Like millions of Americans, I was deeply moved tonight to see our nation put forward a female major-party presidential candidate for the first time. I suspect, though, that anyone who read my political articles during the recent primary season would be surprised to hear that Hillary Clinton’s nomination and speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia affected me so powerfully. I’ve been told by large numbers of Redditors, tweeters, and Facebookers that during the Democratic primary I was one of Bernie Sanders’ most notorious backers, even if I was never, in fact, #BernieOrBust. The Washington Post went so far as to call me a Sanders “zealot,” while New York Magazine charged that I had invented a new genre of creative writing ― “experimental political fan fiction” ― with the exclusive aim of helping Sanders defeat Clinton. So in many respects, I should have been chagrined at watching Sanders’ primary opponent be inundated by a post-nomination balloon drop.
But I wasn’t.
I still have some policy disagreements with Clinton, including some significant ones. And I’m still concerned that her impressive career in public service has occasionally been interrupted by spates of bad judgment which seem, given Clinton’s obviously superlative intelligence, inexplicable. But I don’t doubt her commitment to the country or the fact that our core values are largely if imperfectly aligned. And I’ve never questioned her work ethic, her faithfulness and caring as a parent and friend, or her willingness to make hard decisions and even tough compromises when it’s the right thing to do to move the country forward. I believe in Clinton’s grit, in her fortitude in the face of bullies and demagogues, and in her lifelong commitment to justice generally and the rights of women and children in particular. I don’t think she’s a perfect politician, but then again, I don’t believe in perfect politicians. I do think ― I am convinced ― that whatever her intermittent errors in judgment, and whatever her deviations from my own preferred public policies, she has a good heart as well as a fine mind.
But my reaction to her convention speech didn’t have much to do with any of that.
Right before the speech, I spoke to my mother, a Democrat who supports Clinton and who I occasionally discuss politics with. And I watched the speech with my wife, another Democrat who, like me, will be supporting Clinton in the fall now that Sanders has ended his campaign (if not his efforts, in Washington and throughout the country, to advance the movement he helped inspire). I also spent much of the past week thinking about gift purchases for my young niece and nephew; I’ve been an uncle for a few years now, but only just moved closer to my family (and therefore, in a sense, “full-time” uncle status) within the last year. And as I considered possible gifts for my niece and nephew, and as I thought about who these two little people I’m just getting to know really are, I realized that my inclination as a gift-giver ― to buy for my nephew the toys I myself loved as a kid, and expect my wife to help us determine the appropriate gifts for my niece ― was wildly off the mark, even embarrassingly so. I was seeing my niece as a “girl” and my nephew as a “boy,” rather than as two complicated individuals of whom, I now realize, my niece is far and away the most like me. She daydreams the way I did as a kid, she organizes her room the same way, she has many of the same passions, like Legos and reading and RPGs. Why couldn’t I see that right away? And why did I not realize prior to speaking to my mother tonight just how much Clinton’s nomination could mean to young girls like my niece, or Gen-Xers like my wife, or members of the Silent Generation like my mother?
It was during the conversation with my mother that it hit me. I’d catalogued for her a few things that continue to trouble me about Clinton ― while noting that I still planned to vote for her over the neo-fascistic villain opposing her in the general ― and then I found myself stopped. Hillary hadn’t started speaking yet, but here I was talking politics with my mother just moments before America made history by putting forward for the first time ever a person of my mom’s gender for President. My whole adult life I’ve felt America needs and deserves a female leader, and indeed is a couple hundred years overdue for it; my whole adult life I’ve voted exclusively for male and female Democrats committed to women’s rights; and yet, moments before America crossed one of its most shamefully longstanding thresholds, it all really came together for me and I said to my mother that “even if my principles and politics were only fairly well rather than strongly aligned with Clinton’s, the mere fact of us finally getting the female leadership we’ve long needed in the White House would be worth any single or several disagreements over policy or any lack of perfect synchronicity between my own personality and what I perceive to be Clinton’s. America having a female President will mean more to girls and young women around the world than I can ever know or appreciate.”
I don’t know if I said it quite that well, but that was the thrust of it.
I told my mom that I thought putting Hillary Clinton in the White House would set an example for half the human population of America, and countless hundreds of millions abroad, not to mention righting an omission it’s taken our country far too many centuries to overcome. And I said that it would do all this in a way that dwarfs almost everything else because it is, quite simply, beyond policy. While of course I’d struggle to support any candidate who didn’t, like me, believe in things like climate change and universal healthcare and worker’s rights, there are things that are beyond any one policy and that can happen in our lifetime which, to paraphrase King, bend the arc of history even further toward justice. The election of Barack Obama was one such moment, and if I died tomorrow I’d count myself blessed to have seen it and seen my country benefit from it; the election of Hillary Clinton would be another such event which, on some level, I’d be amazed to have had the honor to witness. No disagreement I’ve ever had with Hillary Clinton can dwarf this reality ― the simple truth that having a female in the White House changes permanently our world. And inarguably for the better, as the human race can’t move forward with the alacrity we so desperately need if we’re leaving half our population on the sideline by, for instance, underpaying them in the workplace and undervaluing them in our culture.
Besides which, Clinton and I do broadly agree on the environment, healthcare, and the economy.
I know that Abraham Lincoln served as a model for President Obama, who I proudly voted for twice and consider one of the greatest Americans of my lifetime ― my non-minor disagreements with him (e.g. on drone use) notwithstanding. I sense from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech in Philadelphia that her own model would be another political hero of mine: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clinton’s timely and convincing citation of Roosevelt during her speech, along with her promise to massively invest in infrastructure (and infrastructure jobs) as well as fundamentally reorganize our understanding of how government can help America realize its promise ― particularly as we recognize the triple-threat of climate change, a corrupt campaign finance system, and the way our economic policies squeeze the life out of the middle class ― convinces me that even when and as Clinton and I disagree on policy, her political polestar is one I can admire. And her personal polestar, her mother, sounds like a woman I’d have admired every bit as much as I admire my own mother.
When I announced on Twitter 48 hours before Clinton’s speech that I’d be voting for her in the fall, I lost a hundred Twitter followers almost immediately. I was branded, either explicitly or implicitly, a traitor, a corporatist, and a warhawk. I know the people who said these things don’t represent the movement Bernie Sanders helped inspire, as in fact recent polls show that 90% of Sanders supporters now say they will vote for Clinton ― a level of commitment to core Democratic principles and the good of the country that well exceeds even that of disappointed Clinton supporters in 2008, who at this point in the presidential election cycle were far less supportive of President Obama than Sanders supporters are of Clinton. My point in writing this post isn’t to compare 2016 to 2008, however, or to defend the Sanders movement against the just charges leveled against its ugliest fringe elements; rather, it’s to urge those few Sanders supporters who still appear to be on the fence about Clinton to do just one thing before you walk into the voting booth in November.
And that one thing is this: talk to the women in your life.
Not just your mother, but your sisters, your daughters, your nieces, your female friends and neighbors. Heck, if you work in a workplace where political conversations are acceptable, and you find the right opening for one, talk to your female coworkers. Find out what it means for our nation, after forty-four men in the Oval Office, to now stand a chance of seeing a smart, competent, generally progressive female sitting in that august and powerful space. If you’re unwilling to think of them as human issues (and it’s unfortunate if so), then in lieu of that consider all the “women’s issues” now on the table ― choice; pay equity; affordable childcare; access to quality healthcare; equal opportunity for hiring and promotion in the workplace; expanded family and medical leave; and much, much more ― all issues as to which no one questions Clinton’s level of commitment.
Then, if you’re unwilling to think of these too as human issues (and again, it’s unfortunate if so), consider all the “children’s issues” now on the table: for instance, are young Americans of color as safe in the streets of their own neighborhoods as they could be, whether the threat against them in a given moment is institutional violence, readily available handguns, or street crime driven in part by a lack of investment in our urban centers? Who’s responsible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and who’s most likely to push for more children to be covered for more ailments under more circumstances and at a lower cost? The fracking issue aside ― and admittedly, it’s a big issue ― as between the three candidates with any chance of being President (Trump, Clinton, and Johnson) who was most instrumental in the Paris Accord talks that will help ensure our great-great-grandchildren live in a world whose atmosphere is inhabitable? Children can’t fend for themselves or vote, so we adults have to act like adults and vote like the protection of children is in our hands ― as it is.
I trust or mistrust politicians based on their actions, not their words, and I also vote accordingly. If Hillary Clinton says she opposes TPP and will oppose it if elected, and if Tim Kaine says the same thing, for the sake of the women and children in my life I’ll take their word for it for now and then verify their accordance with their word the next time I’m asked to vote for them. By the same token, it was the very Obama Administration that Clinton was a part of that fought to get us out of the boondoggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I’ll choose to be a cautious optimist and believe that Clinton, like her political partner Obama, has learned something since the Iraq War vote and is not now looking to get us into new land wars, or to repeat the sort of half-measures that were so costly in Libya and Syria. Instead, I take the Administration’s attempt to engage Iran peacefully rather than through armed conflict, and the fact that they’ve taken the same approach with North Korea and even with Russia, as a better sign of what the Democrats are now trying to do on the world stage. And if in four years it seems Clinton hasn’t learned the lessons of her own and others’ past mistakes, I’ll accept the massive benefit to women and children a Clinton presidency would nevertheless have brought and then vote differently in 2020. At some point, with so much at stake, a leap of faith is called for.
Not for my sake, but for others’.
For I will not forget ― and I cannot forget ― my African-American friends and neighbors and colleagues, my Asian-American friends and neighbors and colleagues, my Latino friends and neighbors and colleagues, my Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors and colleagues, all those I have known and cared for over the course of my life who are gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, queer, recent immigrants, atheists, on disability, or single mothers. These are all inhabitants of the world I live in, but are not, I don’t think, major players in the world Donald Trump sees. As a straight white man, am I somehow excused from thinking about what life would be like under the presidency of a man who doesn’t see most of the people I know and love, or, if he sees them, holds them in contempt? What level of risk of, say, a nuclear war caused by Donald Trump’s sociopathic hubris is acceptable to me as a voter? What level of risk that we leap headlong over the tipping point for environmental apocalypse? What level of risk that my President spews rhetoric from the Oval Office that daily scares many of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues? Is a 5% risk okay? A 0.5% risk?
I choose to be hopeful about Clinton, and to vote that way, even, yes, in a world that doesn’t always reward optimism. But optimism in defense of those I love and the country I believe in is far preferable to slyly playing the odds on the suffering of others. I can vote Green all day and night at the local and state levels; voting for Clinton doesn’t mean I don’t believe our nation needs more than two major parties ― it does ― but rather that federal elections aren’t the right place to focus that energy right now, and especially not in this election. Any election in which one of the candidates is a sociopath is an election in which my choice should be clear to me ― even if it weren’t for all the considerations I’ve listed above and that now stand so close to my heart.
I’ve always believed that my vote is a precious thing that’s uniquely mine ― but also something I give away only when convinced it’s in the best interest of those things most precious to me: my family, my friends, my neighbors, my community, my country. I was moved watching Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for President because I suddenly realized, in a way I hadn’t before, what her election would mean to all the people in my life who aren’t me but are, in fact, the people I’m living for. I don’t need my President to be perfect, but I do need my vote to stand a reasonable chance of changing the face of our world for the better in ways both seen and unseen. And I’m confident that my vote for Hillary Clinton has that uniquely historic power. That’s why I am, now, with her.
A public defender in New England from 2000 to 2007, Seth Abramson is now an Assistant Professor at University of New Hampshire and the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University). He is also the author of six books, most recently DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).