In Defense of the Protest Vote

When I was 20, I cast my first presidential vote for Al Gore. We all know how that turned out. My frustrations were primarily directed at the Supreme Court and the people who actually voted for Bush. While I didn’t understand the appeal of Nader then, I had friends who voted for him, and it was pretty easy to recognize they were casting that vote because they wanted something better for our country. At the time, though, I also empathized with the perspective of those who believed Nader voters had thrown away their votes and let Bush win.

In the next election, though I would have preferred Dean, I held my nose and voted for the uninspiring Kerry, only to see Bush get re-elected again. This time legitimately. Then, Obama came along. Here was someone with a platform that I could truly get behind. He recognized the Iraq war was a terrible idea. He wanted to help push through real healthcare reform. He was going to fix the economy. He seemed to truly understand what the country needed.

And then nothing happened.

Sure, the economy is better than it was in 2008, but not enough, and we are in no way prepared for the automation that’s about to take away millions of jobs. Obamacare is a disaster that will only get worse unless we take real steps to provide healthcare and not just health insurance to all citizens. We may have fewer troops in Iraq, but they’re still there, and worse, the entire Middle East is in even more of a quagmire than before all of our interventions. Obama has become the president of drones, leaving children in Pakistan dreading sunny days because that’s when the drones are most likely to strike (as seen in this John Oliver video).

Our relations with Russia are getting worse, our relations with China are less than desirable, and our actions in the Middle East helped create the vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS and the flood of Syrian immigrants. Between the Iraq war and the Syrian war, over half a million people have died, and much of that blood is on our hands.

But during that time, on a dreary day in December of 2010, I happened to visit the Senate building. The guard stationed outside asked if I’d gotten tickets from my Senator’s office to visit the observation deck of the Senate floor. I said no, and she insisted I go do that quickly because Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was in the midst of an historic filibuster.

For 45 minutes, I watched Sanders filibuster. He was on point the entire time, talking about the horrible impact of the Bush tax cuts, the problem with our trade deals, and the unreasonable burdens this was all putting on the hardworking citizens of our country. He was fighting for all of America. And I didn’t see one other Senator in the room supporting him or caring.

Sanders kept talking for 8.5 hours, but the 45 minutes I saw were enough to leave me smitten. Upon returning home, I immediately googled him, and the more I read, the more convinced I became that we needed him as president. When Obama ran a second time, I wanted to write in a protest vote for Sanders, but I was talked out of it by a friend who guilt-tripped me with the Supreme Court argument. I voted for Obama, and I’ve regretted that vote since, not because Obama was any worse in his second term — in many respects I think he was better — but because I didn’t vote with my conscience.

Now, the guilt-trip attempts have begun again with Hillary Clinton. If she wins the democratic primary, and I write in a protest vote for Bernie, it’s the same as voting for Trump. Don’t I care about the Supreme Court? I must be racist and sexist and privileged. I must be a young millennial who just wants free stuff and is too stupid/inexperienced to understand how the real world works. I must hate minorities and Muslims and Mexicans. I must be willing to accept that no one will like me anymore.

The only accusation above that’s true* is that I am one of the more fortunate, privileged citizens of the world. However, it is precisely because of that privilege that I have a greater responsibility to resist the status quo and to speak up for and fight for those less fortunate .

I want to fight for a foreign policy that will finally help the countries and people of the Middle East sort out their own problems, without hundreds of thousands of people dying. I want to fight for an environmental policy that will force people and companies to start adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. I want to fight for a healthcare policy that will ensure all citizens receive healthcare and not just useless, expensive health insurance. I want to fight for an investment in America’s future via college education and adult education to help people adapt to a changing workforce.

The problem is I don’t really know how to launch these fights myself. The one thing I know I can always do, though, is vote.

I am convinced that neither Clinton nor Trump will move the country in the direction we need to go or at the pace we need to move it. On the contrary, I’m worried they will both take us backward. With Clinton, my greatest fear is that our interminable wars in other countries will escalate. At the very least, this could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in other countries, and at worst, it could trigger a global war with nuclear powers like Russia or China. I fear her foreign policies will also give rise to even more terrorists who hate us. With Trump, my greatest fear is that his bigoted rhetoric will trigger an even greater backlash against minorities, especially Muslims and Hispanics. I worry that this rhetoric will lead to more terrorism within our country. Neither is an acceptable option, and I resent anyone telling me I must choose one.

I will uphold my civic duty and vote, but if the general election comes down to Clinton and Trump (or any other Republican), I will protest vote.

For too long we’ve been held over the fire with threats that if we don’t conform and choose one of the candidates from the two party system, our vote isn’t just meaningless, it’s the equivalent of support for the opposite party. That’s wrong: only a vote for Trump is a vote for Trump, and the same holds for any other candidate. Unfortunately, many people believe this false argument, and they feel their only option is to plug their noses and vote for whomever they believe is the “lesser of two evils.” Worse, many people simply stay home and don’t vote.

Yet if those of us who don’t like our two options were to all go to the polls and write in another option, it would send one hell of a powerful message.

Now, I’m a cynic, and I believe that our message would fall on deaf ears to those in power among the two parties, but there’s a chance that this message just might get heard by the American people. We the people might just recognize that we’re not alone in our dissatisfaction with the current state of our country. We the people might just be more inclined to try to work together to fight the oligarchy that is taking hold of the country. We the people might just find our collective voice. And when that happens, we might just be able to successfully defy the two-party system that’s holding our country back.

But this possibility can only occur if we have the courage to defy the threats held over us by those in each party. This year, please vote, but if you don’t like the candidates offered up by the two parties, consider a protest vote.

*One could also argue that we’re all racist and sexist to a certain extent, but that’s a sociological/psychological argument for another day.

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