Though we’ve known for four years that the 2020 US election cycle would be even more fraught than the strange and painful fall of the 2016 elections, most of us still find ourselves a little disoriented these days. For some, the urgency to remove Trump from office has immobilized us. For others, it’s fortified us into action to get out the vote and to sway those who are undecided, apathetic, and reluctant.
In the final five weeks before the election of a lifetime, we asked writers to consider the undecided voter and contribute compelling arguments and ideas for making the world right. Some contributors sent us work that takes on issues with precision and gravity. Others sent us different work, perhaps an even more visceral snapshot of this alarming moment — a one-act play, an open letter, a story of exile. New writing will be published weekdays; we believe its wisdom and strength will help us all navigate the uncertainty ahead.
Let’s begin with what this is not. This is not going to be an essay where I say you don’t get to complain about the government if you don’t vote. Since it does encourage voting though, this isn’t going to be the essay I wish it could be, which would address people denied suffrage, such as those with felony convictions and all of Puerto Rico. I won’t, like too many Democrats today, say we just need to end the “new normal” of Donald Trump’s America. I remember the old normal including brutal inequity, disastrous climate negligence, and unfettered state surveillance and violence too — which brings us to Joe Biden, who typifies the old normal and who I will not be endorsing in this essay either.
What I will acknowledge is this: for some of us, it’s been difficult to rally enthusiasm for voting this election because Joe Biden has shown himself to be a man of slow, politically expedient half-recognitions. In June, he called the summer’s protests a “wake-up call” regarding systematic racism, though some of what America needed to be woken from was the delusion that his sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill and support of legislation limiting enforcement of school desegregation busing efforts didn’t themselves sustain systemic racism. When his bid was announced, Biden expressed to Anita Hill “his regret for what she endured” during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, neglecting to acknowledge that “what she endured” included his own conduct as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which helped set the precedent that sexual violence ought not disqualify Supreme Court nominees like Brett Kavanaugh. Biden recently proposed higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, though decades of pandering to banking and corporate interests, plus his promise to wealthy donors that “nothing will fundamentally change,” warrant skepticism about his commitment to ending income inequality.
This country needs more than not-Trump, and more than Biden. If you know that and have the ability to vote, do. Voting alone won’t be enough to achieve a democracy that truly represents the people of this country, a dream that’s only ever been deferred. But effective activism is virtuosic, and we can’t afford to buy in to the winner-takes-all paradigm favored by the electoral process. Those who want transformative change will need to adopt as many strategies as possible: protest, voting, community organizing, and more. If we are lucky, after the election, our energies can be redirected from demands to condemn what are problems like white supremacy toward how change should be achieved.
In 2020, the election isn’t just about the presidency. Legislative seats will be on the ballot, and this year progressives gained ground in primary races. Some of us will get to vote for candidates who wish to take on the neoliberal wing of Democrats and are already changing the culture and discourse of the party. Others may signal the purpling of red states or dissatisfaction with de facto two-party politics. New Yorkers disappointed by centrist democrats can vote down the Working Families Party line to help preserve its newly precarious place on the ballot. I cannot say with scruple that voting means your voice will be heard. But the chance that it will is one of many to take in our long gamble on democracy-making.
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Tracy O’Neill is the author of the novels The Hopeful and Quotients. She has been named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and received the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writers Fellowship. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and teaches at Vassar College.