Getting political with strangers has never been something that discomfited me. Likely a combination of never having to be the “speaker” for my race, growing up with all my role models having the same political leanings, and my tendency as a last-born sibling to be ticked off at any perceived unfairness, I was always an aggressively political kid. Since I was barely a middle-schooler I’ve been the kid who gets in trouble for getting into political debates with my teachers and who can’t watch U.S.-based news shows for more than a few minutes without yelling at the TV. Before I was even old enough to vote, I rallied at Moral Mondays against (now overturned!) voter-ID laws, shook hands with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton after speeches, and did cold calling during election years. I was brimming with excitement when my voter registration card finally arrived in the mail, and my first fall break at Duke was spent filling out paperwork to get my absentee ballot mailed to my new Duke address because as a native North Carolinian and the daughter of an election polls worker I knew that my home Pitt County was more of a swing county than Durham County. I resented that U.S. voter turnout is lower than most other democracies, especially among young voters like me. I vowed to do better. To never become apathetic and disengaged.
But then this election cycle came along. And it all hit home. In a few short months, I’ve found becoming the person I swore I’d never become. Rather than the hope for the future I’m accustomed to feeling during election years, I’ve been struck with disillusionment. Of my previous political fervor, only two feelings have remained constant from past elections to this one: the dread of the future in the case of an unfavorable result and frustration. Never before have I felt gaslit by an election. Gaslighting is a common emotional abuse tactic in which the abuser rewrites the reality of their victim with dubious intentions. Gaslighting makes you doubt your own senses, not trusting your eyes and ears and even less your gut. Your perception and your experiences are no longer your own because someone has manipulated your memories such that they aren’t yours anymore. They become the fabricated product of a ghostwriter, an abuser who invalidates your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in order to substitute in ones that are more favorable to them. As a survivor, gaslighting is a dirty trick I know all too well, but I never expected it from people I care about so deeply. Close friends and family have overwritten my reality, telling me which political candidate is in my “best interest,” despite having never lived life in my shoes. They tell me that I have to vote for any particular candidate because they know what is best for me -- this may not be typical gaslighting, but is one thing undoubtedly: paternalistic as hell.
So what is it? Dirty trick politics come as no surprise at this point, so why does this gaslighting come as a surprise? During the time spent fiddling with the radio in cars to escape political coverage and scrolling past more angry political articles on my news feed, I finally found the answer: paternalism.
Since the beginning, this election has been deeply personal for many, especially those who face marginalization based on multiple identity markers. Anyone who has been awake at all for the past year knows that the stakes are high in this election, as the safety and wellbeing of many people around the globe hang in the balance. Having strong opinions is natural in this election. Asserting that any one candidate is in the “best interest” of an identity group you aren’t a part of is not. That’s paternalism.
As a white person from a low-income household, I’ve felt lumped in with the Trump supporters and barked at by liberals that voting for a modern day robber baron is against my own interest; this is not only paternalism, but also revisionist history of their own candidate as Clinton was the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors of Wal-Mart and has a history of ties to union-busting policies to match.
As a queer person, I’ve felt overwhelming sorrow from this paternalism in light of the Pulse shooting. While each candidate was quick to use the (predominantly black and Latinx) queer and trans lives that were ended that night as a stepping stool to their own political ends, still we wait for any candidate to address the continued and ever-increasing trend of violence against trans women that has disproportionately affected black trans women and other trans women of color. Everyone was quick to say what the “gay community” needed to support next, whether that was more or less gun regulation or more xenophobic immigration restrictions or even new wars. No one was quick to listen to those affected by this act of violence, only quick to jump to a soapbox to speak over us.
One candidate said he was appreciative of “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance,” which is no way what a brokenhearted community needed to hear. Meanwhile, the other candidate addressed the LGBTQIA+ community, stating “to the LGBT community: please know that you have millions of allies across our country. I am one of them. We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly, and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America. Finally, we need to keep guns like the ones used last night out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals. This is the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States and it reminds us once more that weapons of war have no place on our streets.” This is a step in the right direction, not using our tragedy as a means to justify xenophobia. No queer person I have spoken to has wanted to talk about religious extremism. No one wants to use our fallen sisters, brothers, and siblings of other brothers as a talk about gun control. We wanted to heal.
So how does this all fit together? By no means am I telling you not to vote -- as a North Carolinian with an opportunity to vote out the governor and the legislature that slashed and burned public education (and especially their identity centers, which have been crucial to my college experience), enacted HB2, and has destroyed years of environmental protections, I absolutely implore you to vote! This election is huge! But I encourage allies reading to consider the tone in which you speak to your friends whose lives are directly affected by this election. Political engagement is crucial. Paternalism is not.