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Opinion: The struggle doesn’t stop at the ballot box

Investing in activism, mutual aid to better serve marginalized communities
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JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY
JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

It seems like everywhere you look, you cannot escape the looming American presidential election. From major celebrity endorsements to polls making the rounds everyday, everyone is waiting for the November showdown between incumbent US President Donald Trump and former Vice-President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. It is no different for American students here at U of T.

Trump is often described as the ultimate threat to democracy, LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, and much more, and some see a vote for Biden as a return to some kind of ‘normal.’ However, this thinking is predicated largely on Trump’s voting and legislative history. People have been so caught up in how awful Trump is and beating him in November that there hasn’t been a coherent interrogation of Biden’s history.

When examined, though, Biden’s legacy as a senator and former US vice-president is the root of many of the social issues we face today. The 1994 crime bill, for example, was a bill born from the Democratic Party’s attempt at the time to be “tougher on crime.” It called for an expansion of prisons and police and encouraged more drug-related arrests, amongst other strict judicial reforms.

This is not to mention his current political stances — such as not supporting “Medicare For All,” the proposed bill to grant Americans a single-payer health care system — are out of step with Democratic and independent voters. Also, Biden voted to invade Iraq, which left the country in an economic downfall and caused political strife. The list goes on.

There is also the argument that Biden is the lesser of two evils, but it’s important to point out that that was also the argument made in 2016 about Hillary Clinton, and telling people to settle for a person who is a “lesser evil” is not exactly a fulfillment of democracy. Here we are, in 2020, with a Democratic nominee who does not excite young voters with the threat of US students having Trump for president once again.

Others say voting for Biden is “harm reduction” for marginalized communities, but that isn’t entirely the case. Voting as harm reduction assumes that elections are the foremost way of making progressive gains instead of “encouraging us to think about how we can take advantage of the election season to further our projects,” as David Camfield wrote in Briarpatch magazine. Here in Canada, this logic sounds like “ABC,” better known as “anything but Conservative.”

Placing all our political energy on voting also ignores that many communities show us other forms of harm reduction. Activism and mutual aid often bring more direct results for marginalized communities, where legislation often fails. People have developed community fridges to battle food insecurity and put together mutual aid funds in the face of cash-bail, all while waiting for politicians and legislation to catch up.

If change so often comes from the bottom up, it’s no wonder why some citizens choose to ignore the political process. They are already enacting change and harm reduction, and there is no reason to vote for politicians who won’t meet them where they already are. Choosing not to vote is a political act in itself, but there are people who cannot vote for reasons they are not in control of.

Voter suppression and problems getting to the voting booth frequently stop marginalized people from being counted, so placing stock in voting does not impact their lives in the way activism and mutual aid do. This is not to say that we should not fight to expand the vote, or that we should abandon voting entirely, but instead, we should try to understand why some choose to abstain from voting and why voting cannot be seen as a one time magical fix to our social and economic issues.

Those who can vote in the American election living on our side of the border feel strongly about what’s going on, too. “Like many voters, I’m [placed] in a forceful position of selecting between two evils,” Nawal Ali, a second-year political science student, wrote to The Varsity. “I’m voting for and with the vulnerable, marginalized communities whom… will be deeply impacted by trumps [sic] second term. Nevertheless, we must not abandon reimagining America’s existing social structures.”

Perhaps that is the main takeaway from this unique political moment that we are in. Regardless of who wins in November, a vote for Biden can be the beginning of something bigger than him. This idea should guide the ways we deal with future elections, too, making the ballot box only a stop in the pursuit of a more just world.

We should not settle for the arguments that Biden isn’t Trump, that he is “less worse,” or that voting is the most important thing we can do as citizens. Democracy isn’t perfect or neat, but we can do better than this. We should continue to invest in each other and the things we care about constantly, not just every two or four years.

Furqan Mohamed is a second-year English and women & gender studies student at New College.