In Defense of Tactical Voting (Sometimes)

I am going to make an argument for voting for the lesser evil, not always, but sometimes, and in particular this time — in some states. Maybe.


     Let me immediately make some stipulations to save pointless posturing. I accept as self-evident that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party and beholden to corporate interests. It is a party of empire. The Democratic Party will not lead us to socialism and only socialism offers a long-term solution to our problems. In short, the Democratic Party is evil — if it weren’t, the question of voting for the lesser evil would not arise.


     Now not everyone on the left who thinks the Democrats are evil agrees that they are the lesser evil. One version holds that the two parties are equivalently evil, that their policies are indistinguishable. After all, didn’t the Democrats vote for the Patriot Act and the Iraq war, didn’t Clinton gut welfare and push through a repressive crime bill? But there are two flaws in this claim of equivalence.


     First, as a matter of simple logic, to show equivalence between the two parties it’s not enough to show that on some issues or even on many issues the two parties have the same position. Equivalence means that they are the same on all issues, not just some. For all their similarities, the two parties don’t have the same position on abortion, on affirmative action, on same-sex marriage, on the minimum wage, on environmental protection, on overtime pay, on taxation, on resuming nuclear testing, and a host of other issues. Yes, of course the Democrats’ position on these issues is not what we would want them to be — remember the stipulation: they are evil — but sustaining Roe v. Wade is better than reversing it, even if the Democrats won’t push for public funding for all reproductive health care, and indeed for all health care. Opposing a constitutional amendment enshrining heterosexual marriage is better than favoring such an amendment, even if most Democrats won’t endorse same-sex marriage. And so on.


     One could argue, of course, that even though the Democrats and the Republicans are not identical, the differences are so minor as to be essentially equivalent, if not actually equivalent. That is, the differences don’t matter. But think about the implications of this argument. This argument means that we are saying to African Americans “it doesn’t matter to us, it is of no consequence, whether or not you have jobs”; we are saying to women “it doesn’t matter to us, it is of no consequence, whether or not you have the right to safe and legal abortions”; we are saying to the poor “it doesn’t matter to us, it is of no consequence, whether or not you get overtime pay or an increased minimum wage.” Yes, one could object that this isn’t what is being said — that’s what’s actually being said is that compared to what’s really needed, these minor reforms are irrelevant. But small reforms can mean an immense reduction of human suffering today, while we’re waiting for the promise of more thorough-going change in the future. For people living on the edge — as so many are under modern capitalism — the differences between having the right to legal abortion or not, an increased minimum wage or not, less arsenic in drinking water or not — are not at all irrelevant, and may indeed be matters of life and death.


     Moreover, consider the implications for our political work of the claim that the differences between the parties are meaningless. If we truly believed that the parties were the same, then we’d also believe that all those progressives working for abortion rights, or defending affirmative action, or working to increase workers’ benefits, or protecting the environment were wasting their time. Not just that as liberals — without an understanding of the necessity for socialism — they don’t fully appreciate the limits of the reforms they seek. But that their work is literally irrelevant. Certainly this hasn’t been the approach of New Politics. Twice a year we publish a 200-page issue and if all we needed to say was that the problem is the lack of socialism and the solution is socialism, we could save ourselves a lot of unnecessary editorial work.


     Some argue that the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the former are open about their desire to subordinate all to the rule of capital, while the latter have the same goal but cover it better with humanitarian rhetoric. Better to have the up-front reactionary — goes the argument — rather than the disguised reactionary. At least you know what you’re getting and can better confront it.1 If every difference between Democrats and Republicans were entirely cosmetic, then this argument would have some force. But the differences are not entirely cosmetic. If the way the Democrats try to “sugarcoat” capitalism is by paying a higher minimum wage or making taxes less regressive, then let us have sugarcoating. Of course our job as leftists is to point out the inadequacies of that sugarcoating and to push for more — but not to tell people to reject the higher minimum wage or more progressive taxes because they’re just cosmetic. I assume if we can convince workers that having more money is a cosmetic irrelevance, then we can convince them as well that even as they accept small reforms, they should fight for more.


     There is a second flaw in the argument that says Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable given examples like the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. While it is true that the Democrats behaved abominably, spinelessly — you can fill in the adverbs — it is not obvious to me that the outcome would have been the same had the Democrats had more power.


     In the case of Iraq, a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives opposed the war resolution of October 2002.2


     In the Senate, a majority of Democrats (including Kerry) voted for the resolution, but a majority of Democrats (again including Kerry) also voted for an amendment that would have made war difficult to wage, limiting the authorization to permit war in case of “imminent threat” to the United States, rather than of “the continuing threat.”3 More to the point, it seems extremely unlikely that the war would even have been proposed under a Gore or Kerry presidency (given that it probably wouldn’t have been proposed even under a mainstream GOP administration, such as that of Bush senior).


     The Patriot Act probably would have passed under any Democratic or Republican president, but the fact that Kerry now wants to amend the legislation in a less repressive direction while Bush wants to extend it in a more repressive direction does not suggest equivalence.


     And on the Bush tax bill, where House Republicans were unanimously in favor, Democrats were more than 5-1 against.4


     So I don’t think we can accept the claim of Howie Hawkins that “the majority of Democrats in Congress today are voting in support of Bush’s economic and military initiatives,” with only “a left fringe” of “about 25 representatives” who are opposed to the bipartisan consensus.5


     I’ve heard some leftists argue that both the Bush administration and the Democrats want the United States to rule the world, the only difference being that where the Bushies want to use brute military force to achieve this goal, the Democrats want to use the institutions of global capitalism — the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and so on — to achieve the same end. But is the difference between these two approaches really of no concern to radicals? Was the multi-million-strong antiwar movement irrelevant because it tried to stop the war rather than demanding an end to corporate globalization? The latter should be our long-term aim, of course, but stopping a war in the meantime is hardly inconsequential.


     Some leftists argue that if we’re interested in supporting the lesser evil, the lesser evil is Bush, not Kerry. This argument has two variations. One holds that our best hope for fundamental change is for things to get worse; the second holds that Democrats can enact certain awful policies that Republicans can’t get away with. Let me consider each of these in turn.


     Gabriel Kolko has suggested,6 and Alexander Cockburn seems to have endorsed the idea,7 that the most serious blow against the U.S. empire has been struck by the incompetence and overreach of the Bush administration, alienating its allies as it pursues its unilateralist course. Therefore, if we want to see the empire brought down, we ought to favor the continuation of these self-defeating policies, rather than the more careful and considered imperial policies of a Kerry, policies that might prolong the long-term viability of the empire. This position has two serious weaknesses.


     First, it overstates the degree of predictability in human affairs and understates the current dangers. Overreaching sometimes gets its comeuppance, but sometimes it leads to disaster — as discovered by the German Communist Party with its slogan of “after Hitler, us.” In a world of nuclear weapons, the militarization of space, and potential environmental catastrophe, we can’t afford too many more disasters. Kolko writes “As dangerous as it is, Bush’s reelection may be a lesser evil because he is much more likely to continue the destruction of the alliance system that is so crucial to American power.” Sure, it may turn out to be the lesser evil, but given the danger that Kolko acknowledges, do we really want to take the chance?


     The second problem with the Kolko approach is that it requires us either to be extremely dishonest (publicly opposing war and violence while secretly welcoming every unilateral U.S. bomb dropped) or to appear extremely lunatic (publicly calling for reckless military adventures). Neither seems a winning strategy for the left.


     The second variation of the argument that claims the Democrats are actually the greater evil points to various policies in history that were enacted by the less disposed party because there would have been too much opposition if the more disposed party had tried to do so. Nixon was able to make an opening to China because his long record of fanatical anti-Communism shielded him from the right-wing opposition that any Democrat would have faced. Menachim Begin was able to sign the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt because he — unlike the Labor Party — could never be accused of being soft on the Arabs. And Clinton could sign a welfare “reform” bill that, had it been proposed by a Republican, would have elicited a storm of outrage from liberals. There is something to these examples, but their significance can be overstated. Take the welfare bill. In the Senate, Democrats split 25-218 in favor of the bill, and in the House Democrats were divided 98-989 – quite likely more affirmative votes than if a Republican president had tried to pass the bill. But since all 53 Republican Senators and 230 out of 232 Republican Representatives — majorities in both Houses — voted yea, there’s no reason to think a Republican president wouldn’t have gotten his way. Or that the contents of the bill wouldn’t have been even worse.



Given the arguments I have raised, why shouldn’t we all become Democrats? Why shouldn’t we devote our hearts and souls to the Democratic Party? The reason is simple: we are radicals; while we want to achieve whatever small, short-run gains we can for people who are suffering, we know how much suffering will still remain and how only fundamental social change offers any hope of seriously addressing the problems we face. If we put all our efforts into supporting the lesser evil then we have no effort left to eliminate evil. As radicals we inevitably face a trade-off between achieving short-run modest improvements and working for the thorough-going changes we know are necessary. There are several reasons why we need to be building political alternatives to the two-party system of corporate capitalism, why we need to pursue radical change even though we know that today radical change is not immediately attainable.


     First, even in bad times, we need to keep radical ideas alive. If future activists have to start from scratch to develop a fundamental critique of existing society and a vision of an alternative, then future change will be that much more difficult. If we falsely encourage people to believe that this Democratic Party band-aid or that liberal program or piece of legislation will solve their problems, then we are misleading them. And we are weakening the case for the long-range fundamental changes that are essential. If we falsely encourage people to believe that John Kerry, for example, has the solution to the problems of war and injustice then we fail in our obligation as leftists to educate people as to the immense limitations of Kerry-style policies.


     Second, even in bad times, we need to develop the embryonic institutions and organizations that can later grow and become the vehicles for radical change. Social change doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it needs left institutions and organizations to propel it forward. To the extent that our efforts go into building or promoting the institutions and organizations that represent the lesser evil, to that extent we are failing to create the structures for real change. Parties rarely emerge ready to contest state power: it’s a long process of building and growing. The process will no doubt involve electoral losses, a painful but necessary step on the path to victory.


     Third, it’s not just long-run party-building that matters. Most often what determines whether reforms get enacted in the