So it’s beginning already.
It was probably inevitable, given widespread left-wing disappointment with Obama and longstanding reservations about Hillary Clinton, that we’d see another outbreak of electoral nihilism: the conviction that it doesn’t really matter which of the two parties holds the presidency. This myth has tempted radicals for a long time. In 1960, back when Commentary was still a liberal magazine, Dwight McDonald took to its pages to declare the outcome of the Nixon/Kennedy election a matter of indifference, as “the effect of one as against another built-up-torn-down candidate is in the realm of metaphysics and so of little interest to sensible people.” Fourteen years ago, this belief led otherwise smart people to declare that there was no meaningful difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
The shock of the Bush presidency cured this delusion, for a while—there was remarkable acceptance of John Kerry in 2004, despite his nakedly militaristic convention, and progressives twice mobilized for Obama. Yet here, with the 2016 primaries not yet begun, comes an essay on the cover of Harper’s Magazine arguing that liberals are too focused on winning elections for Democrats.
“Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection,” writes Adolph Reed, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist, in “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals.” He continues, “For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running…. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the ‘pivotal’ Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was last time.”
Reed has been making a version of this argument for many years in many different elections. In 2000, he voted for Nader and dismissed the importance of the Bush vs. Gore election. During the primary in 2007, he wrote a column titled “Sitting This One Out,” saying, “This time, I’m not going to acquiesce in the fiction that the Presidential charade has any credibility whatsoever.” But the placement of this essay on the cover of Harper’s, and the enthusiastic reception it’s been given by people like Bill Moyers, suggests that the case has renewed resonance.