After the midterms, we had our writers and editors reflect on what the election meant to them.
I cast my first ballot ever on November 6, 2012. I woke up early for a college student, but normal enough for me, a morning person, and scampered across the crisp dorm lawn to the enormous structure serving as a gym and all around activities center for a campus of over 55,000 students, faculty, and staff. I don’t recall, even roughly, the number of such individuals in attendance sweating it out that morning (and I would join them soon enough), but the line to vote was nonexistent. Awkward and unsure, I entered the designated room that less than twelve hours prior likely hosted a Zumba or yoga class, or perhaps that energetic something I’ve heard called BODYPUMP™ (one word, all caps). At 6:30 or maybe 7 or maybe 8, the air was still but not stale, cleansed and scented by the janitorial staff made invisible at University volition. I walked in and voted as Democrat as one central Illinois ballot could allow, walked out and began my workout. I commemorated the occasion with a photo of my left hand, the errant site of my merited “I VOTED” sticker. My nails were pink.
My nails are black today as they were on election day, another November 6th, when I deigned once again to vote in a nation and for a party that continues to consider votes from people who look like me less than useless—rather, null and void. I stood in line among people who mostly look nothing like me because I live among these people, which means voting during the pre-9-a.m. rush hour took about an hour and not over four hours as in Fulton County, Georgia, where so many black folks lined up to vote in the first black woman governor despite the aggressive voter suppression campaign instituted by its current Secretary of State Brian Kemp—also, coincidentally, Stacey Abrams’ opponent. When white people lament apathy as the real problem plaguing eligible voters, I wonder if they have any idea what it takes to be black and vote. I don’t just mean spiritually or ethically, but physically. Coastal elites—sounds much less ironic than it used to—spend so much time castigating the South entire for the measures of its white elites it’s no wonder they can’t see the sweat and tears of the very black rank and file turning out remarkable outcomes under the most duress. White people cannot even perceive when black people are in pain, so, of course they can’t tell the difference between apathy and exhaustion. As I, under the least duress, held my as-yet empty ballot, the white woman ahead of me in line offered me luck in “voting for the first time.” Sigh.
My memory of the 2016 election is vivid. Millennial that I am I see and remember the world through social media and so, more than lines at the polls, more than an election party (an abhorrent concept), more than the gamified real-time results turned off at an early 9 p.m. bedtime, I remember the Instagrammable face of assured progress. I remember seeing that face returned to me over and over the next day by the cruelty of an algorithm craving engagement over ethics. I remember the mourning, but also the energy as (some) friends and peers leapt headfirst into the grassroots sensibilities, awakening for the first time to the idea of meaningful political change beyond the grounds of civic duty. But the civic is there, much as it so often fails us (on purpose), much as it resists the real sweeping tidal wave required to free people. But the civic is there. Illinois’s very red, very white, very benevolently racist 14th District—carrying my very red, very white, very racist hometown in its bowels—just voted Lauren Underwood with her afro and blue dress into Congress. If that can happen, I’m ready to believe in anything.
—Lauren Michele Jackson
Two years ago, I expected my friends and neighbors in Paris to react to the election of Donald Trump more or less the same way they had to the previous Republican presidency. George Bush’s cowboy mannerisms and his quick trigger finger had summed up for the French all that was wrong with the United States, and Jacques Chirac’s refusal to join our adventures in Iraq is still universally remembered with pride. Smug anti-Americanism might well have been warranted in 2016, but far more often the response I encountered was one of sympathy. Perhaps, sensing I was an American somewhere on the left of center, my French interlocutors simply felt sorry for what I must have been going through. After a while, though, I began to sense something deeper, an understanding that Trump was not just a quirk of American backwardness. There was something going around the democratic world, and if my country had contracted a particularly bad case of the disease, France was far from immune—particularly as Marine Le Pen began the campaign that would take her frighteningly close to the Élysée Palace.
For me as an inexperienced freelance journalist in Paris, Trump was a blessing in disguise. There was enough demand for hot takes on a new regime nobody quite understood—demand that would have been inconceivable under a Hillary Clinton presidency—that I was able to pay my rent writing for French newspapers about American politics. One question that ended up guiding much of my writing was what Trump’s America meant for the left. Many French readers assumed that in a moment when European parties like the Parti socialiste were crumbling, there was little hope for left politics in a country where even moderate social democracy had failed to take root. Yet during this same moment, a candidate like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could becoming a national political star, while the organization she belonged to, the Democratic Socialists of America, increased its membership tenfold over pre-Trump levels. It was hard not to at least wonder whether the Trump era was an opportunity for American left movements. If Trump revealed how close American democracy was to the abyss, he also frustrated established assumptions of what was possible in our politics. More so than in any other moment I could remember, it seemed plausible that a genuine vision of equality and solidarity could emerge out of the chaos.
However reassuring these hopes might have been as I moved back to Chicago from Paris several weeks before the midterm elections, the results showed only a modest Democratic “blue wave,” much less a revival of socialism. It is one thing to speculate—as I had been accustomed to doing—on the kind of political “moment” we are living in, another thing entirely to actually define that moment by organizing, campaigning, and persuading. On that front, the left has as much work cut out for it as ever. But if the victories for voting rights on ballot measures in Florida and Michigan were any indication (or the defeat of the odious vote-rigger Kris Kobach in Kansas), this was an election about the future of majority-rule democracy. The whole world is struggling to understand how under today’s conditions, it is possible to maintain a society of equals. If socialists—democratic socialists—and their progressive allies have their way, America might once again be a place to look for answers.
Two years ago—I was still in Chicago writing my Ph.D., England was just a place I would have to one day apply to for jobs because “I speak the language”—the department’s czar of social affairs proposed an election wager ahead of the departmental viewing party. Then something very unexpected happened. (No, not that, long before that.) The czar was called out! A student, otherwise “all for humor and stupidity” declared the betting to be positively unsavory. We bet on events that are trivial or staged for our amusement, she claimed, and so betting “makes an implicit claim that nothing of the self is at stake, as the bettor (pace Geertz) stands in some way apart and above.” To illustrate her point she exhorted us to “imagine making this public—or telling a room full of people who’ve been actively disenfranchised about this game and its prizes.”
Never mind that much of the self, if not in the form of one’s person then surely in that of one’s purse, might be at stake in placing a bet; never mind that as a matter of fact people can and do bet on all sorts of terrifyingly important things; never mind that the number of votes not cast out of disenfranchisement is still much smaller than the number not cast out of apathy (or political alienation or moral rigorism or fear of the post office); never mind that as I tried to do as instructed and conjured a disenfranchised person to mind, the apparition wondered if they could get in on the bet because they, too, wanted to win a Whole Foods gift card. Never mind the humorlessness and sanctimony. What was at stake for me was far more personal: that bet was the only way I could take part.
Last night at dinner in college someone exclaimed, “You’re not American? I just assumed, because you seem to care so much.” They were polite; they meant, why do you care? They meant—I blushed—that I shouldn’t. I didn’t know what to say that would make real sense, that would be a reason, not just a cause: “I’ve spent most of my adult life there”; “By now, it’s all I know”; “I’m sorry, I don’t have another home.” Even now, writing this, I feel like an intruder.
National identity is a contingent given. And as some are tightening their grip around it, others marvel, confused or disgusted. It shouldn’t matter. Why do they care so much? A lot of things are contingent. Meeting the person you will go on to fall in love with is contingent as is becoming pregnant and the way you will happen to die.
Betting is contingent, too. In particular, betting ties the fate of the gambler to the unpredictable outcome of an event over which they do not have perfect control, if they have any at all. It anchors a personal investment in an otherwise apparently insignificant occurrence: which horse was faster, whom the Americans elected in 2018.
This is all to say, I wish there would have been a bet for me to take part in on November 6th. So it would make sense to others, too, that I had skin in the game.
I’m so unsophisticated that I still get emotional during election days. On Tuesday morning, there was the moment I locked eyes with an old woman in the elevator, drenched from her walk to the polls, and she asked sternly where I’d be voting. Then there was the way my students trickled into our afternoon journalism class, also wet and a little wild-eyed, their “I voted” stickers affixed proudly to their chests. I was even moved by those images on TV of people standing in line looking quizzically at their phones—presumably while someone searched for a power cord to recharge their broken voting machine. (So patient! So committed to democracy!) I’m also naïve enough—or stupid or ignorant enough—to be perpetually surprised by what happens when election day turns to election night and the results start coming in. You’d think I would have learned in 2016, if not long before, but I guess in some respects I’m unteachable (every April I think the White Sox are going to win their division, too). Invariably, around 7:30 p.m. Eastern, my elation begins to curdle into anxiety—“polls close in Florida” is a reliable warning bell—as it is revealed that many of those people standing in line looking at their phones had been waiting to cast their ballots for people named Ted Cruz, or Ron DeSantis.
Before long my anxiety has settled into a dull headache, and then I find myself tossing on the couch at 1 a.m., frantically flipping between cable news channels to see if some Democrat can make up a 1,700 vote margin with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Late Tuesday night, in one such race, a bag of Democratic votes (okay, it was a computer chip) appeared out of nowhere, inspiring Steve Kornacki to have a mild on-air seizure and handing the Wisconsin governorship to Tony Evers. I did not know Evers’s name until last week, but he had steadily gained in my esteem as it became apparent he had a chance to defeat Scott Walker—the despicable politician who, not satisfied with obliterating his state’s public unions, had recently devoted himself to striking the phrase “search for truth” from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement. Then, at 1:32 a.m., it was announced that Elissa Slotkin, an Iraq war veteran I’d met at two campaign events in New York, had come from behind to eke out a win in Michigan’s 8th. Slotkin was the kind of brilliant, empathetic person I still fantasize is working in our government (in fact she had been working there until the current administration). “This is what happens when you believe in the possibility of the United States,” she said in her victory speech, to raucous applause.
These late breaks did not make for a satisfying night overall. It had not been a wave. But it was 3 a.m., and a little of the morning optimism was returning: hopefully it would be enough to keep believing in the possibility of the United States until next time.
New York, NY
I came to America for college in September 2014, tentatively starting to regurgitate the thoughts of dead white men as my high school classmates began to occupy the public square outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. They huddled in tents and makeshift classrooms and shelters, rallied in their respective university campuses, boycotted classes, all for the basic right to vote for one’s political representatives. It would require a full essay to explain the ways in which British colonialism, capitalism, and Chinese authoritarianism have conspired to create an electoral system that privilege the rich. The idea was that universal suffrage would be the first step in rectifying systemic injustice and impoverishment in the city, and that being able to choose the Chief Executive (our Prime Minister, if you will) would both increase governmental accountability and help prevent Beijing from tightening its grip on the city. The movement was called the Umbrella Revolution for the umbrellas that students would use to shield themselves against pepper spray and other acts of police brutality. The most I could do from afar was to call out a politician when she Skyped in for a talk on the Revolution at my university.
The shame of being in diaspora came back to me as America campaigned and corralled its way through the 2018 midterms. I cannot vote here either. As a foreign national, I cannot legally contribute to political campaigns; I also don’t want to argue with ICE, if push comes to shove, on whether legal aliens are permitted to canvass and organize for electoral politics. Instead I dutifully took in midterm coverage, listened to wonky podcasts, checked in on tight races such as those of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, and stayed up until 1 a.m. glued to NBC’s live broadcast. I wanted to assuage my guilt for not having done anything in the service of justice, my rage at being hopelessly imbricated with a political situation that I literally could not do anything to change. Dedicated spectatorship seemed the best I could manage.
Across social media on Election Day I saw American friends and colleagues showing off their “I voted” stickers, and I thought back to my high school classmates who had occupied the square to get that right, some now attempting to emigrate, some allying themselves with separationist movements, some conceding defeat and turning away from politics. I thought of Walter Benjamin, who said it best: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” I thought about the Anglophone left’s weak lament for truly revolutionary thinking, its lack of international solidarity. Nancy Pelosi asked for bipartisanship on TV, and pundits continued volleying back and forth about Beto’s presidential run; I finally looked away.
New York, New York
I voted on Tuesday in Wisconsin. But I did so beleaguered by my country and state’s race to the bottom with the force of gravity. And while I treasure the right to vote and would do so if my choice was between the American equivalents of Idi Amin and Bashar al-Assad, I have little hope about the outcome.
Normally I’m a hopeful person. But in recent years I’ve learned not to waste that emotion on American politics. The reasons are many, but two in particular have instilled an increasing sense of powerlessness in my life as a citizen. The first was my naïve optimism for the presidency of Barack Obama, who I believed would revitalize our country’s political process in ways his predecessors had actively worked against; reducing our expansionist military mentality, minimizing the influence of large corporations, regulating the surveillance state and the financial markets, harnessing executive powers, and inspiring citizens by actively engaging with congress. That he did none of these things may be related to the emergence during his presidency of a second reason for hopelessness: the migration of political discourse to social media, where it is increasingly divorced from tangible relationships in the life of communities.
Changes come whether we like them or not, but I am under no delusion that Tony Evers’s victory over Scott Walker will equip me and my neighbors to better care for each other and steward the world we’ve been given. As long as the platforms that host our political conversations prioritize “generating activity” over genuine engagement, we’ll continue to see ourselves as competing mobs rather than fellow citizens. In the Republic, Socrates characterized such mobs as blazing fires of evil, incapable of receiving true speech, “calling insolence, true education; anarchy, freedom; wastefulness, magnificence; and shamelessness, courage.” For Socrates a mob like this would pave the way for, and only be fit to serve, a tyrant.
—Robert L. Kehoe III
The new black political class is a truly remarkable thing to behold. For a cohort nurtured by the fiery activists of Black Lives Matter, they have one-and-all a flowing and serene decorum about them. They are stately and composed, remixing elements of an earlier generation with some of the glow of the Obamas: Andrew Gillum has something of Maynard Jackson’s disarming avuncular charm; Stacey Abrams a combination of Shirley Chisholm’s grit and Barbara Jordan’s commanding eloquence (for those in need of a refresher, it’s not a bad time to revisit Jordan’s wonderful lesson in civics imparted in her Nixon impeachment speech in 1972). Ayanna Pressley, the first black congresswoman ever elected in Massachusetts, wears her hair in braids and can rock a leather jacket without sweating about respectability, as she confidently warms a crowd with a distinctly Obama-esque: “I love you back.” Compared to them, the millennial Bobby Kennedy, aka “Beto”-“I’m so fucking proud of you guys”-O’Rourke campaigned like a kid stumbling around a bouncy castle while a crowd of parents and onlookers showers him with praise and tells him how cute he is. When you can count on the luck of your Irish charm and a sheepish smile, statesmanliness is, I suppose, no longer a prerequisite, even for the inevitable presidential run.
What the relationship of this shining constellation will be to the Democratic Party remains to be seen. Gillum ran as a Bernie-supported radical progressive. There is frustration in the black electorate across the board with the Party and how little it has delivered to its most crucial and devoted block of voters, and a looming question of what will be done to counter the rising conservative black insurgency that aims to win them over to the G.O.P. What is clear is that there is an emerging black populist front (particularly but not exclusively in the South) that is eager to pick up the mantle of morality and decency in leadership, one modeled by Obama himself who took to the trail with his usual Capra-esque civic enthusiasm, a sunny belief in our better angels that he trumpeted until he was sore—a fitting metaphor perhaps for a plea falling on the deaf ears of a nation enthralled to a carnival barker selling fear and hate.
Our expectations of unfairness and racism run so deep in this country that I don’t think it was genuinely a surprise to anyone that in their first outing these supremely high-minded black candidates trying to win in the South would find their aspirations clipped by blatant voter suppression and racial electioneering. Still, these are in all likelihood the desperate and rear-guard measures of the old order, a last stand that will require (as Jim Crow did) turning to the Supreme Court and the Senate (now safely in Mitch McConnell’s cold claws), indeed all the least democratic bodies in our government. None of that will ultimately matter, however, if the black political leadership that is flowering now can find its mature voice and an organized party force behind it that understands the path to victory is through a grassroots mobilization, a broad rainbow coalition from below with an emphasis on justice and poverty like the Poor People’s Campaign being led by the Rev. William Barber II (a quixotic moral campaign firmly and fiercely in the legacy of MLK, which has received effectively zero coverage from the allegedly objective, truth-loving, and fact-finding media, and no support from the allegedly progressive DNC).
The question is whether all this can happen soon enough. Because meanwhile, no one is safe—not along the storm coasts ravaged at regular intervals, not black at the supermarket (or almost anywhere else), not even in the sanctity of a synagogue in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.
“btw are you ok?” my friend texted with a link to a Guardian report: “Election day ‘PTSD’ is making women feel anxious about their vote.” It was just badinage, but my “yes i’m fine” response—immediate, too earnest, under-punctuated—betrayed me. It was as if he’d caught me eating an entire stick of butter. I was holed up in my war-room-for-one: a tiny office on a deserted floor of a corporate high-rise in the Loop, where it was so dark that I started missing the workday fluorescent lighting. I had voted early. This freed up my election day for virtually constant surveillance of internet news, my civic concern shading into raw masochism. “We do not yet feel confident enough in our estimates to publish a live forecast,” confessed the New York Times election reporters. “If and when we do, we will publish it here.” I refreshed the page. My dad messaged me to say there were long lines at his polling place in Maine’s second district, where a tight and unpredictable House race was underway between the Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin, the Democrat Jared Golden, and two dark-horse independents. Meanwhile, Five Thirty-Eight’s originally sunny projections for Democratic control of the House were tanking. My unrefrigerated kale-salad lunch was now dinner, and I picked at it while psychotically toggling between tabs with my free hand. The ego, Freud said, is the actual seat of anxiety.
With the group-chat empty, and my boyfriend at bowling, where was there to go but Twitter for the affective solidarity I craved? There, amid the grim jokes and complaints about CNN’s maximalist aesthetics, I came across an exchange between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Malcolm Harris. “Look what happened the last time you didn’t vote,” Tyson admonished his thirteen million followers. “Obama cruised to reelection [shrug emoji],” Harris clapped back. It was a succinct distillation of an argument that had emerged on Twitter in the run-up to the election: should we shame people—especially minority voters and the young—into voting? The debate split along familiar lines: liberal vs. left, but particularly boomer vs. millennial. I glared at the screen: Stop it with that shrug emoji, for fuck’s sake! I thought of how often and easily I had defaulted to sarcasm myself, hid the sound of a million howls behind an “lol #abyss”—then wondered if this was what people mean when they say you’ll become conservative with age. Back on the timeline, Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara shot off a half-glib “Should I be worried about the @538politics real-time forecast?” Yes! I muttered gutturally, to an empty room.
In 2016 I was invited to an “election party” at a concert venue in Chicago—a desperate affair I didn’t think could get more desperate, until of course it did. A rat ran across a floor sticky with beer, right as Trump won Florida. “The rat was the best part,” I told a friend the day after. I had decided to go it alone this time to spare myself the embarrassment of being found out: I wanted to believe we could win, and that there were others who believed too. It was midnight, and the House had just been called. My timeline’s low-grade fever broke and returned to status quo ante, a not quite comforting thought. I ordered an Uber and got in.
My driver, a white man with a Blackhawks flat cap and a Chicago-suburbs accent, inquired about my night in a brief flitter of companionship. I told him I’d been watching the election. “That’s what everybody’s been saying tonight,” he said. He asked how it was panning out and what it would mean if control of the House switched. I started discussing Democrats being able to issue subpoenas to investigate the president—such a pleasure to be talking civics and escaping my bubble!—but then he stopped me. “Wait, isn’t Trump a Democrat?”