In 2008, David Sedaris wrote a short piece for the New Yorker about undecided voters that has recently resurfaced. Sedaris was not sympathetic to those among the electorate who find it difficult to make up their minds:
I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?
To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”
To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.
I find that this short passage usefully demonstrates what I would call “some common bad tendencies in liberal thought” and so it’s worth analyzing closely.
First, this is 2008, so presumably John McCain is the plate of shit and Barack Obama is airline chicken (tepid, not likely to change your life, but, you know, fine). Sedaris thinks the choice between these two is so obvious that it should not require even a moment’s thought, which is why he can’t imagine anyone being undecided. But surely the bigger mystery is why there are so many Republicans, i.e. enthusiastic shit-gobblers (in this analogy). Surely it should be puzzling that there are so many people who are going for the plate of shit with tiny bits of broken glass. Perhaps this should lead us to wonder: is there something wrong with the chicken that I am not noticing? And given that this seems to happen every election since at least 2000, is the problem not particular to 2008?
In fact—and I say this not just to be fatuous but because it’s leading somewhere important—eating chickens is a leading cause of death worldwide. Sometimes the chicken has salmonella! If you simply say “well, everything else on this menu is a big ol’ plate of shit,” but it turns out that the answer to “how is the chicken cooked?” is “it isn’t,” then that would have been an important question to ask before agreeing to put it in your mouth.
I point this out because it captures what’s so wrong about the way Sedaris thinks about elections, i.e. mindlessly. His analogy is actually very useful, because the point it makes is: do not think about what you are eating, think only about what you are not eating. Do not ask even basic questions about whether the Democratic candidate is any good. Just look at the Republican, realize how terrible they are, and take whatever the alternative is. In other words, “vote blue no matter who.”
We need to reject the view of politics embedded in Sedaris’ analogy. The reason I bring up salmonella is to point out that it’s not inherently a given that someone with a (D) after their name is the best choice. We have to examine the candidates carefully. Yes, the Republican Party in this country is so monstrous that there are almost no conceivable circumstances in which voting Republican is the better choice. But to refuse examine your own candidate, to ask even the most basic questions about “how are they cooked” and what they stand for, means that over time you’re probably going to end up being served worse and worse chicken, because the airline staff (DNC) realize they can get away with serving you something that’s extremely close to a plate of shit and you’ll still eat it.
My colleague Briahna Joy Gray explains this more eloquently and less disgustingly in her “Defense of Litmus Tests.” Briahna points out that when we make it clear at the outset that we have few standards for our party’s candidate, and we will vote for them regardless of how much they depart from or even betray our values, we are preemptively surrendering the leverage that we need to use to get better candidates. One of the most absurd moments in the Democratic primary was when progressives were asked if they would support the Democratic candidate even if it was Michael Bloomberg, a racist, sexist, Republican billionaire who might arguably have actually been worse than Trump. But this is what you get if you make it clear that you’re willing to be pushed around, to sit silently and eat your poisoned chicken.
Notice how passive the voter is in Sedaris’ analogy. They are strapped into their seat, and their only ability is to make a binary choice between two meals. Presumably, since this is supposed to represent an election, it is not possible to “not eat at all”—they’re going to get something, and if they remain undecided, the airline staff will force-feed them the plate of shit with tiny bits of broken glass. (Not even Spirit does that yet.) We do not participate in making the meal, we just have to accept what we are given.
But we can’t accept that candidates are just going to be handed to us and that our role is to pick the least fecal one. There is no reason we cannot have good meals, but voters have to see themselves as active participants in the political process who get to make demands of their parties, who do not just have to accept a menu of options that has been pre-decided for them.
A relevant anecdote: the last time I was on an international flight, the flight attendant told me that the meal options were chicken or fish. I am a vegetarian, so both were equally inedible as far as I was concerned. “You should have ordered the vegetarian meal,” she said. I told her I had ordered the vegetarian meal, which was true. She said that they had no record of this, and there was nothing available but chicken or fish. “Then I can’t eat either,” I said. “Because I am a vegetarian.” She looked very annoyed. Five minutes later she returned with a vegetarian pasta dish. It wasn’t half bad. The lesson: people in power want you to believe that there is no alternative to the options they give you, but oftentimes there are more available, and you only find out by making demands and sticking with them.
The difficulty here is that once Election Day rolls around, we do face a binary choice. This election is particularly painful for many on the left, because the Democratic candidate is so utterly unrepresentative of our aspirations. My personal feeling is that when it comes down to it, we do need to hold our noses and vote for him, since Trump’s reelection would be so catastrophic. But we have to do so in full awareness of what it is we’re eating. We can’t, like Sedaris implies, just refuse to ask questions about or examine our own candidate. We’re stuck with him, but we cannot delude ourselves into thinking a Biden presidency will be good. It will be not as bad as what is going on now, which is possibly the lowest bar any person has ever had to clear.
One reason voters are often undecided is that they realize just how unappetizing both of their options are. I think we should be sympathetic to that, not view it as insane. These are people with standards, who find it very difficult to accept “not literally eating turds” as their criterion for what to have for dinner. I sympathize with that, and it’s bizarre that some liberals consider this irrational. It reminds me of the contempt expressed for Nader voters after 2000. George W. Bush and the Republican Party subverted democracy and illegitimately installed the candidate who lost, yet liberals seethed at Nader, a candidate who only ran, and only got votes, because the Democratic Party was so disappointing that progressive voters felt politically homeless. To get angry at the undecided or third party voters, is to miss the far more important fact that for some reason, large swaths of people in the country do not seem at all interested in the chicken.
If we don’t look at our side critically, and make demands of it, and improve it, then it will remain disappointing forever, or possibly get worse. People will not want it, no matter what the other option is. They will ask for something else, or they will stay undecided. Being critical of the Democratic Party is a crucial part of improving it and making sure that we have something that is not just “marginally better” but “actually good.”
In short, always ask how the chicken is cooked.