Third Choice

Reacting to the Democratic National Convention, and reconsidering what it means to truly reject cynicism.

Serendipitous photo of my three choices for Democratic Presidential candidate in reverse chronological order, via Rolling Stone

I watched most of the Democratic National Convention this week — they really should consider continuing the new “infinitely more watchable” format even after the pandemic — and I found myself just crying and crying. It shows how hard the last four years have been when all it takes is a bunch of people earnestly talking about hope, decency, and empathy to provoke such an emotional response.

For a while now, even before the United States collectively shit the bed and elected one of the worst people alive to be President, I’ve been feeling increasing frustration with and outright despair over the political atmosphere in America. It wasn’t just that awful people were pulling all of us down into the mire of their own awfulness, it was feeling increasingly uneasy seeing the opinions and the tactics of people who were ostensibly supposed to be on “my side.” Watching the convention last week, and seeing the reactions to it online, made the last piece fall into place. I realized that I’ve spent decades being manipulated.

Not manipulated into believing in liberal or progressive causes; I do that because I’m a decent human being. I mean manipulated into being hyper-wary of being manipulated. It goes back decades. For all I know, it started as a well-intentioned attempt to teach media literacy to a bunch of naive 80s kids. But over the years, it’s grown more and more pervasive, transforming from a healthy skepticism to a defeatist cynicism.

While I was watching the speakers deliver a message of hope and equality, I was focused on looking for “tells.” Kamala Harris’s familiar and practiced suite of Generic Politician Gestures, as she was the first woman of African and Indian descent to accept the vice presidential nomination from a major party. Paying close attention to who was and wasn’t present and who was given the most speaking time, during the Cory Booker-led roundtable of Presidential candidates now united in support of Biden. Considering the strategy behind using a teenager with a speech impediment as a shield, as an impossibly brave young man went on national television to share a story about how Joe Biden helped him, knowing that Biden’s opponents are shamelessly soulless, bullying, cowardly shits who wouldn’t hesitate to disparage a child if they thought they could get a few poll points out of it. And I thought about using loss to push emotional buttons, as Biden described his own grief to show empathy with Americans who’ve suffered loss, and I found myself sobbing at his perfect description of grief as a deep black hole that opens up in your chest.

Any time something makes me cry, I’ve been indoctrinated to ask: is this real? Am I being manipulated? Is this something maudlin or insincere? Should I be embarrassed? Am I being set up?

On its own, I don’t think that’s all that unusual. But over the decades, it seems to have metastasized into the kind of paranoia that seems to be the one thing left in the United States that’s truly bipartisan. More and more of what we’re hearing from self-described progressives is echoing what we’re hearing from the members of the current kakistocracy and their enablers. Mistrust of institutions. Dismissal of the “main stream media.” Convinced of corruption that wasn’t just widespread but completely saturated every American organization. Trustworthy public figures aren’t just rare, but completely imaginary.

Much of this was obviously due to the increasing volume of troll accounts, motivated either by political gain or just a lazy nihilism. We’ve seen how the Tea Party-infused GOP and Trump administration feed on nihilism and despair, profiting from the belief that nothing is real and nothing matters. But especially this year, as more Americans are finally admitting that they can’t go on denying all of the systemic racism, institutionalized misogyny, and white supremacy, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish the nihilistic trolls from the more vocal and militant people on “the left.” No one is to be trusted. All our institutions are irreparably corrupt. There’s no hope for reform; everything must be torn down. We’re surrounded not by people who occasionally stumble while trying to do the right thing; everyone is a latent racist or misogynist or fascist desperately trying not to reveal their true nature.

All this time, I’ve been feeling stressed that it’s getting harder to tell the difference between the trolls and sincerely militant liberal progressives and socialists. I’ve felt like it required more and more work on my part to determine whether something was being said in good faith or not. Finally, I remembered the only useful thing from my philosophy classes: something has to make a difference to be a difference. If I can’t distinguish between trolling bullshit and sincere bullshit, then it’s just plain bullshit. No matter how earnest the person may be about dismantling the systems of oppression.

To be clear, I’m guilty of it to some degree. When Warren, my favored candidate, dropped out of the race, I threw a tantrum online. I complained that we’d squandered so much potential for change by turning the Democratic candidacy into a choice between two old white men. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that the person who was the most entitled to be bitter about Warren having to withdraw from the race — Elizabeth Warren — wasn’t joining me online in complaining. Instead, she was throwing her support behind the party, against Trump, drawing attention to progressive causes, and championing the campaigns of other Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.

I’ve seen a lot of people announcing that Joe Biden isn’t their first choice for President, as if that makes them special. He wasn’t my first choice either. I’d given up on the Democratic Party and political engagement in general until I heard a speech from Pete Buttigieg. He described the end of the Reagan era, for better or worse, and that was the first thing in years that sparked hope in me that things could get better. I was 9 years old when Reagan was elected, so it’s been the standard for almost my entire life. I have no other frame of reference, but I do vividly remember how Reagan-era politics was contrasted with previous administrations, from a media still trying to process what was happening. It was all about media manipulation, optics, and spin taking precedence over authenticity, government as a service, and progress. Hearing a candidate saying “it doesn’t have to be this way, change is possible,” was inspiring.

Finding out later on that he’d have been the first openly gay President was proof that change was possible. Just a decade earlier, the leading Democratic candidate for President had said that he was against marriage equality “because of [his] religion,” and resorted to the GOP’s obstinate and cowardly excuse that it was a matter of states’ rights. Gay rights had been a hot potato that no one in the Democratic Party was willing to hold onto, and by 2020, a gay front-runner for the Presidency was hounded by criticism that he was too conservative.

Call me a single-issue voter, but that’s the realization that finally snapped me out of my cynicism, and got me fired up for a Biden/Harris administration. While the Democratic Party was just perpetuating more of the same while claiming to have the moral high ground, Biden forced the administration to finally “evolve” and make a stand. Biden officiated the marriage of two White House staffers, while party insiders and pundits were still lamenting how he was prone to “gaffes” like standing up for basic human dignity that the rest of the party wasn’t ready to embrace.

As far as I can tell, Biden wasn’t his own first choice, either — it took him forever to throw himself into the running. I don’t have to wonder about any hidden motivation, because I can’t imagine what he has to gain by being President. Few of the candidates this election have sounded sincere — except for Cory Booker, of course, who always speaks with 150% conviction — not because they’re lying, but because they’re always having to deliver a set of talking points repeatedly over the course of more than a year to thousands of different people. But throughout Biden’s acceptance speech, I didn’t have a moment’s doubt that he was being sincere. I believe he’s in it to help people.

I believe Kamala Harris is in it to help people, as well, even though she absolutely talks like a politician and a lawyer. Tone and optics should be irrelevant in the post-Reagan era. Trust is more important. She’d already earned mine by virtue of seeing the course of her career; if all she wanted were power or money, there are much, much easier ways she could’ve gone about getting it.

So in other words, I’m rejecting the bullshit idea that as a liberal progressive, I’m “begrudgingly” voting for Biden and Harris. I’m rejecting the idea that the Democratic Party doesn’t represent all the people that it claims to. I’m especially rejecting the idea that American government is a pendulum that only works for one half of the country at a time. We’ve seen multiple times what happens when you have a bastard occupying the White House who only cares about placating a base instead of working for all Americans. Anyone who suggests that a moderate is irreparably compromised simply doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, how democracy is supposed to function. It’s not about getting enough votes to win an election, it’s about electing the person who’s going to do their best to represent the needs of everyone.

The overwhelming message I got from the Democratic National Convention was one of inclusion and unity. I reject the conclusion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said that the convention wasn’t “targeting” her because it didn’t include the prerequisite number of Muslims, or a Latino who’d run for President. I reject the complaints of atheists, who’ve insisted that mentions of religion and faith somehow exclude the nonreligious. If we want to make people realize that social justice isn’t a zero-sum game, in which improving the lives of long-marginalized people means making life worse for the people who’ve historically benefitted from inequality, then we have to commit to that. We have to reject even the notion of “marginalized” and acknowledge that everybody truly means everybody. If that’s a “moderate” message, then I guess I’m an unashamed moderate.

That’s the message I got from the convention. A party that’s finally committing itself to genuine inclusion, and making a government that serves everyone even when it’s not trying to get their votes. Are they going to fall short on that pledge? Undoubtedly! But I don’t live up to all the pledges I make for myself, even with the best of intentions. Why would I expect perfection from an inherently compromised and messy process involving thousands of people? Electing decent and honest people who believe in government as a service is the first step. Decency and honesty aren’t just a low bar set by a hopelessly corrupt and incompetent administration; they’re an essential first step to a government that works for everyone. Damn anyone who tries to dismiss hope and optimism as gullibility and complicity. Damn anyone who can’t see past winning a single election, when the election is just the first step of a never-ending process to make things better.

We all know that voting Trump out of office is the barest minimum a decent human being can do. But if we’ve learned nothing from the Obama Administration, it should be that having an honest person with integrity in the office is just the start. It’s what keeps us stable enough for actual progress, so we can disagree about important things without having to argue against immorality as if it were a valid political stand. It’s what lets us be confident that the people we disagree with are arguing in good faith. Personally, I’m looking forward to trusting people again.