Voting Your Conscience

When I was a graduate student in the late 1990s I took a seminar about postcolonial literature and theory. We spent a lot of time discussing how colonizers oppressed those they conquered by taking away their ability to understand and make meaning in the world by, for example, making it illegal to teach or speak their native languages. The term we bandied about for this and other similar processes is epistemic violence. It is a brutal, devastating tactic that worked. Imagine one day not being able to find your way around your city because all the street names had been changed and all the informational signs were written in a language you didn’t know. Imagine the sense of dislocation, of fear, of confusion.

I found those discussions fascinating. But I remember one afternoon looking around at the mostly white faces in the room and thinking about how sterile the discussion was. There we were, eager graduate students, sipping our tea or coffee from travel mugs, talking with great passion about our assigned reading in the safety and comfort of an air-conditioned seminar room. So I asked why we weren’t talking about the physical violence—the raping, mutilating, and murdering—perpetuated by colonizers. Why weren’t we talking about bodies? I don’t actually remember the answer. I’m sure we did talk a little bit about the physical violence, but then we retreated from the blood and gore and stickiness to the clean, pure realm of theory.

I’ve been thinking about that particular day a lot lately because I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so bothered by my friends who insist that they are voting for Jill Stein (or Gary Johnson) because they have to vote their conscience or their principles. I admit that I don’t know many people who are so angry with the major parties that they are choosing to vote Green or Libertarian. But the ones I do know often include the caveat that they “have the luxury of voting their principles because they live in [insert solidly blue state] here.” I saw something like this posted by a complete stranger on Twitter just last night. He was arguing with an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and then tweeted that because he lived in California he had the “freedom to vote [his] principles and would probably write in Bernie.” I asked him if he would still write in Bernie if he lived in a red or swing state. So far he hasn’t replied. If he says no, I’ll know that he understands more than he lets on about what is at stake for millions of people in this country. If he says yes, then I’ll wonder how he can privilege his principles (which are by definition abstractions) over the actual safety of millions of other Americans not so lucky to be born a white guy. But when challenged about this privilege, so many of the people complaining that Hillary is just as bad as Trump (a mind-bogglingly infuriating statement by itself) say that they refuse to let FEAR dictate their votes. Of course they won’t. They have nothing to be afraid of.

So these same voters can fantasize about how a Trump presidency might be good for America. Like a controlled burn in a forest. Burn down the old establishment! Then a new one can rise like a phoenix! But think about what this means for the Americans who do not have the luxury to indulge in that fantasy. Think about the Americans whose hard-won rights will begin to evaporate. Think about their actual lives, their actual bodies. Think about what it is like for a Black man to drive in states where the police force has demonstrated a willingness to support officers who kill them. What does it feel like in that man’s body when he sees a flashing light behind his car? What does it feel like to be shoved onto the ground with a gun in your back? What does it feel like for a bullet to enter your chest? What does it feel like to die on the street? What does it feel like to be that man’s wife or child? Think about the young Black man walking down the street who is subjected to searches because a cop thinks he looks suspicious. What does it feel like to have some stranger’s hands patting you down when you’ve done nothing at all wrong? What does it feel like to be afraid of cops?

Think about the immigrant whom Trump wants to round up and deport. What is it like to be pulled from your home? To be sent back to a country you fled? What does it feel like to be separated from your family? What does it feel like to be denied entrance to this country because you are Muslim?

And think about the woman who, if Trump gets his way, may be forced to carry a baby to full term no matter the consequences to her health or the cause of the pregnancy. Do you know what pregnancy is like? Do you know what giving birth is like? Think about it. Imagine the pain. The blood. Imagine someone you love being forced to go through that. Then imagine what might happen to the actual child. Will she be adopted by loving parents? Will she end up in foster care? What will her life be like? What might happen to a woman who gets an abortion? Will she go to jail? What happens to bodies in jail? What happens if she gets an infection from the illegal abortion? What happens to her body?

What happens to the body of a teenager harassed because he is gay? What does it feel like to be told that you are an abomination? What does it feel like to be denied a marriage license because some clerk objects to your right to get married?

These are only a fraction of the questions I could ask about many different Americans’ lives. If you find them uncomfortable it is because they are meant to be. It’s easy to retreat to the safety of abstractions. That’s why I find my friends’ conviction so disappointing. That’s why I find their desire for more ideological purity in their candidates so frustrating. They are privileging their fantasy—because what else could the notion of an ideologically pure candidate be—over the reality of millions of Americans’ lives with nothing at all at stake for themselves. I don’t know how anyone’s conscience could allow that.

p.s. The Hillary supporter replied to Mr. Principles with “Vote Garfield.”

11 Comments

  1. Dave

    Excellent post. One thing I would add is that the reason voting for a third-party candidate in the US is a waste of time is the way our electoral systems work. With winner-take-all voting, two major parties is the only stable system. People who are upset about only having two choices and point to Europe as an alternative are ignoring the huge difference between their electoral systems. European parties are awarded seats proportionally. If you want more than two parties, you also want a new voting system, and you’d be better off working towards electoral changes than insisting that if we all just vote third-party, we’d have more than two. We wouldn’t, there are systemic reasons why that won’t work.

    Reply
  2. Abigail Bok

    Brava, Beth! I am also advising the “protest set” that they go to Clinton’s Web site and explore her positions on issues before they protest based on the cartoon version of her that has been promulgated by her opponents (and, lazily, by much of the media). The ones who marched out of the Democratic Convention without listening really gave me the pip.

    Reply
    1. beth (Post author)

      Thank you, Abigail! I get so irritated by people who have made up their minds about Clinton based on incomplete information and personal bias and who refuse to listen. Their self-righteous smugness makes me seethe.

      Reply
  3. Crystal R. Martin

    I’m gonna be the odd one out. Yes I live in a blue state. Sanders won our primary. If Clinton hadn’t cheated he would be the nominee. For me this election is beyond fear-based voting. Yes a Trump presidency scares me too. But a cheating Clinton presidency violates everything I believe in. I had been a democrat since 1991, when I registered to vote. In 2016 I left the democratic party. If I cast my vote for her then I am saying cheating to win is okay as long as we beat the other guy.

    I can’t do that. I can’t ignore Blacklivesmatter, or Standing Rock or climate change or ending war. The important things Sander and Stein have stood for. I am voting my conscience and my values. I can look at myself in the mirror, and know that I stood for something profoundly important without guilt.

    Reply
    1. beth (Post author)

      Clinton didn’t cheat. She got more votes. If you’re talking about how the DNC floated a few ideas in emails to subvert Bernie, remember, they acted on none of them. If you’re referring to some other actions, what are they? I’m so tired of that narrative–that she’s more dangerous than Trump because she cheats or because she’s in Wall Street’s pocket or whatever else. You’re ignoring her long record of public service. You’re ignoring the fact that she and Bernie voted the same 93% of the time. Do I agree with every single thing she has done? No. Do I think she will be a good president? Hell yes. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination because more Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton. He has admitted this. He has been urging his supporters to vote for her.

      Do you honestly believe that the Black Lives Matter movement would suffer under a Clinton presidency? (She didn’t vote for the 1992 crime bill, but Sanders did). If so why? Do you honestly believe that she won’t fight for ways to stop climate change? What in her past record of service makes you think these things? What bills did she support as a senator that give you this sense of her? What actions has she taken–I’m talking specific actions–that cause you such doubt? She voted for the war in Iraq. That was wrong. We’ve all seen what an enormous disaster that has been. Do you think she doesn’t know this? She’s a flawed human being like all the rest of us. But she learns from her mistakes.

      You’re demonstrating my point. You want an ideologically pure candidate–as you perceive Sanders and Stein to be. But there is no such person.

      Reply
    2. beth (Post author)

      Also, would you vote for Stein if you lived in a red or swing state?

      Reply
  4. Abigail Bok

    I’m sorry, reality check. Clinton cheated? She somehow snuck into voting booths all across the country and fooled 3 million more people into voting for her instead of Sanders?

    Reply
  5. Crystal R. Martin

    Well this will be where we agree to disagree. College Professors have done studies showing that it was impossible she could have won, and there is proof she cheated.

    Plus you state that the DNC didn’t act on their emails? They broke the Roberts Rules of Order at the Nevada Caucus, that’s just one incident. She was their chosen nominee before the first primary. That’s not right. Look I understand the need for a first female president, but not at the cost of the country. If she were a good candidate, I would vote for her in a nanosecond, but she’s not.

    You are also ignoring the fact that the FBI said she did do wrong, but they were not going to charge her for it. These things are not manufactured, so I guess we agree to disagree. We will all have to vote our conscience. But if Trump wins don’t yell at me. I’m not intending smugness either, I just refuse to give in to fear-based voting for a candidate that goes against my values… 🙂

    Reply
    1. beth (Post author)

      I don’t agree to disagree. But I won’t yell at you if Trump wins. I’ll be too busy fighting to make sure that the people who will be affected by his presidency survive it.

      Reply
      1. Beatrice

        I should add that it’s pretty damn striking how much the social dynamics of the puortincdacy resemble high school (there are some great pieces on it). The pundits always want to play kingmaker, and their judgment is unfailingly horrendous. Bush, not once, but twice?!? It’s really rather appalling that for choosing someone for the most powerful job in the world, we have such shallow, vapid, petty people controlling the public discourse.

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    2. Dave

      > College Professors have done studies showing that it was impossible she could have won, and there is proof she cheated.

      I am skeptical of this claim. The primary results were consistent with the polling leading up to them. Could you please provide more information about these professors and their putative proofs? Why don’t political scientists like Sam Wang and Alan Abramowitz, who also happen to be college professors, agree with this claim?

      > You are also ignoring the fact that the FBI said she did do wrong, but they were not going to charge her for it.

      Yes, that’s right. In other words, what she did wrong (use her own email server) did not rise to the level of a crime. Previous Secretaries of State also used their own email server. Colin Powell *advised her* to use her own email server. The sum total of the email story is that government IT isn’t very good and if you want to get anything done you have to do it yourself. Can I ask you a question? Did you care so much about government IT policy before Hilary Clinton? Why is IT management so important to you now? If it was anyone other than Hilary Clinton, would you care?

      Reply

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