Robert Reich and I disagree about some things. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to discuss our differences amiably and respectfully. Let's say he came up to me in the street and said, "Jerry, you should have voted for Gore in 2000." I would just shrug and say, "Well, I think you should have voted for Nader. And for Jill Stein in 2016." And that would probably be the end of it.
But maybe not. To judge by his article from back in April, "A Third Party?" (robertreich.org), it looks like Reich can't simply disagree with somebody like me. He has to insist that my vote, in a sense, belongs to him.
To get a better understanding of what I mean by that, it might help for me to tell a fast story about where I got the idea in the first place. On October 28, 2000, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader spoke to a capacity crowd at Cooper Union in New York. Singer-songwriter Patti Smith introduced him. She articulated what many people in that hall were thinking and feeling that night: "I am weary of people telling me that my vote is anything but my own," she said to the cheering of that audience of 900 Green Party members and supporters. "A vote for Nader is only a vote for Nader. It is not a vote for Bush, it is not a vote for any other candidate."
She hit the nail right on the head. Just as Robert Reich's vote belongs to him and him alone, so Smith's vote belongs only to her. This basic respect that every voter ought to have for every other voter--this basic equality--is essential for a healthy democracy. But Reich seems to demand a little extra respect and a little extra equality for himself and for his party. This is obvious from the attitude he takes right at the start of his article.
Reich begins by asking his readers if they have lost confidence in the two major parties. If so, he continues, should those voters give their support to a third-party candidate instead? He answers his own question by blaming Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party for failing to support Hillary Clinton in 2016. Had these two candidates not won the support of more than 4 million voters, Reich laments, then today "Donald Trump wouldn't be in the White House." Further, according to Reich, Ralph Nader "sealed the fate" of Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by tempting almost 3 million Americans to vote for him and the very progressive Green Party platform.
According to Reich, "votes for third party candidates siphon away votes from the major party candidate whose views are closest to that third party candidate." I'm a "siphoner," as Reich sees it, and a repeat offender at that.
When I saw that word "siphon," I remembered the days back in the '70s when some people would siphon gas right out of the tank of somebody else's car. That was theft, of course. I wondered: Is Reich calling me a thief? I didn't "steal" anyone's vote in 2000 or 2016, or ever. Neither did Nader or Stein. Anyway, in theory the "siphoning" could go both ways, couldn't it? Why can't we think of the theft being perpetrated by the major-party candidates? After all, Democrats and Republicans have much more money and power to influence the voters--and to steal votes, for that matter.
Indeed, Reich seems to take the supremacy of the two major parties entirely for granted, and he tries to lock it down by invoking the iron law of "winner-take-all." The standard pitch here is that because the presidency confers such immense powers, and because a candidate can win by the slimmest of margins, the sensible thing for voters to do is to consider only the two major candidates and ignore all the "third" candidates. Only the Democrat and the Republican in the race have a realistic chance of winning, the reasoning goes, and so voters must pick one of those two.
What else is this but a trap? Vote Republican, and you help hand the government over to the control of big banks and corporations. Vote Democrat"and you help hand the government over to the control of big banks and corporations. (Well, with the Democrats you get a little phony talk about their deep concern for "working families.") Limiting our democracy like this just makes rich, powerful people even richer and more powerful. This approach is not just undemocratic, it is anti-democratic. It pushes people out of participation, encourages conformity, and hands a gigantic advantage to two organizations who have shown again and again who they're really concerned about--and it ain't you and me.
At this stage Reich might suggest that in 2000 my views were "closer" to Al Gore's views than to George W. Bush's. I was indeed a registered Democrat from 1984 to 1997, and I've never voted for a Republican. (I was also a registered Green from 2000 to 2009, and a registered Populist thereafter.) Hence Reich would probably throw me into the category of prodigal sons and daughters who need to be brought back to the Democratic Party. But I do not accept the idea that I owe some sort of allegiance to the major party that I am "closer" to. And for a very good reason: I'm not nearly as close to the Democrats as the Democrats and Republicans are to each other. They're a team.
Like so many Democrats, Reich seems to make the mistake of assuming that former Democrats like myself still respect the Democratic Party. I don't. I don't respect the Republican Party either, but since I'm an ex-Democrat many progressives might expect me to still have a certain amount of loyalty to my former political organization. But I don't. I always intensely disliked the Republicans (politically, not personally), but I was never especially happy with the Democrats and I gave up on them altogether back in the twentieth century. The Democrats of today do even less to oppose the Republicans than they did 20 or 30 years ago. While there are a few differences between the two major parties, those few are hyped constantly by the major parties themselves and by the major media, while the many similarities between them are almost entirely ignored. How can an honest person respect either one of them?
Reich may also assume that my true objective is to help "pull the Democrats to the left." Nothing could interest me less. Aside from the fact that they seem to be un-pullable, the Democrats, as I see it, blew it a long time ago by caving into the Republicans again and again. Trying to pull them anywhere, it seems to me, is a big waste of time. The best (and fastest) way for us to achieve progressive goals is to start from scratch and build our own party.
We need our own non-corporate--anti-corporate--party. My votes for minor-party and independent candidates have never been "protest votes." For many years now I have used my vote (and my runs for local office) as ways to help create a new party that represents working people instead of big corporations. That project goes beyond protest. It seeks not just to criticize the system but to fundamentally change it.
Strange to say, in the summer of 2016 Reich appeared to be predicting the rise of a new, progressive party in an informal debate with Chris Hedges on Democracy Now! Reich spoke of progressives developing "a third party--maybe the Green Party!--that holds the Democrats accountable"" Now, in 2018, he no longer predicts or welcomes the coming of a new, independent party. And though he endorsed sometime-Democrat and ostensible revolutionary Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, Reich later enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election.
Reich seems like a nice guy. He has always struck me that way. His tone is not contentious or sarcastic. He appears to be very gently coaxing us independents back into the flock where he thinks we belong. But while his tone is friendly enough, his goal of winning us back into the Democratic Party is dead serious. In pursuit of this goal, he uses what amounts to peer pressure to embarrass or shame former Democrats into coming home to a party they don't believe in anymore. Grown adults are supposedly immune to peer pressure, but in fact most of us want to feel accepted and approved of by the people around us. Relatives sometimes disagree on political matters, and it's often inside families that individuals are least likely to budge from the political positions they've staked out. But with friends, co-workers, and even casual acquaintances, it's quite different. Those who feel the need to express political opinions--right or left!--would much rather do it around people who are not going to disagree with them. Again, we want to be accepted, we want to be liked. We want to "belong to the tribe," as Lenny Bruce used to express it. Reich is undoubtedly smart enough and experienced enough to know this, and to exploit it.
To be fair to Reich, he does put one item on the table that very few Democrats even talk about, much less recommend. I refer to Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), an electoral reform the Greens and others have been promoting for many years now. The idea of RCV is to allow a voter to vote for more than one candidate for a given office and rank her choices, from her favorite to others that she is less crazy about but would still find acceptable.
Let's say a registered Democrat in 2016 wants to vote for Jill Stein for President but also wants to hedge her bet and throw a little support to another candidate. So she ranks her choices: Stein first, Clinton second. When all the voters' first-choice votes are tallied up, the vote-counters find that Stein has not won a majority of those first-choice votes. Clinton, in this scenario, has received more first-choice votes than Stein but still not enough for a majority among all the candidates. So the vote-counters push aside all the first-choice votes for Stein and any other candidate who finished "out of the money." The counters then total up the second-choice votes for Clinton and add those to her overall total. So, even though Clinton's support was a bit weak among many voters, still she benefits from the half-hearted (second-choice) votes that she won.
The same dynamic might be at work with, say, a registered Republican who felt a bit nauseous about voting for Donald Trump. Using RCV, he could vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson (for example) as his first, preferred choice, and for Trump as his second, somewhat grudging choice. (I can't help adding that my own preference, even under RCV, would be to vote for my one chosen candidate and leave it at that.) In this scenario, Trump would benefit from his second-choice votes just as Clinton did from hers.
But what about an eligible voter whose conscience directs her not to vote at all? That is, what if she has the legal right to vote but, come Election Day, she sees no candidate who appeals to her? What good does RCV do her? Well, none, really. She is one of millions of Americans who do not bother to vote--about 40 percent of the eligible electorate in presidential elections. I believe a lot more of those people would vote--will vote--when third parties get busy and run more candidates, campaign more aggressively, and above all demonstrate independence from the two major parties.
Maybe RCV would be unpredictable in other ways. Peter Camejo (Nader's vice presidential running mate in 2004) explained how RCV might not end up "protecting" the major parties from the minor parties. Camejo reasoned that once voters got accustomed to casting their votes for the candidates they really want instead of against the candidates they despise, then voting third-party might start to catch on in a big way. Voters might get a charge out of voting for independent or third-party candidates and might start turning out in bigger numbers.
Of course, we have to wonder what the effect of all this might be on state legislatures stuffed with Republicans and Democrats. Why would major-party lawmakers want to pass RCV and thereby help their minor-party rivals? Well, naturally, they wouldn't. That's why I'm very skeptical about Reich's recommendation that we keep our distance from small parties and just wait"and wait"and wait for that fine day when Democrats and Republicans suddenly abandon their own self-interest and begin to pass election laws that are more fair and more democratic. Yes, they've already passed RCV in one small state (Maine), but are they likely to pass it in big states anytime soon? Malcolm X once suggested that if you wait for the people in power to voluntarily give up some of their power, then "you'll be waiting a long time." If the major parties do start passing RCV in lots of states, well, that's great. But I think minor parties would do better to concentrate on trying to win elections on their own, without any "help" from their major-party competitors, and then introduce RCV legislation themselves.
Reich recommends another way that restless progressives and socialists can participate in Democratic Party affairs without upsetting the applecart too much. They can support an insurgent candidate like Bernie Sanders! Of course, Reich admits, "the Democratic party establishment rigged the game against him." But then he quickly adds: "I don't want to open up this particular can of worms." This is a strange way to make his case. First he asks his readers to trust the Democratic Party as a good place in which to run a progressive candidate. But then he admits how completely untrustworthy the party's leaders have proven themselves to be. Then he clears his throat and says he doesn't really want to talk about it. Does Reich really expect his readers to be bowled over by this kind of an argument?
A lot of voters--especially younger ones--just aren't going to buy this kind of talk anymore. They see many Americans more or less guaranteeing their votes to Wall Street Democrats like Clinton and demanding nothing in return. They demand nothing, and of course they get nothing. Democrats in Congress can support pretty much the same policies that the Republicans support--big bank bailouts, constant wars in the Middle East, welfare "reform," attacks on civil liberties, universal healthcare that isn't universal and mostly benefits insurance companies--and so on, ad nauseam. They can do all that and many people just keep coming back and voting for Democrats and getting slapped in the face for it. You see the problem?
The solution is obvious. We need a new major party to compete with the two old major parties. With all due respect to Secretary Reich, the country needs exactly the opposite of the foul, corrupt, rotten two-party system that he wants to save. The country needs a third party--a new, independent political party of working people who have just plain had it.
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