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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/28/14

"Lesser of Two Evils" Voting: Progressives' Most URGENT Debate

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"Democrat or third party?"--that is the question. And it's a question that, like Hamlet's original "To be or not to be?" dilemma, can cost honest progressives, keenly aware how high America's political stakes have risen (and humanity's in the bargain), some serious sleepless nights.

Responsible Voter Abstinence--I clearly disagree here, but I respect the viewpoint.
Responsible Voter Abstinence--I clearly disagree here, but I respect the viewpoint.
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It's also an issue that crops up everywhere, as I find by merely perusing the comments on political articles on OpEdNews and other top progressive sites. One needn't skim long to find genuine progressives, whom one would like to see building desperately needed unity, at daggers drawn over whether voting for today's Democrats--at absolute best underachievers (like Woody Allen's God)--is outright capitulation to evil, or responsibly warding off the deadlier evil of Republican rule.

I'd like to bring some needed honesty and intellectual clarity to that debate--not in hopes of settling it, for that aim strikes me as highly quixotic--but because clearly, honestly taking stock of one's situation is really (as political warriors in the heat of struggle easily forget) the essential precondition of any successful political strategy. At minimum, such an attempt to take stock helps progressives seeking a common goal but disagreed (often bitterly) on strategy (1) see the merits in other strategic viewpoints, (2) grasp the full consequences (including unexpected downsides) of their own positions, and (3) acknowledge that well-meaning people must sometimes--because political developments are simply so unforeseeable--trust their gut instincts and agree to disagree. With the mutual respect that entails.

But before proceeding, I must make it pellucidly clear that I'm writing for politically committed progressives; this is not some preschool class for Obamabots. I have no time here to bore myself and fellow progressives with the ABCs of why supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton DON'T count. Many highly able OpEdNews writers have repeatedly catalogued in painstaking detail Obama's and Clinton's treacherous betrayals of the progressive cause. If you haven't learned from those writers by this point, I don't see why you're visiting OpEdNews (except as a putrid troll), let alone reading this article.

Besides, my title should have given sufficient warning: "lesser of two evils" is by definition evil-- lacking in goodness perceived as desirable or necessary. Progressives can debate at length what proportion of practicing Democrat pols are afflicted with the party's prevailing evil. But all real progressives are united on one point: there is something rotten in the state of "Dem-mark." It's on that firm common ground I intend to proceed.

But as my last hors d'oeuvre before the main course, I need to mention--and dismiss--one viewpoint I do respect (as it's held by genuine progressives and rooted in their sense of justice) but find seriously misguided. Namely, the notion that, to express progressive disgust with our rancid political system, we should simply boycott elections. For me, holding this viewpoint amounts to treating politics as a morality play, letting one's sense of justice get the better of one's realism. Yes, I fully agree our electoral system has gotten so bad it deserves a boycott. But, since the whole point of an electoral boycott is to demonstrate by sheer numbers the illegitimacy of our electoral system, the piddling minority of voters one could actually muster for such a boycott would leave its advocates looking pretty foolish. And what's far worse, almost certainly end by default in the election of progressives' worst political enemies, for whom voter boycotts are the last thing on their minds.

No, our existing electoral process certainly sucks, but it's still a potentially vital arrow in the progressive quiver. And given the desperate nature of progressives' struggle to be represented--desperate not just for ourselves, but for a human species facing nonprogressives' ongoing program of climate destruction--casting off potentially essential weapons (to the electoral benefit of our enemies, moreover) as a mere gesture of protest strikes me as the last word in political futility.

So, having (I hope) shelved all thoughts of boycotts, we've arrived at the heart of my subject. Namely, what should progressives do about elections? Almost by sheer logic, the answer Elect the most progressive candidates possible pops to the top of my head. Ah, if only logic, an essential but insufficient tool of action, were so easily applied to the messiness of real-world affairs! That's probably why Star Trek's Mr. Spock, despite the gargantuan computer of his Vulcan brain, so often had to yield to the "shoot from the hip" intuitions of his commanding officer, Captain Kirk. Or why, in a more recent and pertinent nonfiction example, economist Thomas Piketty has lambasted his fellow economists for designing logically elegant economics models far too simple for real-world application. God, or whoever or whatever produced our universal show, may be the Ultimate Logician--but he's clearly lots of other things besides. And never is that more evident than in politics.

So, not to knock logic, but it's clearly a "garbage in, garbage out" matter: the results of your logic are only good as the validity and completeness of the principles you reason from. So it should be clear that Elect the most progressive candidates possible is already a better real-world principle than Vote for the most progressive candidates possible. Why? Because it takes into account a crucial bit of real-world messiness: namely, dear fellow progressive, that lots of fellow Americans aren't going to be voting from the same enlightened principles as nous deux. They're likely to be such brainwashed yokels as to vote for corporatist Democrats--or even more unthinkably, for Neanderthal Republicans.

If Vote for the most progressive candidate possible were a valid principle of action, going to the polls would be a real no-brainer for progressives; it would simply amount to always voting Green. For not only are Greens as individuals generally more progressive than Democrats, but they don't have a party apparatus that holds them back. Even when Democrats would like to be as progressive as, say, Bernie Sanders, they have a party discipline and peer pressure that forcefully holds them back. And never is this more evident than when, in these woeful days of utterly perverse Supreme Court Citizens United AND McCutcheon decisions, they must go hat-in-hand for campaign funding. That's when the Democratic Party leadership, beholden to big donors, will be out to settle scores, and good luck with being forgiven if you've committed the unspeakable sin of being too progressive. And woe to any progressive colleagues who seek to support you. If this isn't the functional dynamic of the Democratic Party, why then do progressive betrayers like Obama and the Clintons have a stranglehold on the plum job of U.S. president?

But voting for Greens, as a progressive principle of action, will simply not, when political realities are considered, result in Greens--or progressives of any sort--being elected. The simple fact is that the voters most likely to vote Green would, if voting Green weren't an available option, be faced with three (from their standpoint) undesirable options: (1) voting Democratic, (2) voting for a third-party or independent candidate even more unelectable than Greens, or (3) sitting out the election. All of which indicates to me that the real result of enough voters "going Green" is-- as Democrats allege--to increase Republicans' chances of winning the election. Of course, Greens can argue that the purpose of voting Green now is to "grow the party," so improving electoral results will convince still more voters Greens are viable enough to vote for. But, whatever this strategy's viability in the long run, it has one serious short-run defect: by costing Democrats more votes, it will hand still more elections to Republicans. Now, maybe a reasonable person can justify that consequence (say, by arguing that Republicans' inability to govern will permanently discredit the party, or will bring about needed popular revolt), but I find it fundamentally dishonest to deny that voting for Greens now or in the foreseeable future will help hand elections to Republicans. I retain respect for progressives who admit that and still vote Green, but zero respect for those who deny it. Progressives who strategize toward being represented can't be forgiven for blinking away important realities.

Like the reality that today's Republicans are by and large fascists. And who, as fascists, can significantly strangle civil liberties with each new bit of political control they amass. Though I've toyed with the idea of letting Republicans win so that they'd permanently discredit themselves by their inability to govern, I now consider that idea too dangerous. The "greater of two evils" has grown too evil to tolerate. Which leaves me, by grudging default, a "lesser of two evils" voter.

But with a significant twist: I wish to torture Democrats. So much that they'll regret they ever won. By honest reasoning about today's admittedly dismal politics, I've arrived at electing, then torturing, Democrats as my new political strategy. Full knowing the florid abuse I court from folks prone to anaphylactic shock at mere mention of our jackass party, I've embraced the only view that seems to duly honor both logic and facts.

See, when one's only realistic choices are the greater and lesser of two evils, the only responsible choice, unless one seeks to guard one's unsullied purity by sitting out elections or voting third party--with the disastrous real-world consequence of helping elect fascist Republicans--is to vote for the lesser evil. But this does not mean for a second one has to like or support that lesser evil--and this is the fundamental mistake progressive "lesser of two evils" voters have been making. On the contrary, I'm outright disgusted with anyone who finds today's Democratic Party even mildly satisfactory, or can stomach for a second the likes of Obama or Hillary Clinton--two Democrats virtually as fascist as Republicans. But at least there are enough Democrats who, whatever their mediocrity as progressives, sufficiently dislike pro-oligarch fascism to restrain them. Obama's failed Syrian war push, like the slowdown on TPP fast-track, offers proof.

So, the takeaway lesson from my analysis? Profound agreement with everyone who holds, with the admirable Chris Hedges, that resolution of our moribund republic's political woes lies not in the polling booths but in the streets. Where I differ from Hedges is in arguing that, whatever their insufficiency, elections still matter. But they matter in a new, almost unprecedented way: that the question isn't which of the major parties will serve us--for the answer is neither-- but which party is likelier to harbor sympathizers with populist street revolt. And, ultimately, which party's reign provides a safer backdrop for such revolt.

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Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he wields his pen (more...)

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