When I was young and naive I half-heartedly campaigned for Ralph Nader. It was the year 2000 and I wasn’t quite old enough to vote but I had a green party pin on the lapel of my corduroy blazer. I’m as embarrassed of my teenage fashion choices as I am of having ever supported third party politics, if I’m being honest.
I had my excuses and talking points all lined up. Not about the corduroy, there’s no excusing corduroy. About the pin. About Ralph Nader.
“He’s unelectable,” someone might say.
“That’s only because we assume it to be true,” I said. “The only reason we’re locked into a two-party system is because people say we are.”
I think I got that line from my friend, the Nader campaign coordinator on campus. Thanks to the Nader campaign, he and I both got to feel like we were part of something important.
Nader lost, and a year later I realized that the only reason we’re trapped in capitalism and statist politics is because people assume we are. People assume revolution is off the table. People assume that taking autonomy for ourselves and defending it is off the table. We, as people, can reconstruct society to be anything we want it to be, and I’d been wasting my time imagining spending that potential on some vaguely-better version of the status quo.
We, as people, can reconstruct society to be anything we want it to be, and I’d been wasting my time imagining spending that potential on some vaguely-better version of the status quo.
Sixteen years later, Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, is running for president and doing better than anyone thought he could. I’m hearing the same rhetoric again: the only reason Sanders is unelectable is because people say he is. People are tired of voting for the lesser evil.
But the thing is, if you’re engaging in electoral politics, you don’t get to vote for someone who is a good person. Running for president of the United States is incompatible with being a good person. This is not to say that politicians aren’t capable of doing good things from time to time, but it is to say they have chosen to wield political power over us.
People talk about Clinton vs. Trump like it’s Saruman vs. Sauron, and I don’t think they’re wrong. But Sanders is no Gandalf. He’s not even an Aragorn. He’s, at best, Boromir. Because tempted as they might be to wield the one ring, Gandalf and Aragorn know that the thing you do with power is throw it into the molten heart of Mt. Doom. (This metaphor, which I will continue to extend, glosses over Tolkien’s bourgeois sentimentality and completely ignores the racism embedded into his work. I do not appeal to Tolkien’s words or stories as an appeal to his authority, but to invoke a powerful story that frames so many people’s ways of thinking.)
Tolkien made his opinion on authority clear in a 1943 letter to his son: “[T]he most improper job of any man […] is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
Hillary Clinton has proven time and time again that she is beholden to big business. Trump is big business. Saruman is beholden to Sauron. I’m down with the comparison. Sanders is outside of all of that. All he wants to do is take the reins of the most powerful nation on earth. He wants to wrest the ring of power out of the hands of the top 1% and wield it. He also wants to both keep foreigners out (see his active refusal to support the immigration reform act of 2007) and invade their countries (see his long-standing support for US imperialism). Bernie Sanders is not Gandalf.
I’d much rather Boromir have the ring than Saruman and I guess I’d rather Saruman have the ring than Sauron. Sure. But what we ought to be doing is throwing the ring of power into the volcano.
The only rational approach to electoral politics, if you’re going to engage in them at all, is a cynical one. People criticize “voting for the lesser evil” but that’s what voting is. There’s no non-evil entity that would run for president. Either vote for the lesser evil — and do it cynically, as a method of harm reduction — or don’t vote, those are your options. Both seem reasonable enough.
Trump claims that the people protesting and shutting down his events are die-hard Bernie supporters, but that’s not anywhere near the whole story. There’s no politician worth being for, but there are some that are worth being against. An incredible cross-section of people are fighting back against Trump, that racist demagogue, and frankly that matters more than investing all our hopes and dreams into Bernie Sanders. By the same token, what is frightening about Trump is not the man himself, but the upsurge in explicit and organized racism in America that has coalesced around him.
The ring of power is just a metaphor, and there is no Mt. Doom. But we can destroy power in our everyday lives. We can fight against everything that Trump and his supporters stand for — xenophobia, nationalism, racism, economic-might-makes-right, all of that. We can defend ourselves and others from bigots. We can dismantle walls. We can welcome refugees.
Yes, many of us can also vote, but that can’t be the end of it and it’s barely even the start. If you’re going to vote, vote for the lesser evil. If you’re going to act, act for actual good.