Against Perfectionism

On January 30 I finally did the deed: I changed my voter registration from Unenrolled to Democrat. Written confirmation from the town clerk’s office was dated the 31st.


A very small step for a woman, so it seems, but to me it was a pretty big deal. Once I’d decided in principle that the time had come, I still had to do that little dance you do along the shoreline to avoid getting your feet wet: Approach, jump back, approach, jump back . .

Background: Massachusetts is an open primary state. This means that in primary elections an Unenrolled voter can take the ballot of any party, cast her vote, and go back to being Unenrolled when she walks out of the polling place. It is possible, in other words, to hedge your bets — to vote with the Democrats without actually being one.

I came of political age at the tail end of the civil rights movement and in the heyday of the movement against the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s I was involved in student politics of various kinds. By the end of that decade, I was immersed in grassroots feminist organizing, with a focus on the Women in Print movement. Electoral politics and political parties were off on the peripheries somewhere.

Before 2016, I’d been deeply involved in one, only one, political campaign: the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment in 1976. It was a feminist thing, not a Democrat-Republican thing.

And that’s where my reluctance to associate formally with any existing political party originally came from: my feminism. The left-right spectrum derives from traditional western political thinking, and “traditional” here means “dominated and defined by men.” Feminism is, among other things, a lens through which to examine those traditions. It does not fit neatly on the left-right spectrum. If there had been a feminist party, I might have signed up, but there wasn’t.

Over the years, however, it did not escape my notice that feminist and feminist-friendly candidates generally ran as Democrats and that the Republican Party was year by year becoming more anti-feminist and often blatantly misogynist. At the same time, the Democratic Party of the Bill Clinton years made me wary. Bill Clinton was the first winning presidential candidate I’d ever voted for, and the experience left such a sour taste in my mouth that I was still holding it against Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Trav and I found ourselves in Nashua, N.H., not long before the 2012 election.

Trav and I found ourselves in Nashua, N.H., not long before the 2012 election.

I enthusiastically supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. In 2012, Elizabeth Warren became the first political candidate whose campaign I made a recurring monthly contribution to. I was thrilled when she won. Her emails invariably end with “Thank you for being part of this,” and each time I get one I murmur, “You are so welcome.”

Why not take the plunge and register as a Democrat? Inertia was part of it, but there was something else: call it perfectionism. Organizations of any kind tend to be messy and cacophonous. Their goals and principles may be inspiring and beautiful, but the struggle to make them real never is. Compromises must be made. You can’t always get what you want. For a perfectionist, any flaw can be a deal-breaker.

Then along came 2016. Not since 1976 — 40 years ago! — have I been so involved in electoral politics. I blogged about it often enough (search on the tag “election 2016” if you’re interested in what I wrote), but only gradually did it become apparent to me how my involvement was making me think and rethink my aloofness from electoral politics. If 2016 taught me one thing, it’s this:

Perfectionism is a killer.

We’re drowning in “what went wrong” postmortems of the election just past, but this one deserves more attention. This was the year of the outsider, so runs the conventional wisdom, but what is it that made these outsiders so attractive?

They were unsullied by practical, real-world experience in government. They could present compellingly attractive (to their respective supporters) ideas with only the sketchiest of plans on how to achieve them.

Practical, real-world experience was redefined as a liability. In the real world, people don’t get to have it their way every time. They take positions that we don’t like. They even (gasp) make mistakes. And for perfectionists, every one of those mistakes and positions becomes a deal-breaker — a reason to sit out the election, or vote for a third-party candidate simon-purer than anyone with a chance of winning.

Since November 9, and especially since January 20, we’ve been face to face with the logical outcome of that perfectionism: the 45th president is the most monumentally unqualified ever to hold the office.

Gradually it dawned on me that my rage at Sanders, Sanders supporters, and (especially) third-party voters stemmed from what I had in common with them: perfectionism. That reluctance, that squeamishness, that horror of sullying my own hands and ideas with the compromises of the real world.

So I finally registered as a Democrat. Less than two weeks later, I found myself secretary of the Martha’s Vineyard Democrats, a sort of umbrella organization for Democrats from the six island towns. I was doing my little dance along the shoreline — approach, jump back, approach, jump back — then a wave came up stronger than I expected and suddenly I was in it up to my knees.

The 2016 election results were disastrous, but if there’s one good thing to be said about disasters it’s that they generally swamp all the fastidious qualms that come with perfectionism. That’s what seems to be happening now. May it continue, and may we learn from the experience.


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Against Perfectionism

  1. Jennie says:

    You did a good thing, Susanna. Yes, perfectionism is a killer. The country (or the world) will never be perfect. Waiting won’t help, and sometimes jumping in feels scary. That being said, you now have a stronger voice. Regardless of politics, declaring a party is empowering in itself.


  2. I was raised Republican and finally admitted that I was a Democrat in elephant’s clothing only in my late thirties after my mother died. Maybe I was afraid it would kill her, but more likely I just wanted to avoid the family intervention. Of course, I was also raised Protestant, and am now a Catholic. So maybe I am just finally straightening own identity out altogether…

    However, despite my own running screaming from their “traditional” values, I do not believe that the Republican party has been Republican for a long, long time. It has been hijacked by people who are jealous of those who can legitimately claim to have been victimized by “the System”… and now we have a party of people who horrifyingly seem to think it is “funny” to elect an incompetent leader to our highest office, and that “at last” their victimhood can be trumpeted to the world. Gosh darn it what a burden it has been to be the wealthiest of national classes, to choose what car to drive, which job to take, which house to buy, and to have to decide to send your children to nonpublic schools and to coach them in secret about their own racial superiority. Talk about oppression…. Yet that very — pardon the Obama-ism — AUDACITY will cost them dearly.

    As we watch our already tattered international reputation shredded further by our own hands, the OTHER silent majority has had just about enough. Myself, I doubt I will be inclined to buy another American car any time soon. And as for the oppressed middle class… enjoy that trickle down. Those of us who formerly supported your angst are no longer interested; we’d rather save our Constitution.

    Oh and…Welcome to the Dark Side, fellow Dem!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Oh boy, do I ever agree when you write that you “do not believe that the Republican party has been Republican for a long, long time.” The Republicans I grew up among were sensible people. Fanaticism wasn’t part of their makeup. Some of them I admired even when I didn’t agree with them 100%. I’m still proud to come from the same state as Elliot Richardson and Ed Brooke. But the current lot? OMG.

      Well, I’ve spent my entire adult life being ambivalent about what the U.S. stood for, but if nothing else the current lot has shown me that the Constitution and the American experiment really is worth fighting for. Some friends of mine have been saying that maybe Trump really is “making America great again” — but not in the way he intended. He’s making a lot of us take the Constitution and democracy and the best of U.S. principles seriously again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Helen Green says:

    Do you think all the perfectionists voted for Trump? Because he had no record and therefore no flaws to speak of?


    • I’m still trying to understand why people voted for Trump, but I don’t think perfectionism was high on the list. Generally speaking, Trump voters must have been able to ignore or explain away his flaws and shortcomings, which (to me at least) were glaringly obvious. An intriguing essay I read suggests looking at candidates in terms of the narrative roles we see them embodying — like archetypes. Obama was the scrappy hero who overcomes adversity and rises to the top. Trump was the gunslinger who rides in to clean up the town, and whom no one expects to be a moral paragon. The same essay points out that our narrative roles for women are very limited: basically, virgin queen and wicked queen. Clinton wasn’t the former and so had to be the latter. (Iron lady was suggested as a third option, à la Margaret Thatcher.)

      I think perfectionism was glaringly obvious in the left of center, and Sanders was its #1 beneficiary — until, of course, he did an imperfect thing by endorsing Clinton. The hardcore perfectionists either sat out the election or voted third party, usually because they couldn’t bear to compromise their values.


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