As soon as Kamala Harris was announced as the VP Choice for Biden, hot takes started pouring in. In Social Justice Land, where I live and breathe, a popular one emerged. Today I write about it, how bad an idea it is, and why I think it got so popular so fast.
(I mean when the choice was officially announced on August 11th, not that oopsie by Politico showing this decision had been made for weeks and the delay was pure theatre, because of course it was.)
The popular stance in question is, as the title makes obvious here, "Vote them in, then hold them accountable."
I saw versions of this reply on countless criticisms of the Biden/Harris ticket, of Kamala or Joe's political record, of the DNC platform itself.
Somebody says they aren't happy about Kamala's pernicious history as a prosecutor (especially during one of the biggest uprisings in criminal justice reform activism in our history)? Vote them in, then let's hold them accountable.
Somebody saying they wish Biden would support medicare for all (especially as as millions are losing insurance amidst a global pandemic, adding to the tally of the already massive mountain of previously uninsured). Vote them in, then let's hold them accountable.
It's like the "Vote blue no matter who" aphorism in its utility, but different in a way I'll get into below. The cracks are starting to show. Some light might be glimpsing through.
Sourcing the “Vote Them in Then Hold Them Accountable” Take
It seems we can thank Ava DuVernay for this criticism-fixing duct tape. The statement people are probably quoting, in the countless reiterations of this sentiment, was the caption of an Instagram post by her.
Here's the caption (emphasis mine):
There is no debate anymore. There’s no room for it in my book. We either make this happen. Or literally, more of us perish. People are dying. Someone I love died. This virus is real. If it hasn’t visited your doorstep, it will. Oh but, Kamala did this or she didn’t do that. I hear you. I know. And I don’t care. Because what she DIDN’T DO is abandon citizens in a pandemic, rip babies from their mother’s arms at the border, send federal troops to terrorize protestors, manufacture new ways to suppress Black and Brown votes, actively disrespect Indigenous people and land, traffic in white supremacist rhetoric in an effort to stir racist violence at every turn, attempt to dismantle most American democratic systems of checks and balance, degrade women all day everyday, infect the Supreme Court with another misogynist hack, demolish America’s standing on climate, actively cultivate and further white supremacist structures and systems across all aspects of American daily life. I mean, that’s what she DIDN’T do. So I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity. It’s ego. It’s against our own interests. It’s selfish. It’s disrespectful to our elders. It’s nonsense. It’s talking to hear yourself talk. This is a matter of life or death. We need all our energy focused. This is a fight for more than can be expressed here. There is no debate anymore. Not for me anyway.
Here's George Takei tweeting Ava's statement out to his 3M followers:
Here's someone using the phrase (unattributed, but quoting DuVernay whether they realize it or not) to counter a criticism of Harris (that she was the "queen" of mass incarceration), with a little extra wiggle language added:
But That Isn't How Accountability Works
We can't "hold them accountable" after we've voted them in, unless we've made demands they've agreed to. Criticism and dissent are precursors of accountability.
The phrase itself, as it's being used to silence any wayward statement not emphatically supportive of the current Democratic ticket (coming from would-be Dem voters), doesn't make sense.
People seem to have a really twisted idea of what "accountability" means. It's unethical to hold someone accountable to something they haven't promised to do, or agreed to. We can't spring things on someone after we've engaged in a relationship that weren't embedded in the contract of the relationship. This goes for politicians as much as anyone else in our lives.
If you're silencing criticism/dissent, you're anti-accountability.
And if you're pro-accountability, you need to make room for disagreement, criticism, and dissent.
People are trying to be anti-criticism and pro-accountability. That's just not how these words work. Silencing people will never, ever, ever be compatible with accountability.
Accountability comes after we've criticized their platform and they've expanded it or revised it to respond to the criticism. Then we hold them accountable to that new platform. Or after we've raised issue with a past action and they've owned up to it, apologized for it, and stated how they'll do differently in the future. Then we hold them accountable to that new behavior.
But that's not the only issue with this quote, and the ways its being deployed. That's small potatoes compared to the shit sandwich that is this unhappy reality:
Even if we have a promise from a politician we're happy with (i.e., something to which we can hold them accountable), the only mechanism for accountability we hold over politicians is voting.
Take a second to let that sink in.
"Don't withhold your vote from them! Hold them accountable!"
Oh, cool. Got it. Yes. Love this. I was so dumb before, saying I wanted them to support the policies I support. K, I voted for them. Uh oh, they're doing exactly the thing they said they'd do, that I said I didn't support. What should I do now? I don't know how to hold them accountable. Help! Should I not vote for them next time?
Wait, this is next time?
The Cycle of Democratic Disillusionment
To explain just how poisonous "Vote them in then hold them accountable" is, I want to first lay out three things that I think are true:
- The Democratic Party is getting further and further distanced from representing Democratic voters, prioritizing their wellbeing, and fighting for change they demand.
- Our electoral system is flush with bad incentives, rules that allow for what would otherwise be considered cheating or bribery, and generally does a terrible job at being lowercase-d democratic (also, if two elections in my lifetime are representative, uppercase-D Democratic).
- Left-leaning Democratic voters, not seeing a viable option that represents them, continue to support the Democratic National Committee (DNC). And the DNC, seeing that left-leaning voters don't have a viable option beyond them, continue to ignore the left and drift right.
For an example of what I mean here, consider Medicare for All.
This is a policy that is universally popular, with a majority of Americans (across parties) supporting it (56% by recent count), and over 85% of Democrats in favor. In a healthy democracy (lower-or uppercase D), Medicare for All would be a reality.
That's an open net, right? A freebie. Not according to the DNC, where the vote against including Medicare for All in the party platform was 36 in favor, 125 opposed. That's right.
According to the DNC, this is more of half-field shot. But it's easy to empathize with the fan in the crowd who, seeing this whiff, might think they're not even trying.
The ratio of support for this policy within the DNC was almost a mirror inverse of its support with Democratic voters. That's a foul.
Even worse, the DNC's vote here almost perfectly matches with Republican polling on this issue, with roughly one-quarter of Republicans supporting Medicare for All. Making this look less like a botched penalty kick and more like an own goal.
A lot of social justice advocates (myself included) have long struggled with their place in the Democratic party, or being excited about the platform and candidates. The above example is a perfect issue.
Maybe this is pure unbridled optimism (even if it's going to sound downright cynical), but I think a critical mass of Democratic voters are approaching a breaking point with the Democratic party.
"Vote blue no matter who" was the most desperate, depressing political pep talk I'd ever heard. But the convoluted, backwards ask of "hold them accountable after we vote them in" is even more gut wrenching. It rings of "I know it's ethically dubious to be championing these people, but we don't have a choice."
Maybe these slogans the death knells of the party's ability to go on ignoring its members. Maybe they'll give way to something more just.