A Time for Change

Bernie and Warren.jpeg

Since the Democratic race began, I’ve been grappling with my political views in a way I haven’t done in the past. I’ve been politically involved in issues since high school, and took an early interest in equal rights, racial justice, and bodily autonomy. My views have evolved since high school, of course, but there are some versions of America I never stopped seeing in my wildest dreams. This essay/thought-dump is just my attempt to vocalize some thoughts I’ve been having about the Democratic primary without stumbling over my words in person. Things are very different now than they were in 2016, and I think it’s time we embrace the opportunity for radical change.

Here’s why:

I’ve lived in rural Virginia for two years, in a very conservative part of the county. Virginia is beautiful. West Virginia is downright stunning. But Appalachia is complicated, and West Virginia is a national Sacrifice Zone. Think about that term for a moment. National Sacrifice Zone. This refers to a region or area that has suffered irreversible, dangerous, environmentally and economically damaging losses at the hands of billion-dollar extraction industries, and then abandoned to fend for itself. Think about this for a minute. One of the 50 United States must bear this label like a scarlet letter. If that doesn’t break your heart, come visit the area sometime.

West Virginia is the only entire state to be included in Appalachia, a region in the south to mid-Atlantic states that sometimes sounds more like scar tissue than a place with real communities. And we know now what it means to sacrifice a region or a community: extreme poverty, drug abuse, violence, and the deepening fear of being forgotten by the country as a whole. Vulnerable communities are subject to exploitation by big pharmaceutical companies, and this is exacerbated by the disrupted balance between what people need and what they are lacking. Consider the gateways to opioid use: physical pain, lack of available care, lack of funds, existential pain, loss of livelihood, poor habits and greater accessibility to poor habits, pharmaceutical messaging, targeted rhetoric, and despair. Life got so bad for so many people because the industries that ruined their communities didn’t stick around to clean up the mess. It amazes me that these are communities who vote Republican, but it also doesn’t surprise me at all. What these Appalachian communities blame as the enemy and what we see as the solution is only a matter of perspective. Being in this region has shaped my political views in ways I couldn’t predict. I’ll get more into it later.

What I’m looking for in a president is complicated. I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter, but I also like Elizabeth Warren, and I would vote for her if she was the nominee. Up until 2016, I think most of us didn’t know grassroots movements were possible—that someone could run a campaign without super pacs or billionaires or money from shadowy donors and corporations. As Bernie Sanders advances through the process, I feel like we’re seeing an important movement in real-time. This is unprecedented, and a long time coming after years of building to this with other radical movements (Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street). I’m a lifelong Democrat, but I have begun to have serious hesitations about those in control of the party. I like that Sanders doesn’t identify as a Democrat, because it is almost a permission slip granted to the rest of the Democratic party to envision a more radically equal future. Racial and gender equality is a huge issue in my generation, and when we look at the history of injustice, it’s becoming more and more clear inequality comes as a consequence when the profiteering few are lifted up higher than the struggling many.

The working class is complex, and impossible to generalize. It’s the way our fear and anger transmutes that makes the difference in how we are labeled. And it’s the way we approach solutions—traditionally, as if there are only two sides of the issue—that has gotten us in this mess today. Bernie Sanders feels like the manifestation of all these things on my mind. His approach is not the traditional strategy Democrats have used for decades, because he is looking at the issues not as a partisan problem, but a problem created by the larger mechanisms of the system we live in. Real, lasting change will only occur if we elect someone who has been addressing these larger problems for their entire political career without backing down or compromising their fight for the working class to appease the powerful few. It’s only right that Sanders has a movement behind him that consists of America’s most misunderstood, most vulnerable, and yet still, perhaps, most optimistic. I think if his message can resonate with rural voters who have been mistreated by the government for ages, he has a solid chance of winning the presidency. For this to happen, we all need to have perspective and consider what the most oppressed in this country actually live through day to day.

Under different circumstances, my top pick would be Warren. But those circumstances would have to be close to what we felt in 2016, when the class divide was edging towards, but not quite at, the helm of public discourse. I don’t think we can return to this reality–we know the aches of the working class and the insidious agendas behind billionaire politics too well to regress. But I think as a president, Warren wouldn’t be radical enough. I think Warren would too easily fall into the same groove we’ve seen from Democratic presidents in the past, trying to solve the issues from a political position rather than from the position as the leader of a movement to change the fundamental practices of capitalism. I think Warren struggles a little to make the right people uncomfortable, and appeals to citizens who enjoy comfort in their daily lives, but have a genuine interest in making lives better for others. (Don’t even get me started on the moderates.) I’m not 100% on board with Warren because I’m not a comfortable citizen. My employment is insanely temporary, my finances are very tenuous, my health insurance is terrible and lacking. I’m also at the age when I should seriously be thinking about my decision to have children or not, and currently, although I think children are delightful and have the potential to shift my perspective of the universe, I’m overwhelmed by the state of our deteriorating natural world. I think Warren has great policies and is an intelligent, fierce, formidable contender for the presidency, but I think she would be another Democrat who could make life a little more comfortable for the already-comfortable, and not uncomfortable enough for the too-comfortable. As long as Warren considers herself a capitalist, I think she will bend to compromise with companies who exploit and profit from the underserved. I don’t think she will make a difference in the lives of the perpetually uncomfortable.

Bernie Sanders is different. Where many are concerned about his ability to compromise with a Republican controlled Senate, I see an opportunity to broaden the public’s perception of their governing individuals. If we elect a president with a radical movement behind him—one that is founded on demanding accountability from the ruling class—we could see voters turn out to flip seats in local elections, small-scale politics that make big ripples on a national level. We’re already seeing this in some states and counties, as the Sanders grassroots movement has emphasized the need to vote in local elections—a way to change from the ground up—but I believe his presidency will pressurize communities to take a good hard look at the interests of those politicians and corporations who represent them. I want a president who can expose the people in power who have rested for too long, and done too little for the communities they represent. I want to turn up the heat and see who shakes out. Some people may believe this is too radical. But consider the perspective of a younger person, someone with three unpaid internships, freelance jobs, and gig-economy work to keep them afloat. This is the modern working class, and we’re damn hard workers. Many of us don’t get days off, can’t afford a sick day, or will lose our jobs in the face of a single emergency. Fuck those in power who take their public service job for granted, who sit back to collect a paycheck after doing as little as possible. Fuck ’em. Make ’em work as hard as us and see who sticks around.

When we face a problem, an inconvenience in our daily lives, it can usually be solved with the right combination of money and resources. But the political system doesn’t work this way. A solution on one side of the aisle is often an oppression on the other side. And this goes back and forth forever. What we need is not a solution mindset that views today’s issues on the familiar Democrat-Republican spectrum. We need a mindset that looks at the whole complex arrangement of power and exploitation, and we need to elect individuals who can amplify this perspective into a powerful movement against the wealthy elites who have enough resources to manipulate public opinion in such a way that protects their accumulated capital. What we need is mindset that doesn’t equate lasting change with consumer habits. This is why I’m personally offended by Jeff Bezos’s plan to save the world from climate change, not to mention everything about Michael Bloomberg. We should not be waiting for billionaires—who made their fortune by encouraging a deadly combination of unchecked consumerism, mass production, and mass transportation of cheaply produced goods—to save the planet from the effects of climate change. In a balance between public health and personal fortune, which do you think Bezos will use his philanthropy to protect at all costs? Red flags should go up in every critical thinker. As long as that capital is protected, the working class is vulnerable to exploitation. If not directly, then by the consequence of investment portfolios maintained by the wealthy few: extractive industries, housing, agriculture, transportation, media, pharmaceuticals, health insurance, etc. As long as the working class does not have a significant voice in these areas of society, we are attempting to solve the wrong problems.

I look around Christiansburg, my temporary little rural home, and I see people with values that are very different from my own. I see families in full camouflage at the grocery store, their carts packed with bottled water, junk food, supplies for living that I find myself judging too readily. I see massive diesel trucks spitting black fumes into the air, gun rights and pro-Trump and Blue Lives Matter stickers flashing from the bumper. I see the white Church of Christ teenaged boys going door to door in their white shirts and ties. It’s easy to see how we are vastly different. But I also see all these people trying to live their most comfortable lives according to their terms and understanding of the world. I see how they are doing the best they can, with what information they have been given, for their families and communities. I see why they value rugged individualism and family solidarity—because who else has demonstrated they have rural communities’ best interests in mind? I see in them an ignorance of things I know, and I see in them an awareness of issues I have been ignorant of for a long time.

The way to fix our relationships to the earth, to each other, to our habits, is not to push back against the other side in the way we have been taught to do. We can’t focus on one issue at a time, because we live in a system in which every part of society works as a whole. Our issues are inseparable from one another. Problems come when the left and the right prescribe solutions based on the isolated issue and not the system in which the issue operates. I’m tired of hearing people who are not in touch with the right wing base refer to all Trump voters as racist, evil, and ignorant. That’s too easy, and no easy answer is satisfying in such a complex system. When you start to widen your understanding of who has been disenfranchised by sprawling corporations, billion-dollar industries, and America’s global practices, you see it is not contained so simply along partisan lines. It’s only a matter of perception between the left and the right. We need the 2020 election to shatter this dichotomy, because we all have a common opposition: disconnect.

I’m going to say something really unpopular: we can survive another four years of Donald Trump. We can, because we have to stop looking at presidential elections as solutions to the societal problems. Yes, Trump will make life harder for the most vulnerable people, ecosystems, and organizations. He’s a social and ecological disaster in human form. He’s ruined families, traumatized children, and encouraged violent acts of hate against targeted communities. But plenty of Democrats have done the same in the past—it’s still a matter of perspective and visibility, and who and what we see as deserving of our empathy. We cannot look to the presidency to fix the most important problems in our individual lives. We have to begin to see how the whole system works to oppress the vulnerable, maximize profits at the expense of real people, real ecosystems, and further abstract these issues in communication to the respective partisan bases in order to secure another term. As long as we are electing someone who believes capitalism is the only or best way to run a country, every solution is temporary.

I haven’t talked about the other candidates because they are of zero interest to me. I see the moderates as short-sighted providers of temporary solutions that can be undone easily by the next election. I see Warren as a strong case, but ultimately vulnerable to the same traps politicians encounter when fighting for a party, rather than against a complex system that perpetuates oppressions transcendent of party. As a citizen and a person, I know what policies would directly benefit my life. But as a voter, I always want to use my vote to protect and make visible the most vulnerable parts of our society and natural world. We have a chance now to think big, dream big, and imagine the long-term effect of a radical shift of power over to the hands of the people. We have a chance to assess large-scale social and environmental damages and hold those in power accountable for their decisions. As a country, this won’t be quick, and it certainly won’t be comfortable for those in power, who will try everything they can to unload their suffering onto the working class.

Super Tuesday is two days away. That morning, I’m going to get up early with my partner, drive to the little rural high school that serves as our polling place, and cast my vote for Bernie Sanders. I know some people believe he’s a divisive figure, and that his supporters are rabid socialists. But I have met far more Sanders supporters who, like me, are struggling to attain the most modest semblance of the life we envisioned for ourselves when we were children. The purpose of this movement is not to isolate anyone further, but to see–really, finally see–the state of America’s most vulnerable. I don’t live in fear, I don’t live in terrible conditions, I don’t feel society has taken more advantage of me than it has of other people. But I want to fight for those people. I want you to consider fighting for them too.