Why I'm Caucusing Today
In nearly seven years of living in Iowa, the past month has been one of the few periods of time where friends and acquaintances from other states have remembered that I don’t live in Idaho, Ohio, or Utah. I get it — “Iowa” is short with a lot of vowels, which reminds people of other states with names that are also short and contain many vowels. Right now, though, in the wind-up to today's caucuses, it feels like the entire world is fixated on Iowa, making the experience of living here feel like I’ve stepped into some type of bizarro Iowa that’s constantly visited by famous people and discussed on the homepage of the New York Times.
I don’t own a television, I’ve temporarily stopped listening to the radio, and I haven’t given my contact information to any campaigns. Still, constant visits from presidential candidates and non-stop election coverage mean that there’s no way to avoid the Iowa caucus campaigning — something that I ultimately don’t care about.
As someone who strongly identifies as a “Person Who Cares,” I certainly haven’t admitted my disinterest in the caucuses to my friends, many of whom have been quite vocal about their candidate preferences. Part of my election ennui is the fatigue that comes from watching so many months of absurd campaigning. From last summer’s pictures of politicians eating pork products at the Iowa State Fair to Mike Huckabee’s tragic, Iowa-themed cover of Adele’s “Hello,” it seems to me that each candidate has gone through a series of carefully choreographed motions designed to make it seem like they actively care about a broad range of demographics.
Just over the past two weeks here in Johnson County — the bluest of Iowa’s 99 counties and home of the University of Iowa — three candidates have held large, on-campus rallies featuring a random-seeming mix of public figures designed to fire up and expand the base. Demi Lovato drew 1,600 people to Hillary Clinton's January 21st rally, while Donald Trump paraded an all-male revue of white University of Iowa athletes in front of 2,000 people at his rally last Tuesday. Two days ago, Bernie Sanders drew a crowd of 3,500 people — with hundreds more turned away — to a rally featuring Cornel West, two comedians, an actor best known for being in The Hunger Games, and an assortment of pop, indie, and folk performers with varying degrees of name recognition.
On both sides of the aisle, messaging veers from “Presidential Candidates! They’re Just Like Us!” to “Lifestyles of the Possibly Presidential and Definitely Well-Connected,” all in an attempt to show just how down these people are with the common folk.
Are they really, though?
For me, campaign fatigue has merged with United States fatigue, a feeling fostered by constant updates on each day's newest instances of systemic anti-black violence — from the lead-poisoned drinking water in Flint, Michigan to a "progressive" being heartily congratulated for learning to utter words that might hint at their belief that black lives matter. At this point, it all feels like variations on a theme to me, couched in different rhetoric, but always with the same results.
As noted afropessimist scholar Frank B. Wilderson III says, “the difference between a sentient being who is positioned as a being in the world and one who is positioned as a thing in the world marks every scale, from the body to the diaspora.”
As a sentient being who is often positioned as a thing, it’s been hard to muster anything even approaching enthusiasm over the past seven months for candidates whose stage magic fails to conceal their unimpressive racial politics. Systemic, structural anti-blackness — the root of so much violence in the U.S., ranging from the micro to the fatal — is inescapable when it comes to the U.S. government. Even a two-term black president couldn't avoid making black people feel like he was sometimes, as Van Jones, Obama's former special adviser on green jobs said, the "president of everyone except black people."
In the lead-up to the 2008 election, I had all of the positive feelings towards Obama that a national-level politician could possibly have inspired in a progressive woman of color who came of age during the G.W. Bush presidencies. I was a senior in high school when I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on a classroom's ceiling-mounted television. During spring break of my first year in college, I spent an afternoon in downtown Portland protesting the Invasion of Iraq with two friends and 30,000 other people. The following year, I gawked at the projector screen in the Student Union that broadcasted John Kerry's presidential loss.
My political coming of age was marked by utter despondency. No politician will ever be able to rouse the breathless elation and burden-lifting relief that I felt that night in November 2008, but that's only part of my side-eye at the current presidential campaign hullabaloo. Beyond that, the Obama presidency has simply reconfigured my conception of what's achievable through establishment politics.
While images of the First Family will never stop evoking a gut-level emotional response that makes me go “awwwwwww,” the adoration I feel for a cool black dude and his family of intelligent black women doesn’t mean that I can ignore all the other things that disappoint me about his presidency, like the deportations of immigrants (as per Fusion, Obama has deported more people than any U.S. president before him), or the drone program (which causes more civilian casualties than the government is often comfortable discussing).
I believe in my heart that Barack Obama, the individual, cares about black people; individual care, however, has not translated into presidential care in all of the ways that progressive people of color could have hoped for. In a post-9/11, post-Citizens United landscape, perhaps presidential care is a figment of our imaginations. Hillary doing the Whip/Nae Nae on national television and Bernie having a heart-to-heart with a rapper in a barbershop won’t change that. To me, both Clinton and Sanders have already fallen short in showing a commitment to fighting systemic anti-black oppression.
While the dominant narratives around her campaign have minimized Clinton's role in the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex, in a public Facebook post last week, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, encouraged black voters not to forget:
I can't believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done - the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes.
Outside of her appearances with her husband and daughter, Hillary Clinton's most newsy Iowa stops have featured celebrities like Lovato, Katy Perry, and Lena Dunham. That's understandable, given Clinton's low polling numbers among women under 30 — but ineffective in changing the minds of anyone who sees echoes of the Clintons' previous dog-whistle racism in the current presidential campaign.
For Ta-Nehisi Coates, though Bernie Sanders’ platform and background lack “anything as damaging as the carceral state,” the candidate’s plans exemplify the ways “populism [fails] black people.” Given the historic plundering of black wealth that Coates has examined in his work, for Sanders “to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies [...] is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages,” as Coates wrote in The Atlantic. Are campaign-trail appearances by Killer Mike and Cornel West enough to make up for that?
There’s no reason for me to think that our current political structure will ever facilitate the dismantling of the very oppressive foundations of this country — those intersecting oppressions based on race, gender, and class that must be destroyed in order to make the reality of the United States finally match up with the idea of it. I believe that no president in my lifetime will end structural anti-blackness. I believe that no anti-racist president will work to repair the damage that has been done. I believe that there is too much money to be made from white supremacy, gender inequality, and keeping people poor.
From the campaign workers at the Johnson County Fair — who asked me about my plans for the Iowa Democratic Caucus back in late July — through the campaign mail I found in my mailbox last week, candidates have spent more money than I can fathom purchasing advertising time, mobilizing volunteers, and crisscrossing the state of Iowa with a coterie of famous people and staffers. I’ve never seen anything like it. All of those resources — spent in an attempt to make me believe that each candidate cares. For this voter, those efforts had the opposite effect.
Because I wanted to look my ideological adversaries in the eye, I've been to two Trump rallies in the past six weeks, first as a spectator, then as a protester/human popsicle (because Iowa is cold).
I don’t prefer choosing lesser evils, but having a middle-aged white woman at a Trump rally punch the sign I was holding last week, simply because it expressed support for immigrants and refugees, reiterates its necessity. That’s why I’m caucusing today.
Image: alea adigweme