A major debate now rages in a manner likely to hurt progressive prospects. Each side attributes to other sides positions they do not hold. Each side attacks presumed views and assumed motives. We can do better.
The contending positions are:
Position 1: Vote for Clinton as Greater Good
Position 2: Vote for Clinton as Lesser Evil
Position 3: Vote Green or Don’t Vote
Position 4: Vote for the Best Attainable Overall Outcome
When disputants attack one another harshly, weirdly, and dismissively, healing ensuing splits becomes hard and we lose gains greater solidarity would facilitate. Can we do better?
- Progressives who say vote for Clinton as the greater good think Clinton as President is the best attainable success. To not aggressively support Clinton, they feel, would forego sober reason for progressive appearance.
- Progressives who say vote Clinton as the lesser evil think Clinton as President is the least bad attainable outcome. To not vote for Clinton, they too feel, would forego realistic reason for radical appearance.
- Progressives who say vote Green or don’t vote at all think Greens getting as many votes as possible, or major parties getting as few votes as possible, is the best attainable success. To balk, they feel, would sacrifice success for conformity.
- Progressives who say vote contextually are not indifferent. We are not seeking to support Clinton without appearing liberal, nor seeking to support Greens without appearing irrelevant, nor seeking to not vote but appear responsible. We just think we can have our cake and eat it too. We differ from positions one, two, and three mainly about what is the best conceivable success we can have.
Myself, I favor position four, vote contextually. But if I say those favoring position one or two want nothing beyond Clinton, if I say Clinton is so bad nothing is worse and those who cannot see that are in thrall to her lies, if I say anyone voting for Clinton is a shill for the Democratic Party and denies that it is a corporate vehicle of injustice, if I say anyone risking Trump by not voting Clinton in contested states doesn’t care about those who would suffer Trump’s damage, then I am wrong.
What I should say is, wait a minute. Clinton winning is much better than Trump winning. But Clinton in office does not auger a better future, only more of the same. Positive gains require powerful, informed, massive, and militant opposition. If we beat Trump in a manner that reduces activist opposition to less than we might have attained, we will not have achieved the greatest conceivable success we could have. More, nothing about wanting Clinton to beat Trump, and even nothing about liking some aspect or other about Clinton, precludes understanding the simple truth that anyone who wants real gains for the poor and oppressed should realize we need more than a winning vote tally.
Similarly, if I say people in position three are posturing, holier than thou, delusional about their prospects, denying their responsibility, or welcoming disaster, then I am wrong. What I should say is, yes, a large turnout for the Greens (and perhaps the abstention vote, too) can help inspire and even develop an organized, sustained opposition. But, to accumulate Green votes or abstentions and have Trump win would undo any benefits of the dissident tally under a mountain of debits due to Trump wielding state power. If we have lots of Green votes and lots of abstentions, but we get Trump in the Oval Office, we have not achieved the best possible outcome we could. More, nothing about wanting to develop a powerful, organized, sustained, left opposition is inconsistent with wanting Clinton to win the election itself. In fact, wanting Trump to lose is one aspect of wanting the most powerful left after the election.
I can’t stand Clinton. I can’t stand the Democratic Party. But my rejecting them for every moment for roughly a half century in no way obstructs my knowing that beating Trump is essential for avoiding disaster as well as for having the most positive and forward looking left emerge.
I want Clinton to beat Trump but I reject supporting Clinton by saying she or the Democratic Party is a path toward a better future. I reject saying we should vote the lesser evil, Clinton, everywhere. Clinton and the Democratic Party are evils, albeit in this case lesser evils. We should help Trump lose while helping opposition grow.
I want the Greens to do fantastically well and help build a lasting, growing opposition with clear, worthy, and inspiring aims. I want Sanders and all progressives to participate in creating massive, militant, steadfast, and positively oriented opposition to a Clinton administration. But I also want Trump to lose.
To everyone engaging in the current debate I would urge that we all stop posing the choice as either/or. Not every state is alike. It is false that every progressive needs to vote Clinton or Green or abstain to yield best outcomes. It is possible, desirable, and even essential for progressives as a whole group to simultaneously work to ensure that Trump loses and the left grows. But for that, different people will need to accomplish different tasks for the ten minutes we vote, depending on where we are.
We can beat Trump and build movement if progressives in states where Trump might win will vote Clinton, making absolutely clear, however, that they will oppose her without cease once Trump is off the stage. And if progressives in states where either Trump or Clinton is totally assured of winning, we vote as we choose, whether for Greens or not at all, and our vote will help build lasting opposition.
Suppose it is next October. Let’s say Trump’s campaign is a shambles. We know he will win virtually no state, or so few that he will get thoroughly beaten in the whole election. In that circumstance, no progressive would have any pressing reason to vote Clinton anywhere, and the disputes would disappear. Even so, if we have been attacking each other’s motives for months, the bad feelings may not disappear so fast.
Or suppose it is next October. Let’s say there are ten states contested and pivotal. Whoever wins most of those ten will win the election. Other states are not in doubt. So in every non contested state, progressives vote Green or don’t vote. In the ten contested states, progressives vote against Trump. They could even hold mass rallies on election night with the theme we hate Hillary and the Democratic Party, but we hate Donald much more – chock full of signs for Greens, and with Green Party speakers on hand, and, one hopes, with Sanders there too, taking the same stance. Even better would be if the signs and speakers were explicit about the program progressives will pursue against Clinton in office.
And so we come to Sanders. So far, in the chaotic context he has navigated, he has been quite close to position four. He has repeatedly said we need to beat Trump. He hasn’t said anything positive about Clinton. He has said the two party system and the Democrats need political revolution. He has put forth positive program and, most important, he has said over and over that what matters most is organizing and fighting for positive program at the grassroots.
Sanders may not persist on his current path, but so far he is navigating without degrading or misrepresenting others’ views or motives. The rest of us would do well to emulate that.
A potentially helpful debate about all these matters will become harmful if participants routinely call other participants shills for Clinton, insensitive to injustice, reality deniers, and worse. Such trash talk is needless and toxic. Let’s avoid it. Let’s not unify Democrats. Let’s unify a real left.