[My latest for The Huffington Post]
There comes a time during just about every general election cycle when a faction of progressive Democratic voters begin to harrumph and gripe about the two party system. Specifically, the following remark jumps back into popular discourse: “we’re choosing between the lesser of two evils.”
The off-handed rejection of the Democrats as “less evil” rapidly descends into hectoring and in-fighting on the left about either supporting a third party or drafting a primary challenger to oppose the Democratic nominee, presidential or otherwise. In fact, this time around, some progressives are even considering a vote for Ron Paul, the most conservative member of Congress in the last 75 years, even though his positions on a variety of issues, namely civil rights and reproductive rights, are indefensible.
Naturally, much of this point of view can be attributed to generalized frustration with the two party system and the ugliness of electoral politics. But there’s a trend among influential progressives that’s almost as frustrating as the system itself. Whenever the Republicans are in charge, progressives unite to defeat and replace the Republican leadership with Democrats. But when the Democrats are in charge, progressives have a tendency to hypnotically lapse into contrarian, too-hip-for-the-room ambivalence, apathy and an “everyone is evil” defeatism. Thus, support for Democratic Leader X is weakened — often with disastrous consequences, the least tragic of which being a reemergence of the previously ousted Republican leadership.
In 2000, this attitude won enough progressive votes for Ralph Nader to literally change the course of history. Widespread voter fraud aside, Nader achieved 97,488 votes in Florida. If just 538 of those votes for Nader had been for Al Gore instead, the history of the last 10 years might have been significantly different. But Nader’s involvement, along with high profile endorsements from progressive heroes like Michael Moore, delivered an election-altering percentage of votes to Nader.
The word on the street was the familiar and laughable notion that Gore and Bush were basically the same person. Both candidates and both parties were painted as equally crooked and corrupt, and the system was irrevocably stacked against the people. So otherwise smart progressives backed Nader as an antidote to the crippled system — a truly “progressive” antidote, unlike Gore.
Knowing what we know now, how seriously naive was that?
Even though he ran a flawed campaign, Gore would have been a vastly different president than George W. Bush in almost every respect. Of course he might have been impeached by the Republicans after 9/11, but I don’t want to skew too deeply into an alternate timeline. The point is that Nader has since disintegrated into a careerist troll and Al Gore has become a progressive lion.
Now imagine this 2000 era “lesser of two evils” defeatism on the left occurring with the assistance of our current Internet technology. We’re hearing the same nonsense about President Obama and Mitt Romney today. They’re the same, so why bother, etc… Unlike any other time in history, a few progressive voices can have significant influence over millions of progressive activists and voters with a single blog post or commentary, and when they crap all over the choices on the table they can indeed undermine the very ideals for which they claim to fight.
By the way, the same progressives who market in this ambivalence will also laugh off my Gore/Bush/Nader example and suggest with steaming buckets of snark that it’s quaint and flawed. If that’s the case, tell us again how Gore was “the lesser of two evils” to be somehow equated at all with Bush, and tell us again how our votes for Nader made a positive difference in either the course of national events or the implementation of progressive policy.
It’s an empirical fact that, for all of its flaws, the Democratic Party platform is almost entirely in line with progressive values. Generally speaking, the Democratic Party and its slate of candidates stand for reproductive rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, scientific advancement, progressive taxation and an empowered middle class. It stands against the climate crisis; it stands against unnecessary wars; and it stands against unregulated corporate power. It stands for universal healthcare, a social safety net and the rights of the American worker. Yes, it also has its share of corruption, disorganization and miscellaneous crapola. But in terms of a policy agenda, this party is not “less evil” — it’s the best and most realistic platform progressives can hope for at this point. It goes without saying the Republican Party, on the other hand, has nothing in common with progressivism. And left-leaning third parties, while perhaps useful for introducing new ideas, are unelectable on the national level (the electoral college discourages third party presidential candidates).
Progressives don’t have to be party shills or apologists to recognize that by voting and activating for Democrats, progressive values have the best chance of being codified into law. No, it doesn’t help the progressive cause to stay home and let Republicans win. And no, it doesn’t help the progressive cause to suggest the whole system needs to be dismantled and therefore we have to make electoral choices that facilitate the destruction and reconstruction of the American system. Anyone who tells you that it’s possible to destroy a 225-year-old system without significant bloodshed and without the possibility of a completely anti-progressive form of government filling the vacuum is being totally disingenuous.
The rational and realistic way to reshape the system without triggering widespread awfulness is to change the system from within while relying upon a very long-term strategy — almost painfully long-term. Instead of offering up futile primary challengers to presidents and senators, progressives would do well to start at the school board level and work upwards, and to change minds door-to-door. By influencing and convincing voters on the ground, it becomes politically safer for state and national leaders to champion a progressive policy agenda. Over time, the system will change, and without kneejerk self-defeating Nader-style tangents and misadventures.
It’s unpopular to write this but, overall, the two party system works here, at least in terms of successfully preserving one form of government and subsequently maintaining continuity and consistency in a geographically massive representative democracy. Compare our history with the much smaller, multi-party nations of Europe. Since World War II, Italy has endured 61 different governments. This is partly due to an abundance of political diversity from one leader to the next, as well as a lack of a clear governing mandate.
I’m old enough to remember when Ross Perot challenged the two party system in 1992. With the popular vote split three ways, President Clinton only attained 43 percent of the popular vote, so he was initially crippled without a clear governing mandate and very little political capital with congressional Democrats. His legislative agenda failed and Republicans, under Newt Gingrich, took over Congress in 1994. Now imagine a president winning with only 15 percent of the vote, and the rest of the votes divided between an array of other candidates. Imagine on top of that staggering congressional gridlock with a Senate and House divided between eight or nine parties instead of just the two.
While it’s an entertaining endeavor to occasionally fantasize what it might be like if we had a different electoral system and a different Constitution, we live in the real world, and we have what we have. Even with its historical ugliness, it has endured among a roster of modern nations that have been routinely upended in periods of turmoil.
For a progressive champion to suggest that the binary system is awful only tends to breed disillusionment among the left, especially when it comes from a progressive champion who has developed a stellar reputation and a significantly large following — ironically, in most cases, by pushing a hard-left agenda. In other words, it’s irresponsible to make your bones by playing the left/right game and then to suddenly throw up your hands and say it’s all a sham as soon as we reach a moment when the nation appears to be moving slowly leftward following 30 years of right-wing Reaganomics. Consequently, progressive voters are led to the frustrated conclusion that everything and everyone sucks so we might as well engage in a futile, destructive protest vote or, worse, stay at home on election day.
It’s more responsible, however, to endeavor to influence the party that’s closer to progressivism and attempt to lobby that institution in ways that don’t undermine the broader progressive effort. Unless, of course, you’re a nihilist, in which case, good luck with that. Yes, it’s OK to support the Democratic Party if it means moving the nation in a more leftward direction. It’s not OK, however, to oppose the Democratic Party out of some kind of smug obstinance against being seen as someone prone to systemic allegiance.
Or to paraphrase a line from a famously Democratic movie, you can’t save the village by burning it to the ground. If progressives are smart about this election and future elections, they will enjoy a greater influence in the system. If they’re idiots about it, they’ll walk away from the table, burn down the village and lose every time.
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