Perfectly Logical Calculations, and Why They're Actually Not

[This post was published at Open Left in July. It has relevance yet again, so I'm reposting it here, with minor edits, including an update on why using Roe as a cudgel is both bad form and ineffective. Please note that any comments should adhere to the guidelines laid out in this post.]

Even before the primary had ended, feminists/womanists (hereafter FWs) who had become disenchanted with Senator Barack Obama as a result of worrying rhetoric on reproductive rights, his and his campaign's use of sexist dog whistles, and/or his silence in response to an appalling onslaught of misogyny unleashed upon his opponent, were being bullied at any indication (real or imagined) that they would not vote for him. The usual cudgels were brought out to browbeat them—Roe (to which I'll return later) and the ominous accusation that if McCain won, it would be their fault. As ever, it was the people calling out sexism and/or anti-FW policies who were charged with creating division among progressives, as opposed to the people engaging in sexism and their defenders.

Given Obama's most recent flub on abortion rights, first stating he doesn't "think that 'mental distress' qualifies as the health of the mother" regarding late-term abortion exceptions, then clarifying by reiterating the same thing and fleshing out the pregnant straw-woman who wants a late term abortion just because she's "feeling blue," plus more of the "pastor and family" rhetoric—a veritable symphony of rightwing talking points, infantilization and mistrust of women, and hostility toward their autonomy—one might expect the bullies to realize that perhaps the FWs who had concerns about Obama also had a point, but if bullies were rational, they wouldn't be bullies. And so the drumbeat to cast FWs with legitimate complaints as the root of progressive discordance has only intensified.

This oft-wielded cudgel to silence FWs who cry foul at sexism expressed by political allies is wrong for the following reason, which I cannot state any more succinctly than this: When someone engages in divisive behavior, any resulting division is their responsibility.

It is, simply, not the duty of any person who is repeatedly subjected to alienating language, images, behaviors, and/or legislation to nonetheless never complain and pledge fealty from the margins. If women, men of color, gay/bi/ trans men, et. al. are valued, then they should not be demeaned-and if they are demeaned, they should not be expected to pretend it does not matter.

Pretty straightforward stuff. There are some related ideas I want to address, though, which complicate the issue, especially from the perspective of those who earnestly cannot understand why feminists don't see the "perfect logic" of:

• Candidate A is sexist, and at worst will not make things any worse for women.
• Candidate B is sexist, and at best will not make things any worse for women.
• Therefore, feminists should vote for Candidate A.

I get why that appears to make sense—and for some FWs it does, particularly Democratic partisans, which is totally legitimate—but then there's that whole my vote is mine thing, and this subject is really bigger than for whom anyone will or will not vote, because the (typically) unspoken corollary to "Therefore, FWs should vote for Candidate A" is "...and they should not do anything to undermine him like point out that he is not their ally."

The reasoning behind the "perfectly logical" calculation above—and the related compulsion to cajole alignment with that strategy and/or silence FW criticism—is predicated on a couple of commonly-held (and oft-cited) assumptions:

1. Voting for/Supporting the more liberal of two mainstream party candidates is always and necessarily the most consistent with feminist/womanist principles.

2. Voting for/Supporting the more democratic of two mainstream party candidates is axiomatically the most feminist/womanist choice.

3. Feminism is an "issue" or a "cause" akin to other political issues or causes like protecting social security or fair elections.

4. The best possible America for a straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy man is the best possible America for everyone.

5. More rights for "everyone" means more rights for women.

All of these are wrong—or, at minimum, not always correct. Let's take them one at a time.

1. Voting for/Supporting the more liberal of two mainstream party candidates is always and necessarily the most consistent with basic feminist/womanist principles.

Occasionally, supporting the more liberal candidate (i.e. the Democrat) is entirely consistent with basic feminist/womanist principles. The vast majority of the time, the candidate represents a platform which has some inconsistencies with those principles, often by sheer omission of basic tenets of equality, e.g. a commitment to eradicating the pay gap, active recruitment of female Congressional candidates, support for the ERA, etc. In the current campaign, Obama has benefited from sexism, actively and passively, and seems eminently willing to compromise on reproductive rights, precipitating some concerns about his commitment to women's issues and/or related intersectionalities, as have candidates before him.

Clearly, that strategy is incompatible with feminism—which is why the exhortation "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" is as inaccurate as it is condescending. A sexist candidate with an incomplete or incompatible platform is not "good," even though, by any FW reckoning s/he is better than the major party alternative. FWs are well within their right by virtue of their basic tenets to take exception with the expectation that they recognize a candidate who benefits from sexism as "good," which is by no means a synonym for "not as bad."

All of which means that voting for/supporting a third-party candidate, depending on the candidate and platform, may well be the choice most consistent with basic feminist/womanist principles. Reminders that Democrats are more inclined to make court appointments favorable to FWs are accurate, but ultimately irrelevant to determining which vote is most intrinsically feminist—third-party candidates would do the same.

The important point here is that while voting for the Democrat over the Republican may indeed have a pragmatic rationale from a feminist/womanist standpoint, it is wrong to conflate "pragmatic rationale" with "consistent with feminist/womanist principles." FWs must often, in fact, vote counter to their principles to be pragmatic voters. That is not a small thing, and it should not be treated as though it is.

2. Voting for/Supporting the more democratic of two mainstream party candidates is axiomatically the most feminist/womanist choice.

This idea is closely related to the previous one, but turns on the presumption that democracy is inherently more feminist than other forms of government, represented in comments that exhort feminists/womanists to recognize the imperative of keeping the nation's leadership out of the hands of those who have effectively tried to approximate a rightwing dictatorship.

It's treated as axiomatic that preventing America from becoming a dictatorship is somehow simultaneously a fight for women's rights, but that's not necessarily true. Women's equality is wound up in national politics, certainly, but it is also largely independent of them, too. It is a misunderstanding of what women experience to suggest that protecting our democracy is the same as championing feminism.

Forward movement for women can happen even in dictatorships, and can be reversed even in democracies—because women's equality is inextricably linked to so many other cultural variables, like religiosity. To presume that greater democracy will de facto mean increased equality for women is to tacitly buy into Bush's line about freedom magically emanating from any country deemed a functional democracy. It just doesn't work that way. A democratically-elected conservative American theocracy would, for example, be anathema to feminism/womanism.

I have many good and important and personal reasons for not wanting America to become any less democratic than it is now—not least of which is because those agitating for increased authoritarian control of government are simultaneously agitating for increased control of women's bodies. I also have many good and important and personal reasons for fighting for my equality. Some of those good and important and personal reasons overlap. Some of them don't.

The important point here is that, while most American FWs are undoubtedly interested in voting for the most democratic candidate, it is wrong to reflexively conflate "more democratic" with "more feminist" (even though that's historically a safe bet). FWs may, in fact, for reasons outlines above, have to vote counter to feminist/womanist principles to vote for the most democratic candidate of the two major parties. That is not a small thing, and it should not be treated as though it is.

3. Feminism is an "issue" or a "cause" akin to other political issues or causes like protecting social security or fair elections.

Feminism, especially for women, is not mere political advocacy, but a philosophy centered around advocating for personal equality. When feminists/womanists are inveigled to vote for/support the Democratic candidate (and refrain from questioning his commitment to women's issues lest his candidacy be undermined), because This Issue is so important, the implicit calculation is that This Issue is priority over women's equality, reproductive rights, etc.

Because FWs have increasingly resisted taking a backseat to issues like social security when their very value as human beings is up for debate, those using this rhetorical strategy have learned that nothing is quite so effective as using Roe v. Wade as This Issue, thusly reframing the argument from "Vote for the Democrat to get what you want" to "Vote for the Democrat to not lose what you've got."

It's a nasty little bit of blackmail, which fails utterly to take into consideration that the veiled threat of losing legal abortion because of one's uncompromising belief in one's own equality and autonomy is so bitterly ironic that it would be laughable if it were not so profoundly sad. Instead of demonstrations of commitment to protecting Roe as one among many commitments to the basic feminist principle of women's equality, we are meant instead to be motivated by menace and intimidation. We're supposed to gleefully hop on board with people who ominously warn that failure to do so will evoke tragedy by our own hands—and, if we succumb, we find that even asking for basic respect, for sexist words and images and behaviors to not be used, is considered too much, an impertinence.

All we are offered is the protection of what we've already got, and nothing more.

Which makes one wonder why we'd ever be given anything more, since the threat of losing one thing is most ominous when there is only one thing to lose.

The compromise of everything else to protect this one thing is particularly problematic for feminists/womanists because being a woman is not a cause. If women's issues are ignored, we cannot simply change our skin like a losing lobbyist changes strategies. Always will we be women, and when we are asked to put our "issues" on the back burner for the good of "the larger cause," we are being asked to wait longer yet to have our equality fully realized. That is not an easy burden to indefinitely bear for thin promises.

[On a side note: Using Roe as a cudgel to batter FWs into line is becoming increasingly futile because the Democrats have been weak on protecting choice—and, hence, women's autonomy—for years. Yes, Roe is still in place, but the GOP has successfully chipped away at abortion rights on the federal and state levels for two decades. The point is, certainly the Democrats will nominate and approve justices who will protect Roe, but if they aren't willing to protect it from being rendered an impotent and largely symbolic statute because it's been hollowed out by "partial-birth abortion bans" and "parental consent laws" and state legislatures that refuse to fund clinics offering abortions, what does it really matter if they protect Roe?

FWs who are paying attention to what's happened to practical choice in this country know that the Roe card is already functionally meaningless at this point in large swaths of the country—and that's about the national Democratic Party as a whole, not just about its nominee in this election. The Dems are falling down on the job of serving their FW constituents in general and women specifically.

And the argument about appointing pro-Roe justices is designed, in part, to mask that failure. Not all of the restrictions on abortion rights have been decided in the court; many (if not most) are proposed and passed in state legislatures—and only those challenged n court depend on judicial appointments. Federal, state, and local funding of clinics has nothing to do with whom Democrats appoint to the bench. Fights over zoning laws and gifted property to build new clinics may also find their way to court, but oftentimes never make it that far. Anyone who still thinks that every encroachment on reproductive rights is being decided in a courtroom has some catching up to do.

A lot of progressives treat legal abortion like an on-off switch, but it's not remotely that simple. Legal abortion is only worth as much as the number of women who have reasonable and affordable and unencumbered access to it. That number is dwindling; IIRC, as of the year 2000, less than a third of the incorporated counties in the US had abortion clinics. That's not just inconvenience—between travel expenses and time off work along, the cost of securing an abortion can become an undue burden.

Realistically, if you're a woman who already has to drive three hours and across state lines to get an abortion, how much is "we'll protect Roe" actually supposed to mean to you?

Those making the Roe argument seriously need to consider what it sounds like to one of those women when she's told how her right to choose is best supported by someone who treats Roe as a magical abortion access password.]

4. The best possible America for a straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy man is the best possible America for everyone.

America being the best place it can possibly be for straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy men does not de facto mean it's also the best place it can possibly be for a poor, black, disabled lesbian. That seems like it ought to be obvious, but every time women or men of color or gay/bi/ trans men are told "just hold your concerns and focus on winning this election for now and then we can get to your issues," it's clear that there are people who don't understand how fighting for control of the White House/Congress and fighting for one's own equality are not the same thing for everyone all the time.

Sometimes those fights overlap; sometimes they are mutually exclusive; and sometimes they are in conflict.

It makes no personal difference to a man who is not the target of misogyny if a president is elected on its back—but it does make a difference to women (even those who don't care), because not only has misogyny not been repudiated, but has in fact been reinforced as a winning strategy.

For active feminists who are on the frontlines of fighting sexism every day, bringing themselves to cast a vote for a candidate who has used misogyny is a tacit approval of the strategy. Even if there are good reasons to vote for that candidate, it is still a self-defeating vote in some measure. It's not just holding one's nose and voting for an imperfect candidate; it's swallowing one's principles and pride and casting a vote that unavoidably consents to misogyny as a campaign tool.

It might not make any difference to the soul or the future of a man casting the same vote. It will make a practical difference to women.

If they know it or not.

Likewise, the presumption that who is the best candidate, what is the best campaign strategy, and which are the best policies for "the nation" from the perspective of privilege does not take into account that best is subjective—and "the nation" rarely gives all its members equal consideration.

5. More rights for "everyone" means more rights for women.

Like "the nation," when we hear that something will be good for "everyone," it generally means it's going to be good for straight, white, able-bodied, wealthy men—and hopefully lots of other people, too! The problem with this paradigm is that it's usually espoused by the people with the most existing freedom and opportunity, who are looking to procure more for themselves, or restore something they've lost, as with this election, in which progressives hope to restore Constitutional liberties eroded by the Bush administration.

Who wouldn't be on board with that, right?

Well, FWs might be on board with that idea, but what's happening is that the pressure to support, at all costs, the candidate most likely to realize that goal has the capacity to force feminists/womanists to compromise what they think is right as feminists/womanists to support what they think is right as Americans. If restoring lost liberties means tacitly supporting sexist rhetoric and pandering to rightwingers who don't respect women's right of bodily autonomy, that's not a net gain for women—even though it is a net gain for men.

That's why holding a firm line against misogyny is so important: Progress depends on people being progressive, which necessarily precludes the mockery, belittlement, and/or exclusion of historically marginalized groups. Otherwise, we end up with a new political situation that may benefit the already-privileged without compromise, but is just the Same Old Shit for everyone else. And once maximum privilege has been restored, there is little incentive to yield any to lift up the rest of the boats, despite years of promises to the contrary.

There are too many progressives who view social change like conservatives view economics: Make everything as splendid as possible for those at the top and the benefits will "trickle down" to everyone below.

Well, it's bullshit when we're talking about tax cuts, and it's bullshit when we're talking about equality and opportunity.

FWs know that—and if we're beginning to feel resistant to being played like suckers every election, if we're increasingly unwilling to play the equivalent role of the disaffected evangelicals who keep voting Republican as though the leadership will give a rat's ass about them someday, can you really blame us?

We make fun of those people.

Shaker CE once said in comments, "Knowing that the alternative is worse actually makes it harder for me; it just reinforces that sense I often get from some Dems, including Sen. Obama in this cycle, that they think they can do whatever the fuck they like to me, because I don't have any other option. The worst part? They're right."

They are right, unless we go somewhere else. This isn't a treatise to convince anyone to do so—but it's an explanation for why a feminist/womanist might, why it's a legitimate choice, and why, if that means the Left isn't a picture of harmony, it's not our fault.

The reason the Left is discordant isn't because of our standards; it's because there are so many bigots with no benchmark for success but winning—even at our expense.

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