If my e-mail inbox is any indication, many American progressives plan to use the Nov. 2 election as an opportunity to "teach the Democrats a lesson" by either not voting or casting ballots for third parties, even if this contributes to the expected Republican (and Tea Party) landslide.
The thinking seems to be that the loss of the congressional majorities will punish the Democrats for accepting half-measures and compromises on issues from health care and financial reform to job stimulus and war. The Left's hope apparently is that the chastened Democrats will then shift toward more progressive positions and be more assertive.
However, modern American political history tells us that this strategy never works. After the four key elections in which many progressives abandoned the governing Democrats in 1968, 1980, 1994 and 2000 not only did Republicans take U.S. politics further to the right, but the surviving Democrats tacked more to the center and grew more timid.
All four elections also were marred by GOP dirty tricks that drew little or no reaction from either the governing Democrats or the progressives, emboldening the slash-and-burn Republicans to operate in an ever more audacious style.
Tragically, too, the Left's sideline-sitting contributed to the unnecessary deaths of millions of people in wars from Vietnam and Central America to Iraq and Afghanistan. Arguably even worse, U.S. inaction on global warming a neglect surely to be continued if Republicans and Tea Partiers are victorious in Election 2010 may doom the future of a livable planet.
In other words, the "teach-the-Dems-a-lesson" strategy not only doesn't work, it's extremely dangerous.
The Vietnam Precedent
Take, for instance, the pivotal election of 1968. The Left was furious with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War and with the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, for the bloody Chicago convention.
Many on the Left refused to support Humphrey, even though they knew that would help the election chances of the divisive and disreputable Richard Nixon. Some anti-war activists voted for minor third-party candidates while others simply sat out Election Day, allowing Nixon to win one of the closest elections in U.S. history by less than one percentage point.
However, we now know based on declassified information from Johnson's presidential library that Johnson was on the verge of a peace settlement with the North Vietnamese in Paris and that Humphrey's election likely would have led to a rapid end of the Vietnam War.
Nixon, who was getting briefings on the progress in Paris, knew that a breakthrough was imminent. The evidence is also now clear that Nixon, possessing that knowledge, let his campaign make contacts with the South Vietnamese government behind Johnson's back, promising President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal if he boycotted the Paris talks.
Thieu did as Nixon's campaign wished, refusing to attend the peace talks, thus torpedoing hopes for a quick end to U.S. participation in the war. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Significance of Nixon's "Treason.'"]
After taking office, President Nixon had no choice but to continue and to expand the war in pursuit of a better outcome for Thieu, who after all knew of Nixon's treachery.
The additional four years of war resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers and millions of Indochinese in Vietnam and Cambodia, yet the final peace agreement mirrored what had been available to the United States in 1968.
Nixon's nasty, take-no-prisoners style also shook the political foundations of the United States. The nation grew bitterly divided; parents turned against their own children; war-fueled inflation ate away at incomes; hopes for alleviating poverty vanished; and Americans came to doubt their government could accomplish anything good.
The national wounds inflicted by that ugly era have never fully healed. Much of that, however, might have been avoided if disaffected progressives had swallowed their anger and cast their ballots for Humphrey.