The 2020 American election poses interesting questions for anti-authoritarian progressives, not just in the United States, but around the world. On the one hand we have a candidate who is problematic with only a handful of positive ideas, and with many more flawed or even terrible ones. That candidate presents one appealing proposition however: those to his left may be able to influence policies during his presidency that will affect the lives of millions, whether it be the calls for universal healthcare, prison and police reform/abolition, or urgent action on the climate emergency. On the other hand we have the current incumbent, an authoritarian man who is emboldening white supremacists and is obsessed with demonizing migrants and refugees, a man who supports the destruction of the very ecosystems sustaining us and is likely to accelerate irreversible and wide-scale extermination of our living world.
The past four years are informative in what Trump could do with four more years. If Trump sees that he can win a second time by suppressing the vote of minorities, especially Black people, and by openly appealing to conspiracy theorists of the QAnon variety and the far right, then it is reasonable to assume he would only get worse upon a second victory. We could see a fascist takeover of the U.S. government, a disastrous prospect. His supporters will shower him with so much praise as to effectively constitute a death cult, with conspiracy theorists (such as QAnon) fusing with established right-wing millennarian religious movements and more “moderate” conservative forces. We will have a nuclear-powered military superpower with an administration appealing to an apocalyptic religious cult, white supremacists and hardline misogynists, racists, homophobes and transphobes — in the time of a climate emergency and economic crises. We simply cannot afford to risk this scenario.
Critiquing or even criticizing elections for, ultimately, not leading to fast enough change or even sometimes hampering change can and should be done, but it should be done in parallel to developing and promoting a risk assessment culture. There should be a way for anti-authoritarian progressives to multiply the angles from which we tackle an issue, and to arm ourselves with the tools to push for social and environmental justice in as many settings as we can, from the household to the street and passing by the ballot box, the school/university, places of worship, workplaces and so on. To take one example: oppositions to the carceral regime can benefit from more serious prison reforms, which would at least benefit those currently being victimized by it, and which could allow wider networks to be formed with prison abolition as their goal.
Developing a risk assessment culture requires an understanding of the irreversible nature of the threat of climate catastrophe and the immediate threat of American authoritarianism. This also requires rejecting the tendency that exists within activist circles to adopt an “all-or-nothing” attitude when the consequences are already largely outside of individuals’ control. Not doing so leads to the fatalistic conclusion that nothing we do ultimately matters, and neither people nor justice can function under these assumptions.
I also urge against the notion that elections don’t matter in the United States, not just because that’s an objectively false statement but also because, as a Lebanese, I know what it’s like to come from a country where they truly don’t. At 29 years old, I have been allowed to vote only one time in my life because the Lebanese parliament, barely recovering from the Syrian military occupation, illegally extended their own term multiple times, with no one to challenge them. In that one election, which occurred in 2018 after being postponed from 2009, the independents running had to contend with the entire sectarian establishment as their opponents. They made modest gains, but not enough to make a difference. They also ran without the certainty — unlike in the pre-Trump United States — that the loser of an election will concede to the winner, nor did they have the certainty that they won’t be murdered should they win.
This is why I continue to engage with flawed systems when the alternatives are much worse. This comes from an existential fear of worse scenarios and is influenced by lived experiences, my own as well as others in the region and beyond. American liberal democracy is extremely fragile, and it should be changed and even transcended for the better, but it remains better than the visions put forward by the authoritarian right, the largest illiberal force in the United States today. Simply put, there is no guarantee that American democracy can survive a second Trump victory.
This lesser evilism informs my attitude towards the U.S. Supreme Court as well, which will be affected by the presidential election. This does not change the fact that the very nature of a Supreme Court needs to be challenged, notably the fact that its members have lifetime tenure. Nor does it imply that a liberal Supreme Court will always be on the right side of social justice issues. After all, Ruth Bader Ginsburg voted in favor of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline crossing the Indigenous Appalachian Trail, and had a very mixed record on racial justice, prisoners’ rights, capital punishment and tribal sovereignty, as the Marshall Project details. Luckily, the pipeline was cancelled due to increased costs related to delays — costs inflicted by the anti-pipeline movement — but had the project gone through it would have led to widespread environmental destruction.
The very idea of individuals, whether judges or otherwise, having this much power over the lives of hundreds of millions of people needs to be deconstructed — especially when it comes to the American colony’s actions towards Indigenous people and the descendants of those it has enslaved and exploited.
Both are true: the Supreme Court is highly problematic, a fact which won’t change with this election, and it can still matter who populates it. From the perspective of the activist, the Supreme Court is a tool, and it can be used to further the causes of social justice or hamper them. Agreeing to this does not require supporting the Supreme Court, or even believing that long-term positive change can come from within the state, but we can impact it to reduce suffering whenever possible, especially in the immediate future. It is merely a recognition of facts, facts that can be challenged and changed.
This is where a risk assessment framework is helpful: having liberal judges is no guarantee for social justice, but it is better than having a conservative majority, because the latter can take away basic rights such as reproductive rights which would add another burden on activists.
In conclusion, the upcoming U.S. election is not just an option between two visions of society (although there certainly is that component too). It is an opportunity to modify a system, even if the modifications are relatively small in comparison to wider ideals. This is possible through accepting that the principle of “lesser evilism” and it does not have to be synonymous with de-intensifying struggles for justice and equality. The conclusion that Biden is better than Trump does not imply that we need to let our guards down if Biden wins. On the contrary, it means continuing the calls for police abolition, a Green New Deal, reproductive rights, trans rights, Black rights, immigrant rights and so on, and even intensifying them. This is why I strongly believe that leftists and anti-authoritarian progressives have a responsibility to vote out Trump.