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Can Anyone Tell Me What ‘Vote’ Means

Just saying the word over and over again is not enough.

On Monday night, Michelle Obama closed out the first day of the Democratic National Convention with an impassioned, eloquent speech, urging voters to reject the callous, us-or-them rhetoric of the Trump administration in favor of empathy, healing, and compassion offered by Joe Biden. Obama’s speech was perhaps the best single encapsulation of the convention’s strategy against Trump thus far: thin on specific policy or political ambition, rich with the emotional stakes of handing another four years to an unsavory figure grasping at autocracy.

Shortly after, however, Obama’s speech was somewhat overshadowed by one of her fashion choices for the night: a 14-karat yellow gold necklace by jewelry designer Chari Cuthbert that spelled out, in delicate letters, the word “VOTE.”

VOTE is a concise, punchy call to action. It plays great on Instagram. It’s incredibly popular with celebrities, who want to put on a facade of being politically engaged without actually engaging with any actual politics (see pre-2018 Taylor Swift, for instance). After all, they’re not telling you who or what to vote for, just to like, do it in general. The only way it can be viewed as a political statement is through an extremely generous reading of the fact that increased voter turnout tends to generally benefit Democrats on a national level and in tossup districts. But otherwise, it means basically nothing, considering the wide range of structural and political factors that may cause someone to not exercise their right in any given election.

This is not an indictment of Obama, whose speech at the DNC was clearly telling people who to vote for (Biden). But the immediate popularity of her extremely politically neutral necklace seems, to me, to be an indictment of the bare-minimum political attitudes we’ve seen throughout our current moment — the electoral equivalent of posting a black square on Instagram but never going anywhere near a Black Lives Matter protest. (It’s also a credit to the jewelry designer, of course: the necklace looks great!)

What sticks out to me about the sentiment is that now, of all times, is how easily this washed-out slacktivism dovetails with the Democratic Party’s platform. We must vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, because if we do not, fascism wins. One party in the coming election is openly undemocratic; endorsing the basic act of democracy is therefore an act of resistance. But if that’s as far as our rebellion goes, any victories we make against fascism will be short-lived. Donald Trump won the 2016 election by getting people to vote — millions of them, many of whom had not been energized to vote for a candidate before. He did so by giving them specific things to vote for: “strong” borders, more jobs, a promise to rid the government of the widely-hated D.C. establishment. That these things were all lies in service of building the kind of government capable of maintaining power without free and fair elections is largely irrelevant.

Thanks to the massive destabilization of the coronavirus pandemic, which the Trump administration found it could not combat with xenophobic rhetoric alone, the Biden campaign has correctly identified that a neutral, policy-empty approach to politics is an effective election pitch. But outside of the very special extenuating circumstances presented during the current election cycle, encouraging people to “VOTE” isn’t going to be much of a value-add. What’s more effective, to me, is telling people what they’re voting for.

In Biden’s case, that’s a mixed bag, but it’s inarguably more positive than what the Trump administration is offering. There are plenty of politicians that understand this. It’s telling that virtually the first person to directly mention one of Biden’s proposed policies at the DNC was Bernie Sanders; it’s telling that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the first Democrat to mention the looming eviction crisis.

The drawback of this is that you have to take a stand. You have to identify the future that you actually want to live in, as opposed to one that can be defined as “well, not this.” It’s to all of our detriment that the Democratic Party doesn’t appear to be interested in this, but that doesn’t mean we have to fall in line. Sure, a 14-karat necklace that spells out MEDICARE FOR ALL would probably cost more than the one Michelle Obama wore, but the payoff it could have had for millions of Americans in the long run would be worth it.

Image via Flickr/ Richard Schatzberger