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To Vote, or Not To Vote


For a long time, critics of contemporary society have debated lesser evil voting, considering many circumstances, some real and immediate, some hoped for and distant. Some of us even remember the slogan, “part of the way with LBJ,” put forth at the height of the Vietnam war by anti-imperialist revolutionaries who also chanted “hey hey, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today.”

The most frequent current debate, however, has been over whether to vote for a less evil Democrat over a more evil Republican, or, alternatively, whether to vote for a third party candidate over both Democrat and Republican.

Among recent vote policy debaters who might read this essay, most agree that contemporary society is horrific, Democrats and Republicans are two wings of one vile corporate party, and grassroots activism, new organization, and movement building are essential for serious change, regardless of election results. So, here, I take all that as given.

JoeR, a Trump supporting or even just traditional Republican, runs against JoeD a Sanders supporting or even just traditional (which is to say thoroughly compromised and even vile) Democrat. SarahG, a typical Green, also runs. What’s a thoughtful progressive to do?

A frequent response is to debate what to do on Election Day. Somewhat less often, people also debate what to do during the campaign. What claims do such advocates offer?

Advocates of voting for the lesser evil Democrat on Election Day say that doing so has no implication for their own broader values, beliefs, and actions. They say they can take a few minutes to pull the JoeD lever, while proclaiming JoeD a war criminal or otherwise undeserving, without losing their progressive or radical commitments and without conveying any false message. More, they argue that their doing so can sometimes seriously matter, which is precisely and only when they urge others doing likewise.

In a contested state, they say, we should vote JoeD for President if JoeR is worse. Additionally, we should also vote JoeD over JoeR for Senate or Congress IF their contest is close and IF who will have a majority in the Senate or Congress will greatly affect future outcomes and prospects. To do otherwise, they assert, is callous toward those who will suffer more if JoeR is elected President, or if JoeR is elected Congressman or Senator thereby tipping either arena toward a Republican majority. But, they emphasize, when a presidential election, or a Senate or Congressional election is not close, or when overall balance is not at stake, or if instead voting for SarahG would have greater positive benefits than the losses incurred due to JoeR bearing JoeD, then by all means vote SarahG.

In contrast, advocates of voting SarahG in all states, all the time, say that voting for Democrats anywhere, anytime, bolsters the system and compromises and deradicalizes those doing it, and, more, that voting for Green or other progressive candidates, helps build the opposition necessary to force better results from mainstream politicians as well as to conduct mass campaigns that can win immediate change and prepare to win still more change. To vote JoeD, they assert, ignorantly and callously sacrifices everyone’s future well-being for non existent short run benefit.

To make the above, which I think applies to elections quite generally and widely, and thereby requires contextual decisions for each case about whether it is contested or not, whether legislative balance may be at stake or not, the degree of difference between JoeD and JoeR, and the potential gain from voting Green, more specific, first consider the Trump/Clinton Presidential election and second, the imminent midterm elections for Congress and Senate.

During the 2016 race for Presidency the debate I am here discussing was between those critics of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism, like say, the Green presidential Candidate, Jill Stein, and many supportive radical commentators, who said vote Green everywhere, and various other critics of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and capitalism, like, say, Noam Chomsky, who said vote Clinton in contested states, and Stein or whoever you like elsewhere. During the current midterm elections, the debate is between those saying vote for Democratic Party Congressional and Senatorial candidates wherever those contests are close, since the race to hold an overall majority is close and contested, and those saying don’t bother and if there is a third party option, vote that, everywhere.

So far, I have offered only the shape of the general debate, hoping doing so might help to eliminate false formulations, straw men, and ad hominem formulations, thereby yielding respectful and honest debate over the details and possibilities we face and the implications of choices for all involved and affected.

But, it would be remiss, I think, to ignore that I have my own opinions and to not offer them.

First, I don’t think, as most participants seem to, that there is always a right side and an always a wrong side for all elections, everywhere, every-time. Rather, I think different mainstream and alternative candidates with different prospects, different national or state circumstances, different third party prospects, and different backgrounds and attributes of voters matter.

But what of the cases noted, Trump/Clinton and the imminent midterms? I have to admit, in these cases I do think one side has been right and the other wrong. I felt, feel, and honestly wonder how anyone seeking radical change could fail at the time, much less now, to see that the difference between Trump and Clinton, as utterly and irredeemably horrible as the latter was and remains, was nonetheless outrageously huge, or could conclude that getting extra votes for Stein in swing states was so beneficial for future activism as to offset the cost of Trump winning, or as to even offset just the harm of conveying that Green organizers cared more about some additional historically invisible votes for themselves in swing states than they cared about the predictable well being of minorities, women, gays, immigrants, workers, children, and even the whole planet. Similarly, now that Trumpism no longer even masquerades and his talons of hate are fully at work, I wonder how folks could not recognize the need to vote lesser evil in contested Congressional and Senate races.

Opponents of lesser evil voting claim it inexorably weakens the resolve and compromises the values of progressives and radicals who do it. But I doubt anyone was compromised by weighing the impact of outcomes and when conditions require by casting a lesser evil vote to minimize damage while then contributing as best they are able to maximizing gains. For example, I don’t think doing that has diminished my comprehension of the ills of current social relations or my desire or capacity to fight for new ones. On the other hand, when Jill Stein repeatedly argued that there was no significant difference between Trump and Clinton, when her Green Party ran in contested states accruing for her votes that had they been cast for Clinton would have ended Trump’s political project, was that a sign her values had been distorted and compromised?

What about the debate over not just voting, but whether to give some or even a lot of one’s time for weeks or months to JoeD or SarahG or to no candidate at all? Although I am including this for examination, I should point out that it actually comes up for debate far less often than the issue of who to ultimately vote for, a fact that itself arguably says a lot about all the depth of disputants’ intentions.

Nonetheless, when the issue of campaigning does arise, the calculus on each side remains similar albeit complicated by two changed factors: first, we would have to weigh the greater or even much greater outlay of time involved in campaigning compared to other uses of time during the campaign’s duration, and second, we would have to consider how the campaigning is to be done and therefore it’s likely effects on the people doing it and on those they appeal to. Leaving all this mostly for later, for the 2020 case, as 2018 Election Day now approaches, let me just suggest that I suspect had the Greens given over resources from contested states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, to campaigning instead in safe states, saying that Clinton is an agent of corporate, war-mongering, violence but Trump and Trumpism is so much worse that all who even remotely identify as Green or alternative should vote Clinton here – not only would Trump have been beaten, and not only would movement’s now be fighting for positive change rather than blocking negative devolution, but the Greens would be stronger as well. What calculation, inclination, or desire blocked that possibility? Whatever it was, it was within people seeking change, not imposed on us by people protecting the status quo.

5 Comments

  1. Rick Goodman November 7, 2018 2:48 pm 

    I agree with Michael’s point, as I understand it. While there are hugely important structural evils to address, much meaningful and beneficial reforms and improvements can be made through practical electoral work. It is fairly easy to canvass, put up signs, and ask people to vote, at least for a privileged retired person like me, and this can help expand Medicaid, protect Social Security, food stamps and public transit, and even occasionally mention labor law reform . Then, outside of electoral politics, where I do support the democrats (who I disagree with on tons of issues) I am free to learn from Znet and others about taking actions that are more transformative. If there is a better plan, I want to hear about it, but for now, supporting Dems and pushing Dems to be progressive, seems the best approach to me. But I continue to learn from others.

  2. Brit November 7, 2018 12:18 am 

    I think that the real elephant in the room is the antiquated nature of US political system. We need a constitutional convention to bring the US to the modern world, so that voting matters. The US of all large nations may have had the best political system on the block in 1783, but the world has moved on since. These were the days of bleeding fevers, owning and abusing people as property, with only land owning white guys with the vote. Not hugely different than 200 BC during the Roman Republic.
    Certainly some improvements have been made, now with more or less universal suffrage, etc., but conditions that do not exist in other democracies still hold the US back. It is not a coincidence that less than 40% of eligible voters bothered to vote in the last midterm election.
    No other modern democracy has such loose, and frankly corrupt campaign finance election laws …. Allowing huge donations from corporate “people”, huge donations in general….and such activity as racist robo calls, and allowing a single Secretary of State to control election law (they are generally done by multiparty committees in developed nations). In Britain, “third party” expenditure is capped at 5 per cent of the expenditure authorized for political parties in the 12 months prior to polling day. In Canada the figure is 1 per cent, but applies only to the period of official campaigning.
    No other nation has an electoral college. No other nation has filibusters. Almost all democracies nations have some sort of proportional representation. Without these crucial elemental structures amended, a third party does not stand a hope in hell in getting anywhere.
    I moved to New Zealand over 20 years ago, and see the huge difference these elements make. If the voter turnout is less than 75% people wring their hands on the demise of democracy. It hasn’t been much over 60% in many decades in the USA and was only 36.4 % in 2014. Mubarak did better.
    I, as a dual citizen am an active member of the Aotearoa Greens NZ. However after voting third parties for many years in the USA, I now see what a fallacy third parties are now in the USA. Either change the structure of the vote, adding proportional representation and strict electoral laws or become active in changing and then voting for the often imperfect de facto collation called the Democrats. Until fundamental changes are made, a no vote or a vote for the US Greens (outside of the local level) is without a doubt a vote for the Republicans.

  3. avatar
    Paul D November 2, 2018 2:26 am 

    Michael,

    Of greater interest to me is the way the US left has become so obsessed with electoral politics over the much more important work of organizing outside of electoral politics. I perceive that they also imbue an unrealistic, quasi-spiritual importance to their individual vote and the need for that vote to be an expression of individualistic “purity.” This attitude seem to be a vestige of the way the US left, going back to at least the Beatnik days has always to a degree, embraced the individualist Transcendentalism of Thoreau (as do the so-called capitalist “libertarians”).

    Of course, from a more realistic and practical perspective, I regard voting, strategically, for the “lesser evil” as simply a small tactical gesture, taking just a few minutes of our time, to tilt the terrain of the metaphorical battlefield – even if by only a bit (but this time, it will be more than a “bit”) in the direction that improves the effectiveness (and now, even physical safety), of our more important work of organizing, educating, consciousness-raising, and hell-raising outside of the established political structures.

  4. avatar
    Michael Albert November 1, 2018 1:39 pm 

    I am curious…why do you feel your comment is a response to what I wrote?

  5. owlish dog October 31, 2018 10:04 pm 

    No party can ever grow if you never vote for them. Only vote Rep or Dem and that’s all you’re ever going to get.

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