Gandalf Isn’t Running For President

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.

7 thoughts on “Gandalf Isn’t Running For President”

  1. I think your analogy is flawed in that politics is not the ring of power. Infinite money is the ring of power.

    Otherwise your analogy hold up. When you look at infinite money as the ring of power, and it’s corrupting influence on everyone who wields it. It becomes more clear in this analogy, Bernie is the Gandalf character. He doesn’t want anyone to hold that much power, he wants to destroy that power, and distribute it to all people.

    1. We critique capitalism (the ability to make money with money) because it is a form of power that allows people to wield economic power over one another. Certainly, this is one of the most prevalent and problematic forms of power today.

      We critique the state, however, for the same reason. A representative democracy by its very nature allows one group to leverage political power over another. This is easily demonstrated by the ways in which authoritarian communism have proven to be no better than western capitalism. Power is power, whether it’s abstracted by money or simply present by command of the world’s largest military force.

    2. I fear that under Democracy, %51 of the population can take away the rights of the other %49. Socialism makes government stronger, Libertarianism allows corporations to get stronger. I’m in favor of neither one of those. I hate all power systems. I am an Anarchist.

  2. I don’t understand how Bernie Sanders is not Aragorn. Aragorn intends to be King of the humans when the dust settles. He succeeds because (1) the humans are stuck in an Oxford neo-Arthurian worldview, as is the author, and (2) someone else’s direct action saves the world and Aragorn gets some of the credit.

  3. This is a very charming bit of writing. It was an enjoyable read.
    Your points are compelling and you put your ideas in highly quotable terms. I like that.

    I would offer up an alternative course:

    Get involved in the political process with like-minded people so that the inherent power in the right to vote can be realized.

    With the Internet, you no longer need to control the media to get your message out. As long as people agree, the message can spread.

    I am alive today because a seed planted long ago by political outsiders led to socialized medicine in Canada. It *is* possible for the people to be represented, but it will not be done by mainstream parties and their Candidates.

  4. He’s not Gandalf, I agree, but he is NOT BORIMIR either. He is Frodo in disguise. One does not simply run for office as a total radical if one wants to radically change the system. Tolkien would vote Sanders :) I’m mean, c’mon, Bernie Sanders is even a hobbit name

  5. Why vote for the lesser of two evils? They are both evil. I too, am an anarchist, and voting is not the best option. “So if you didn’t vote, don’t complain” I hear. So, I DO vote. I vote because it’s the system we currently have, which can only be changed by revolution, and that’s not likely from the inside, but who knows? I call all my votes “protest votes” because I will vote for someone whom no one has ever even heard of, and if enough people did that, and NO candidate got the majority (or even two votes) we would definitely have to change the system.

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