Against Endorsements

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This morning I went on Democracy Now to discuss my critique of “class-first” policy as a way of ameliorating the effects of racism. In the midst of that discussion I made the point that one can maintain a critique of a candidate—in this case Bernie Sanders—and still feel that that candidate is deserving of your vote. Amy Goodman, being an excellent journalist, did exactly what she should have done—she asked if I were going to vote for Senator Sanders.

I, with some trepidation, answered in the affirmative. I did so because I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself. So I answered.

My answer has been characterized, in various places, as an “endorsement,” a characterization that I’d object to. Despite my very obvious political biases, I’ve never felt it was really my job to get people to agree with me. My first duty, as a writer, is to myself. In that sense I simply hope to ask all the questions that keep me up at night. My second duty is to my readers. In that sense, I hope to make readers understand why those questions are critical. I don’t so much hope that any reader “agrees” with me, as I hope to haunt them, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.

It’s really no different with Senator Sanders. The idea that anyone would cast a vote because of how I am casting my vote makes my skin crawl. It misses the point of everything I’ve been trying to do in my time at The Atlantic. The point is to get people to question, not to recruit them into a religion. Citizens are not sheep. They do not need shepherds, and even if they did I would be poorly qualified. I have thought quite deeply about the problem of racism in American society. I have thought somewhat deeply about inequality and the social safety net. I have though only modestly about foreign policy and the environment. And I haven’t thought much at all about net neutrality. I voted for the first time in 2008, following years of skepticism about electoral politics. Whatever. The point is that this is not the record of someone who should be telling other citizens how to vote.

I know what I know, and not much more. And one thing I learned while The Horde was active was to never confuse the perch I enjoy here, one that is as much a matter of chance as anything else, with broad knowledge. So I am no position to offer an “endorsement” to Sanders—one he did not seek, and does not need.

It is important to say this not just as a writer, but as a black writer. Too often individuals are appointed to speak for black people. I don’t want any part of it. Black voters deserve to be addressed in all of their beautiful and wonderful complications, not through the lens of unelected “thought-leaders.” I was asked a question. I tried to answer it honestly. And that’s really all I have.