It is November 1996, and Bill Clinton has just been re-elected as the President of the United States. I am eleven years old. I’m in the back seat of the car with my brother beside me, and my parents up front, driving through a snowstorm to get to Boston for the weekend. We’ve been going twenty miles per hour on the highway for the past four hours. By now we’ve played so many car games that the only thing left to do is have a real conversation. Are you Democrats or Republicans? I ask. My parents let a moment pass, jolted by the sudden randomness of the question. They’ve always voted Democrat. Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton. Twelve and sixteen years later they would vote for Barack Obama. We’re Democrats, they say decisively. In fact, I am surprised by how decisive my father sounds when he says it; his assertions are usually more open-ended, more interpretive—“I think I’ll have egg salad, if you’ve got any;” “I don’t think you practiced the piano for a full half hour;” “The Yanks probably play at one today against the Orioles, but it might be in Baltimore, which means it could be at three or four.”
Bill Clinton is a Democrat, so I’m glad that my parents are aligned with power. It seems auspicious. What about me, I ask. What am I? What do you think you are, my mother says. I am unprepared for this question and assume she is not really asking me what I am but, rather, giving me the cue to deduce that I am a Democrat as well. Even though there is no hint of sarcasm in her question, I assume that she is passively telling me what I am, that the business of political affiliations in the United States is such that we don’t really choose but we inherit. And that’s comforting to me at age eleven because I trust my parents and I want to like the politicians that they like. I think my parents are the smartest people in the world and I want to espouse the same views that they do because I experience those views as completely legitimate, because—though I don’t quite understand this at age eleven—I was raised on those views. Democrat, I say. I’m a Democrat too.
Years later I’ll understand more about voting for a political party and I’ll remember back to this conversation and realize that my mother was really asking and was not trying to impose something pedantically; in fact, the only thing pedantic about it was the act of trying to teach that we are allowed to choose what we believe in. At age eleven, that lesson was lost on me; that lesson was so ludicrous that I could not even take her simple, direct question at face value. What are you? But at eighteen I will step into a voting booth and pull down the lever to find that I am presented with the grid of choices for mayor, town supervisor, town clerk, coroner, all in the snug privacy of curtained anonymity, amongst lines of strangers who have all gathered in my high school gym. I’ll realize that I can choose whichever names I want and no one will ever know. In fact, I will be able to write in the names of people who are not on the ballot if I want, though at eighteen I won’t know this. During this experience I will feel a rush of independence, and I will be compelled to vote for exactly the names that I want. But at the same time I will see the word “Republican” next to some of the names and I will see “Democrat” next to some of the others and I will be sure to avoid the former and flick the switches for the latter, though I will contemplate for a moment the ones labeled “Green,” which sounds healthy, or “Working Families,” which, inexplicably, feels like not-me, of a working upper-middle class family.
I will recall how, when my parents tuned in to NPR in the morning and the seven o’clock news on ABC, there were always only two political parties, delineated by opposing colors, whose elected representatives were in perpetual disagreement. Only Democrats and Republicans were relevant, and they were necessarily polarized. As long as this narrative persisted, all seemed right in the world. Nowadays I wonder if this is independence at all, flicking all the names of candidates marked by one party in part because I have been taught to despise the alternative, in part because I have been taught that the color my people use to represent themselves is a good color and the politicians who define us are good leaders. Is this really the free will to choose? Have I really done the work of figuring out what I stand for, who I am?
That year, 1996, my parents and some 47 million other Americans helped reelect Bill Clinton in a landslide over Republican candidate Bob Dole. Less than half of American citizens voted. We were pleased with Clinton’s reelection—he looked cool and youthful when he played the saxophone on late-night TV, and Toni Morrison seemed to confirm our perception of him when in 1998 she called him “our first black president.” He was the complete package: he solved the New York Times crossword each morning and still had time to balance the federal budget. We were less concerned about how, earlier that year, Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, also known as Welfare Reform. The bill was borrowed directly from House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s conservative agenda, which over the next two decades would cause a drastic decrease in the amount of people in poverty who would receive social services, and would further the social stigmatization of welfare recipients. The coded racial narrative Clinton and his wife, Hillary, used to muster support for the bill was cut from the same cloth as the rhetoric Bill Clinton used to appear tougher on crime than his Republican opponents in 1992. In 1994 he proved to Americans he could walk the walk, passing a crime bill that expanded the death penalty and amplified funding for corrections by $19 billion while cutting funding for public housing by essentially the same amount. By 2000, African Americans were incarcerated for drug offenses at twenty-six times the rate in 1983. Incarceration rates for Latin@s have followed a similar path.
During this same stretch of time, while liberals praised the way in which Clinton presided over the decline of unemployment for white Americans, black unemployment rose to 42 percent. No one I knew was aware of such bleak news—those I knew who opposed the Democratic administration omitted economic issues and emphasized the president’s marital infidelities and his lies under oath. Ironically, many of us who thought of ourselves as satisfied Democrats also ignored economic policy. We did not mind or were not attentive to how Clinton’s administration had, between 1994 and the end of his second term in 2000, quietly passed a series of bills for major financial deregulation on Wall Street—perhaps we could not imagine what such reforms might mean for the housing market and for rising wealth inequality. Meanwhile, in addition, we did not have to feel the stratifying and destructive effects of Clinton’s neoconservative, free market trade and economic austerity policies across Latin American and Eastern Europe. On the domestic front, Clinton would later blame his deregulatory activism on pressure from conservatives in Congress, much like he would try to excuse his passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act by citing the realities of that era’s political climate, what with its staunch, socially conservative homophobia.
As I entered my teenage years I came to know Bill Clinton through the mainstream news media; the Monica Lewinsky scandal aside, Clinton made his name in the late nineties through unprecedented American financial growth, no doubt thanks to the policies referenced above. One night while walking up to the basketball court at the end of my road with a couple of friends, we joked about how every day the stock market broke a new record. That we were not a politically engaged bunch highlights the prominence of such news across media circuits. I remember feeling excited and pleased that I lived in a time of incredible national prosperity, a sort of visceral pride for how well things were going. One day it’ll all come crashing down, one of my friends remarked, and we all laughed, knowing it was probably true—law of averages, right?—but also not knowing anything about it at all. We did not know on whom it had already crashed, domestically and abroad; we did not know how our own families would also be vulnerable to policies with bipartisan advocacy; and we lacked the imagery, the language and the experience to imagine how things might ever be different for people like us.
It is January 2008, and I am walking through the snow in rural New Hampshire with a clipboard full of talking points. Every time I come to a house I read through the list one more time before I put it away and knock on the door. The door opens. It is usually an older man or woman peeking out of a spacious, fire-warmed home who gives me a narrow look and keeps the screen door shut between us. How can I help you, they say. I’m canvassing for Barack Obama, I say. I tell them that Senator Obama is against special interests in Washington, that he has been known to reach across the aisle to attempt bipartisan progress, and that he was against the War in Iraq. (Years later, it appears the first claim is farcical, the second claim true to a fault, and the third claim, while true, would have no bearing on persistent American imperial endeavors in other Asian, African, and Latin American countries.) Sometimes the person at the door politely but firmly tells me that We’re Republicans and bids me farewell; sometimes she or he slams the door in my face without a word; and sometimes they invite me in eagerly, accept all the literature I have, offer me a drink, sign my clipboard. Rarely, preciously rarely, will anyone actually ask me to talk about the candidate I am supporting. It is the easiest job in the world. I don’t have to think.
Later that year, in his campaign against the eventual president-elect, John McCain will complete his metamorphosis from a centrist Republican with arguably progressive ideas on immigration reform, climate change, and military policy, into a hard-right conservative who chants “Drill, baby, drill” at rallies and advocates for the use of torture even given his own experience as a prisoner of war. Barack Obama will support George Bush’s $700 billion public bailout of private banks. Once he becomes president, Obama will perpetuate war in Afghanistan, using his forces’ killing of Osama Bin Laden as a means of legitimating the ongoing assault while, further into his second administration, new political violence in places like Syria, Nigeria, Mexico, Turkey, France, Belgium, Ukraine, and Kenya will make American militarism and counterterrorism seem toxic to some and urgent to others, depending on which politician makes the suggestion in which arena. Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump will extract toxicity’s and urgency’s least common denominator, fear, and stoke it amongst a dominantly white, lower-to-middle class constituency that has historically been sold the same story about things going downhill in the wealthiest country in the world.
Indeed, for many, Trump will emerge as a magnetic political figure, rolling his eyes and making lazy, cavalier gestures in his photo ops, exuding the combination of bravado and disenchantment that his audiences understood. At the beginning of his second campaign for president (the first a dismal bid in 2012 that drew mockery from most), he will assert his electability by flaunting “evidence” from instant-voting online surveys and citing his high standing in public-opinion polls that typically draw single-digit-percentage response rates. In this way he will tempt opportunistic journalists and political commentators into taking his candidacy seriously. Eager to generate site-views and clicks, news media will thus create a self-fulfilling prophecy by overloading its audiences with incessant headlines about Trump’s potential, purported, or dubious rise in the polls—all the while Trump will, ironically, bash the media, capitalizing on his constituency’s valid suspicions of corporate conspiracy. While candidates like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush will outline platforms to varying degrees on the conservative spectrum, Trump will steal the spotlight by merely belittling his competitors onscreen while making the bluntest appeals to white American xenophobia, entitlement, and settler colonialism still articulable in public discourse. (His most controversial statements—for example, his allusions to his and Rubio’s penis sizes and his hints at Hillary Clinton’s assassination—will be so abhorrent that he will use vague, wink-wink humor to deliver them.) He will not bother with any coherent set of policies. He understands that this will all be negotiable later so long as he never abandons tried and true American ideology in his scary stories, his contagious self-aggrandizement, his hateful jokes and his sneering tone. He understands that it is not policies that will appeal to the voters he courts, but a narrative and a persona.
Past political leaders understood this too. Barack Obama, whose administration has deported more immigrants than that of any other president in history, justified his crackdown in 2012 when he told Univision, two months before Election Day, that only people who “threaten communities” are getting deported, whereas “hardworking families” can stay in the country. (In this same vein, at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump averred: “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records […] are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”) While our past two presidents spun us succinct yarns about our moral exceptionality, the liberation of women, and the defense of American soil in order to justify ongoing counterterrorist operations in the Middle East, at the RNC Trump employed the same ideas in his vows to “destroy ISIS and stamp out Islamic terror.” While it has become standard for American politicians of either party to tell stories about a struggling, disaffected American blue collar worker they met on the campaign trail, at the convention Trump predictably lamented the “laid-off factory workers […] who work hard but no longer have a voice.” In this way he was able to champion American industry, evoke dreams of a meritocracy, and appear to care about people with legitimate labor grievances.
Perhaps most upsettingly, Trump invokes the tough-on-crime attitude that Bill Clinton adopted before ramping up his War on Drugs. Declared Trump at the Convention, “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration […] The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50% compared to this point last year.” His stance is particularly ironic as his opponent tries to woo voters by admitting that the War on Crime was a misguided endeavor, and disavowing her own statements two decades back. Indeed, while Hillary Clinton tries to situate herself on the side of racial justice and police reform, Trump willingly claims territory that past presidential candidates in the 70s, 80s, and 90s all vied for.
Throughout Trump’s candidacy, flabbergasted Americans on the left, right, and middle, myself included, scoffed at his incoherence. But it occurs to me now that there is nothing incoherent about it; Trump is playing us a mixtape of all the old American tunes, and he doesn’t care which party wrote them. Neither do his fans; they only care that these are catchy melodies, familiar beats—a perfect soundtrack of American Dream mythos combined with well-rehearsed threats to the old white male supremacist order. He is not making this stuff up. The material is in our blood; it’s been recycled by all our past presidents, perpetuated indiscriminately on media outlets, not to adhere to any party line but, rather, because it has always struck a chord somewhere.
The irony of perennial outsiders, mavericks, independents, glass-ceiling breakers, and the like who seek public office is that even in their appeal of difference they rely on constituencies that yearn for tradition. In this way such politicians are beholden to ideology even though their very existence might defy it. At age eleven, and at eighteen, and at twenty-two, I imagined my country’s politics were organized by parties, but it is possible that colors and labels and mascots are more ephemeral than we realize, in a place in which many, on all different sides, do not fully comprehend the ideologies that have molded their lives.
We elect names and faces, and sometimes those names and faces even change. Whether or not we ever transcend a two-party system we must realize that it will only be truly courageous when we dare to reify new origin stories, and fight for policies that reflect who we actually are. Who am I, really? How did I get here? What kind of change do I want, and what does fighting for it look like, today? To me it does not look like a ballot box, although that’s potentially where it begins.