An Open Letter to My Millennial Friends Who Are Thinking of Staying Home or Voting Third Party on Election Day
I was born in 1979, which makes me one year too old to be a millennial like Taylor Swift, and several years too young to be a Gen X’er like the characters on Friends. Instead, I am part of this weird neither-here-nor-there identityless non-generation generation that is sometimes called Generation Y. Basically, I’m young enough to still feel scrappy and like I’m part of the solution, but also old enough to remember some shit that would maybe be helpful for you to know. And it’s gonna take me a minute, so hunker down.
My high school and college years lined up exactly with Bill Clinton’s presidency. The first presidential election I got to vote in was in 2000, when I was 21. Subsequently, the first eight years of my “adult” life were spent under the George W. Bush presidency/fiasco. My parents are Masters-degree-holding, dyed-in-the-wool Brooklyn Jewish liberals, and consequently I was raised on the left side of all the issues. In the predominantly white, middle-class suburb of Philadelphia where they raised my brother and me, things were pretty good. My privilege, combined with the fact that we had a smart left-leaning president elected to office when I was 13, meant that I grew up feeling fairly complacent. I was politically aware enough to be able to sound smart in class, but I wasn’t so curious as to really dig deeply into the issues affecting Americans who weren’t me. Because I didn’t have to. Yet.
The primary season was just starting to ramp up when I went home for a visit in 2000. My dad and I were at the gym together, and on one of the TVs, CNN was introducing all of the candidates who were officially running for the Republican nomination, which included former President George H.W. Bush’s son, George W. Bush. I asked my dad something like, “Is he the one who just became governor of Florida?” My dad was like “No, he’s the dumb one who is governor of Texas.” I said something like, “Oh no, if W wins, there will be another war in Iraq. Obviously that’s why he’s running. His father didn’t kill Saddam Hussein. I bet W’s father is just making him run so he can finish the job.” My dad (and I’m paraphrasing here) said something like, “Don’t be so cynical. That’s not the way it works. Presidents can’t start wars just because they feel like it.”
Fast-forward to the 2000 general election. I’d graduated from college and was now living in a tiny garbage hole in the East Village in Manhattan with what felt like 47 other people, working at my cousin’s music company and starting a theater company with my college friends. When it came time for me to vote for Al Gore, I halfheartedly sent in an absentee ballot to my home state of Pennsylvania, not because I really understood that Pennsylvania was a swing state yet, but because I was too lazy to have changed my registration in time. I say halfheartedly because while I was excited to vote, it just didn’t seem like that big a deal if I did or not. I mean, Al Gore had just been the Vice President. Sure, Gore wasn’t as exciting as Bill, but he was thoughtful and qualified and had been a senator before he was VP, so obviously this spoiled jackhole he was running against could never win.
Then Election Day came, and there was this whole business with hanging chads and Florida being crazy and the Supreme Court deciding the election.
So many people I knew hadn’t voted. They’d thought that of course Al Gore would win. Sure, Ralph Nader (from something called the Green Party) had joined the race, and there was talk about how he was dangerous because he would siphon votes from Gore, but it never occurred to me that he could actually mean the difference between Gore winning and losing. I remember my brother explaining that there was a real problem in Florida because the margin of error was greater than the number of votes separating the two candidates, making it impossible for a recount to be accurate. I knew that W’s running mate was a scary, charm-free, evil-faced businessman, but I had no idea that he would actually be calling the shots for the next four (or rather, eight) years. So yada yada yada, W became president and for the first nine months, it felt like “Okay, this guy sucks, but he doesn’t seem to be doing much. He’s on vacation a lot. Hopefully we’ll get lucky, and he won’t get to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court, and maybe nothing major will happen, and we’ll just run out that clock on a lackluster, ineffectual term. Then we’ll kick ass in 2004 and elect an awesome Democrat.”
You know where this is going. Maybe you were in 6th grade by the time September 2001 rolled around. Maybe the impact of 9/11 wasn’t something you were thinking about that much. Let me sum up my experience in a few key events from the day:
- heard/felt the vibrations of the planes hitting the buildings
- ran up to my East Village roof and watched/photographed the buildings burning, then falling
- rushed to the Key Foods on Ave. A to stock up on dry goods assuming NYC was fully under attack and we would be quarantined at some point, probably without power
- tried to go to Bellevue Hospital to donate blood, but ran into a friend who was coming from there who said not to bother because the line was around the block, and there wouldn’t be any survivors anyway
- tried to go down to the site to help, but couldn’t get past Chambers St. because the National Guard wouldn’t let us
- saw Building 7 collapse in a puff of smoke
- went to Tompkins Square park and spent hours hanging out with a homeless man named The Reverend Doctor Daddy Mac who talked to us about the world and sang us the most stirring version of Redemption Song I will ever hear
- knew that day and every day since that I had it much much better than many people, and that no matter how traumatized I might have felt, I was safe, and everyone I loved was safe
A few days later, I was talking to my dad on the phone, and I said, “This means that we are going to have a war in Iraq.” He said something like, “No honey, the 18 hijackers are from Saudi Arabia. And the guy who orchestrated it is from Afghanistan.” And I said, “Yeah, but now W has his excuse. Just watch, we are going to have a war in Iraq. It’s the whole reason he’s president.” And my dad said something again about how I shouldn’t be so cynical and presidents can’t just declare wars any old time they want. And we all know what happened next.
Many people saw it coming. In the beginning, I think we all believed that reason would prevail and enough smart people would say enough smart things to stop us from going to war in Iraq. But by 2003, I could feel the war in Iraq coming the way I had always been able to guess the next song Phish was gonna play while they were still jamming on the previous song (bear with me). Phish would often pepper a jam with themes or phrases from the next song they intended to play until that next song became inevitable. So too went the coverage that led into Operation Iraqi Freedom: at first the news was all Osama bin Laden. Then it was mostly Osama bin Laden and a little bit of Saddam Hussein. Then it was all Saddam Hussein. Our march to war was as seamless as a ’90s jam band transition.
By the time 2004 and another election came, I was fully — as you would say today — woke. I listened to NPR and read The New Yorker! I marched against the war. I protested the Republican convention being held in New York. “How could you betray us like that, Bloomberg? I mean, we know you’re a Republican now but you used to be a Democrat!” I wore angry pins on my bag that said things like “Beat Bush 2004” and “Not In My Name” and “No Blood for Oil.” In October of that year, I went down to Miami to volunteer for a week with a friend’s nonprofit that was trying to register Haitian Americans (and other minority groups) in Miami-Dade county — the county that had lost the election for Gore in 2000. On Election Day, I took a bus to Pennsylvania to help turn out the vote. We went to bed that night thinking John Kerry had won. It was so exciting!
But I’d had a bad feeling that whole fall. When I was in Florida — a state with early voting — I’d heard some super sketchy stories about people’s voting experiences. Some folks admitted to me that they had moved and changed their voter registration, but had successfully voted in both their old county and in their new one. Others told me that when they had voted down the line for all Democrats on the new computerized voting machines, they had gotten a confirmation screen that had somehow changed their votes from all Democrat to all Republican. In order to cast their votes accurately, they’d had to cancel out the confirmation screen and recast their votes. I thought about how many older voters would have been confused by this “error” and accidentally voted red when they meant to vote blue. Meanwhile, Walden O’Dell, CEO of Diebold (the company that created those computerized machines) was going on TV, swearing his allegiance to W and saying that he would do anything he could do get him reelected. In my heart of hearts I just couldn’t see Kerry winning Florida in a situation like that. And surprise surprise, he didn’t.
Kerry had bigger problems than election fraud though. Compared to W he was amazing: he had a long record of service, and he was to the left everywhere he needed to be. But he wasn’t shiny and new, and his speaking style was a bit dull. Of all the awesome pins I had on my bag, not one of them said “Kerry/Edwards 2004.” They were all just anti-W in sentiment. And that’s the thing. You don’t go into a voting booth and vote against the person you don’t want to win. Voting is framed as a positive act, in which you say yes to the person you want. I was never excited about Kerry. No one was. So lots of people just stayed home.
It wasn’t until Obama ran for president in 2008 that I knew what it felt like to be genuinely thrilled by a candidate. I read Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father after seeing his 2004 convention speech, and I was in it to win it with him from then on. I loved that he stood for the same beliefs as a presidential candidate that he had when he was a senator. He’d served at the local, state, and national level, but not for so long that he was compromised by special interests or marred by corruption. I donated to his campaign, bought T-shirts, and went to New Hampshire on Election Day to help get out the vote. I spent election night with friends at the African-American student union on my graduate school campus, and we all cheered and jumped up and down as the returns came in. When Obama gave his acceptance speech I cried, not just because of the significance of the moment, but also because I realized, with all the voting fraud that was no doubt going on again, just how many people must have shown up to vote for him in order for him to win. The only way to beat someone who is cheating is to win by so much that their shenanigans are irrelevant.
Throughout Obama’s entire presidency, I’ve been nervous about what would happen in the 2016 election. We’ve never had two Democratic presidents in a row in my lifetime. The last time was LBJ, but that was only because JFK was assassinated. When I first saw the parade of arse-holes who were running for the Republican nomination, I thought, “It’s cool, Democrats have this in the bag.” And when the Tangerine Trash Can Fire (got that from Samantha Bee) showed up and started stirring up trouble, I legitimately thought it was funny. That this Reality Show Circus Peanut (that’s mine) was inadvertently exposing the truth about the Republican Party. That he would never get the nomination. That he would say a bunch of insane shit just for the shock value, and when he exited the race, the remaining Republicans would have to work hard to make up for all the racist, xenophobic, and sexist things he spouted to distance themselves from his candidacy. In other words, his failed campaign could have a positive effect! Guess I’m not psychic all the time.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Hillary seemed like she was running unopposed at first. To be honest, I resented that. Winning a presidential primary should never be a foregone conclusion. Were other people not running because the party wouldn’t let them? Was the DNC like, “Guys, chill, it’s Hillary’s turn.” I wanted to feel how I felt when Obama was running. I wanted to be inspired and like, Yes We Can, and maybe even have a crush on the candidate. That’s what voting should feel like right? Then Bernie Sanders showed up, and I was all, “Who’s this weird guy? Hillary’s gonna be pissed!” At first he was easy to write off with his disheveled appearance and grumpy yelling. Then I remembered that he was one of the few members of the Senate who voted against the Iraq War in 2003, and I started listening to what he was actually saying. Somehow, at 74, Bernie was able to tap into a passion that many of us had but didn’t know existed in Washington. Could he be the answer?
As the seemingly interminable primary season trucked along, I felt very split. On the day of the New York primary, I stood there staring at my ballot for a few minutes when suddenly I had a rush of emotion about the fact that a pretty fantastic woman was poised to win the nomination, and that I could be a part of that. New York actually mattered for the first time in forever! I teared up and felt surprised and proud as I checked the Hillary box.
So that brings us up to the present, and it’s a few days after the debate between Hillary and He Who Must Not Be Named, and I’m wracked with anxiety that we are majorly blowing this. The Democratic candidate is running against the most spectacularly unqualified candidate in history, and yet he still could win. Hillary was the Secretary of State for four years and a Senator for eight years. She’s a dedicated public servant. And while she may not be quite as far to the left as I am on a few issues, we line up on most things. She’s also tough as shit, she never quits, and she is brave in a way that is really rare for a politician. When she was First Lady in the ’90s she tried to get comprehensive healthcare reform passed. As First Lady. So baller. And if Obama was able to look past her behavior in the ’08 primary season, so can I. (If you need more convincing, just read this essay written by Isaac Saul — a self-avowed Bernie Bro — in which he apologizes for and retracts his former hatred of Hillary.)
The thing that you might not understand as a millennial voter is that Obama was a unicorn. He was almost mythic in his awesomeness as a candidate, and that pretty much never happens. Usually, you vote for someone you’re (kind of to very) stoked about in the primary, and then if they move on to the general, yay! If they don’t, you look at the two people running, and you pick the one who lines up most closely with your values. I wish we got more options than two, but we don’t right now. And to be honest, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein simply aren’t qualified. The parties they represent need to grow their power and influence at the local, state, and congressional levels before we can even talk about the presidency.
When the choice is between Hillary and Worse Than Voldemort, and you say, “I’m going to stay home because they are both evil,” what I actually hear you saying is, “I’m privileged enough to not vote — even though people all over the world have died for this right.” And when you say, “I’m going to vote my conscience and vote for Jill Stein / Gary Johnson,” what I actually hear you saying is, “I don’t know anything about recent history, so I don’t understand how damaging voting third party can actually be in a country in which the Democrats only win if the turnout for them is humongous.”
If you are around 27 now, then it’s likely that you aren’t feeling the same resonances I’m feeling between this election and the ones in 2000 and 2004. There’s no reason why you should be. Obama has been president for your entire adult life, and maybe you’ve experienced some of your own complacency. Or maybe you’re also a unicorn, and you’ve been a community organizer since the age of 11, who knows? But if not, I hope that you’re hearing me.
Because here’s the thing: who the president is actually really matters. So if you are thinking that Muppet Hitler being president for four years isn’t such a big deal, you are wrong. He can do a lot of harm. Just as W did. Remember: without the complete destabilization of the Middle East from the Iraq War, there would be no ISIS. Without ISIS, a candidate who — among many other horrible things — is making threats about rounding up Muslims and barring Muslim immigrants from entering the US, wouldn’t be getting so much traction now. And now that I am married to a Turkish immigrant and have a baby with an Arabic name, I’m seriously considering my options should the Orange Man become president. Because if that happens, I know that my family will not be safe here. He has promised the country that.
So please, think about how important your vote is. Please vote for Hillary. Please tell your friends to vote for her. And please get excited about it. I sure am.
Fully with her,