What I Learned About Myself & My Communities During My First Election As A Citizen
I wasn't a U.S. citizen until last spring. I cast my first-ever vote during this year's primaries for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. There was nothing momentous about it, though I thought there would be. After all, I spent a year writing and spreading awareness about Sanders' campaign — and yet when the time came, I simply sat in a bakery, ticked off the boxes, sealed the envelope, and mailed in my absentee ballot with very little ceremony. Then again, politics is a part of my everyday. Even when it's not an election year with Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump, the personal has always been political for me. In turn, understanding this concept has led me to realize I need to work outside the system and do more than cast my ballot.
I write that with conviction, but sometimes I wonder if I'm slipping up. I've critically examined the candidates running for the presidency, as well as further down the ballot, but it isn't the only work that needs to be done. It frustrates me that so many people were willing to rise up and demand a "political revolution" when it was Sanders, an old cis white man, asking them to do so. What about when black and brown organizers demand an end to militarized policing? What about undocumented folks who want U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's deportation raids in their communities to stop? What about when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies continue to fight to protect water and tribal land? What then? Revolution is not a word to be used lightly.
After observing and participating in my first election, I don't think the revolution can come from within the political system. I think that electing Sanders or the Green Party's Jill Stein would have helped. However, I don't really think I will find the justice I seek within the status quo. As blogger and writer Dominique Matti wrote in a Medium post, the change we seek won't come from politicians, but rather from a movement that we launch together. "I no longer believe the system will give me my rights if I shout loud enough," Matti wrote. "I no longer believe the President has that kind of power. I’ve seen the system work exactly as it’s meant to, in ways that keep my people oppressed. I’ve seen the system fill its belly on our aching. I stopped hoping for the system to fill my cup."
Right now, we largely perceive third-party votes as a waste, because we've been socialized to complain about the two-party system's flaws without actually doing anything to change it. This is why the interim years between elections are so important. Elections are not our only work. If we want a higher minimum wage, if we want reproductive justice, if we want equal access to education, if we want to combat climate change, if we want racial and economic and social justice, we have to fight for those things even when a presidential candidate isn't leading the charge.
The personal is political for me because my identity has always been politicized. I fight to see voices like mine represented in the media and in political spaces. As a marginalized person, it's hard for me to separate my emotions from my political views, because those views are entrenched in a desire for justice in the communities I'm a part of and the communities I care about. I can't not be passionate about that. Passion isn't clouding my judgment; it's just reminding me that there is so much work left to be done.
Over the summer, I got into an argument that exemplified the emotional and personal nature of this election. I was at a family friend's house, along with my parents and a few other families. Everyone there was Indian. The person whose house it was said he was a Trump supporter, and I felt the atmosphere of the conversation shift dramatically. It wasn't just about Trump or the election anymore, but about our cultural values and identities.
The personal is political, and the political is personal. And I am exhausted.
It was deeply upsetting to see a family friend openly supporting Trump, saying he had the right idea to institute a temporary ban on Muslims, and arguing that Islam was violent somehow. That rattled me. He's not the only one with these views, either. There are others in my community who are Hindu nationalists, who now throw their support to Trump because he, too, is preaching nationalist ideals of purity and safety which partially hinge on Islamophobia.
I am now living and working in France, and the conversations I've had with folks abroad about the American elections have given me valuable insight. In the final days before the election, I continue to hear from my students, co-workers, and others that American "democracy" is perplexing. In France, third-party votes are not regarded as anything out of the ordinary. Rather, they are perceived as strategic ways to build a voter base. My friends and colleagues in the Parisian suburbs express disbelief when they learn that third-party voters are dismissed as throwing away protest votes and enabling Trump's victory, as though certain politicians inherently deserve our votes rather than having to earn them.
However, many people have also told me that if the outcome of this presidential election is anything other than Clinton winning in a landslide against a fascist demagogue like Trump, then it simply proves just how far right the American system is situated in a global context. This point is exactly why there is something much bigger at play here than an election between a business mogul, a former secretary of state, and a few third-party candidates. What this election has shown me is that the world is becoming more and more wary of the "other," and shifts toward the far right are becoming frighteningly widespread. We can see this as politicians and their supporters in countries like the U.S., France, and the UK promote xenophobia and advocate for tighter borders.
This election has helped me figure out a lot about my own identity, because it has revealed explicit connections in the ways oppression operates within the two cultures I most closely identify with. The personal is political, and the political is personal. And I am exhausted. No matter what the outcome of the presidential election — which I find less useful as a way of effecting change than local elections — marginalized people will constantly have to fight for the right to exist and occupy space without being ignored, harassed, discriminated against, or murdered. From North Dakota to Palestine, the fight for justice is something that goes beyond election years, and we can't forget that after Tuesday.
Operating within the political system is not the only way to make change, and I can't overstate that. In fact, after writing, analyzing, and campaigning during this election, I believe even more firmly that working within the system will not bring about the change we need. I believe the revolution is personal, and that the revolution must come from us. On Wednesday, after the votes have been cast, will you be out on the streets holding the new president-elect accountable and working within intersectional movements for change? Because in the end, that's what is going to matter the most.
Images: Madhuri Sathish (2)