2020 has given us almost nothing good, but one useful thing it did provide was the unprecedented erasure of daily presidential campaign politics from our lives, and its temporary replacement with a different, more liberating kind of political engagement.
But now, here we are. Politics—capital-P, horserace, bumper sticker Politics—is happening again, and it feels awful.
Cast your mind back to the Before times, when the biggest political story was the 2020 Democratic primary. What a horrible, draining thing that was. We were on a straightforward path to an equally dispiriting general election.
When the pandemic hit, all of that faded away almost instantaneously. COVID was too all-consuming, too dangerous, too much to let conventional electoral politics get in the way. Instead, space suddenly opened up to think bigger. The pandemic kept underscoring the size of the gap between the change that is needed in this society and the ability of our present systems to deliver that change. Who cared about Joe Biden in a time like that?
Then, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered, and people started painting on an even broader canvas. The rise of the biggest protest movement in decades was sobering and serious, in a way that anything responding to racism and trauma and blood is sobering and serious. The sight of police brutalizing protesters across the country was undeniably awful. The attempt by corporations to exploit the movement was grating. But the protests were electrifying nonetheless. To see so many peoples’ fear melt away; to watch the country ring out with the calls for abolition and revolution; to feel, even for a second, that a new reality was possible. Wow.
The protests also felt like yet another repudiation of the pulverizing two-party system, of the way that all possibilities eventually get ground up in the electoral tube and emerge a shadow of their former selves. Here was a different way of trying to make something happen. Democrats and Republicans created our criminal justice system together. Their bipartisan complicity was on display every single day. Their inability to meet the moment was clear.
I was not so naive to believe that the overwhelming intensity of the protests would last forever, though they are still going on. I didn’t think the system would come crashing down because millions of people marched for a few weeks. But even so, it has been disorienting to see how quickly everything can snap back into place.
With Kamala Harris in place as Joe Biden’s running mate, with the Democratic National Convention starting tonight, with the debates looming up ahead, we have been plunged right back into the electoral morass. We are done with movement politics, with mass uprisings. It is time for the system to reassert itself.
The message to anyone who might have anything to say about that right now is clear: this is the ticket. This is the only route to change that is available. The time for debate and challenge and pressure is over. The adults have returned to the scene, and they’ll take it from here.
That would be distressing enough, but it is equally head-spinning to watch untold numbers of people who were full #ACAB just a few weeks ago now enthusiastically gear up to run defense for the inspirational pairing of one of the chief architects of American mass incarceration and a career prosecutor. All it took was adding a new character to the storyline, and people who might have surged into the streets in June are now warning any dissenters to shut the hell up.
Let me stress: I very much want Donald Trump to lose and Joe Biden to win. I don’t think they are equally bad. Trump is worse. There is a lot at stake in November. Republicans must be removed from power. I do not underestimate the historic nature of Kamala Harris’ candidacy. The racist attacks on her are disgusting. I’m sure I will appreciate it when she sticks it to Mike Pence at their debate.
But the next time that people wonder why our leaders betray us so often, they should think about how little we actually demand of them.
We unilaterally disarm ourselves over and over again. We tell ourselves that now is not the time to ask questions, that there will be a better moment to push, that the system is the system and there’s nothing to be done about it. And then we see our political leaders go on vacation during a time of mass unemployment and housing insecurity. We witness the supposedly progressive party choose two cops to preside over this specific moment in history. We watch Wall Street and Big Tech cheer as, yet again, any significant threat to their grip on our lives appears to have faded. If you think there is no connection between all of these things and the fact that masses of ordinary people gladly echo the message that it is routinely dangerous to question the choices our politicians make, you are fooling yourself.
It is, on one level, quite understandable that this happens. Governments have immense power over our lives. They can cause great harm. People are afraid, very justifiably, about that. But that feeling also comes from the sense that we have very little control over what politicians do once they get into office. They will make decisions of enormous consequence and there is not much to be done about it except, maybe, to wait a few years and vote them out. But then the election comes around, and guess what? There’s too much on the line. The other side is worse. It’s not the right moment to speak up. What do you want, the Republicans to win? How could you care so little about the country?
Let me stress, again: This is not some call to boycott the election. The election matters. It is very important who runs the government. But we have to ditch this destructive, paradoxical idea that exercising our democratic rights is a threat to democracy. And we can’t channel all of our political energy into an electoral system that is designed, from top to bottom, to resist true change. That way lies certain doom.
If our leaders could not rely so much on our quiescence, perhaps they would be more responsive to our needs. Perhaps we would feel a little more in control of our fate, and a little less afraid of the people in charge. Perhaps they would be more afraid of us. And perhaps things would actually get better for a change.