join the N7 movement, too. Because we can't be blackmailed like this again, and again, and again, and again...