This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Back when I was a much younger man, I worked briefly for a Democratic member of Congress from my home state. (This was when West Virginia still had Democratic members of Congress.) I performed the sorts of duties still executed by eager young things today, unglamorous tasks but nevertheless important ones to the good taxpaying people back home: answering constituent mail, helping widows get their husbands’ black-lung benefits and so on.
One morning, a union man from my hometown called the office. There was a painting job being done at a Department of Energy facility somewhere in the district. The company that won the contract to do the painting, my union man explained, was trying to pay less than the “prevailing wage,” the typical hourly wage for the area as determined by the government. In fact, considerably less—enough that these workers were going to feel it. Could I help? I had no idea what to do. But the labor leader said he had a contact at the Department of Labor who might be of use.
This was in 1984—in other words, Ronald Reagan’s Department of Labor. So it was with considerable trepidation that I began punching in the phone number, but it turned out that my union man did not steer me wrong. The fellow I spoke with was a Carter holdover who actually believed in enforcing labor law. I explained the situation. Though the conversation was long ago, I do remember him whispering to me that not everyone recently installed in the nearby cubicles shared his old-fashioned views, and I was lucky I’d found him. He said he’d hop right on it, and a couple days later, my union man called back to say all was well and thank me.
When we on the broad liberal-left have one of our quadrennial debates about whether to support the sellout Democratic presidential nominee or cast a “strategic” vote of protest for a Green or other third-party candidate, the debate is almost entirely about the personal and political merits and demerits of the two individuals. And the two usual tentpoles of the conversation are that the putative nominee is a timorous corporate hack who won’t come anywhere near bringing about the needed fundamental change, and that, yes, the nominee may well be that, but he or she is in numerous ways far better than the Republican alternative and thus the “lesser of two evils,” in the argot.
More serious debates will sometimes compare the positions and platforms of the Democrat and the left alternative. But in my experience, these debates also tend to get personal pretty quickly: “I just can’t stand Al Gore,” and so on. We’re human beings, after all, and it’s understandable to feel that you have to be able to at least tolerate the sight of this person you’re going to be exposed to on a daily basis for the next four to eight years.
But it’s not a good way to think about lesser-evilism. Yes, the candidates’ platform positions tell us certain things about their political imagination, their vision of a just society and, more prosaically, which wealthy interests they’re unwilling to risk offending. So they do count for something.
But the right way to think about one’s vote for president is to think about the presidency not as a person, but as a thing—a huge, sprawling, complex, cumbrous, many-tentacled thing. The executive branch is a corporation. Or, if it makes you feel better, a huge nonprofit. It’s thousands of people doing thousands of things: big things, like setting Middle East policy, and small things, like making sure a few painters in central West Virginia are getting a fair wage for federal contract work.
And on this score, the differences between the two major parties are vaster than vast. This maybe didn’t used to be so, back when there were actual moderate Republicans. But now? With the Republican Party controlled by the radical right, a Republican presidency doesn’t mean merely that you’re going to have to see that distasteful reactionary with the cracker-ish accent on your TV screen for the next few years. It means that thousands of people are going to be making many thousands of deeply reactionary decisions, across all federal agencies and departments. This stuff doesn’t make the front pages. It rarely makes the news at all. But it goes on, and it affects all of us every day: decisions about civil-rights and environmental enforcement, about the protection of public lands, about the ethical questions raised in scientific research, about the safety of consumer products (and now financial instruments, thanks to Elizabeth Warren), about which polluting or swindling corporations to investigate and with how much zeal… You get the picture.
When you think of the presidency in these terms, Hillary Clinton’s various and real ideological impurities become less central, and the idea that the executive branch will be staffed either by people who think they ought to carry out the mission of the agency they work for, or by people who are scheming to subvert that mission, becomes pivotal. And this is why I say that no matter who the candidate is—no matter how deeply in hock to Wall Street, no matter how tepid her (ahem) inequality platform—the responsible person of the left must vote for the Democrat. Not strategically, but on principle. And not sometimes, or only in the states where it might truly matter. Everywhere, and every time.
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Let’s drill down now into a little more detail. Do you remember the US Attorneys scandal under George W. Bush? On December 7, 2006, Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s attorney general, fired seven US Attorneys in a single day. All had been appointed by Bush but were later found to be ideologically deficient in one way or another by the White House political operation. The main issue? The White House had received complaints from its grassroots people in several of these states that the prosecutors had failed to pursue—guess what?—“voter fraud” allegations. Bush himself brought this to Gonzales’s attention in the fall of 2006, and within a couple of months, the ax of Justice smote these seven heads.
It was a huge scandal—one that dragged on for months and led to several firings and resignations and a series of disquieting revelations. Among the more disquieting was the fact that a number of Justice Department lawyers had received their law degrees from Christian universities. The poster child here was a woman named Monica Goodling, who helped plan the firings. She began her service to Bush as an opposition researcher in the 2000 campaign. And she’d collected her legal sheepskin from Pat Robertson’s Regent University.
A handful of others, it turned out, had graduated from Regent and other conservative Christian law schools, like Ave Maria (yes, that’s a real thing). So think about that in prospective terms. A Republican president is elected. The Department of Justice becomes populated by a smattering of Ivy Leaguers—they’ll still do that, for purposes of cred—but also by dozens of people whose legal education was framed by conservative Christian doctrine. What decisions will they make? What cases will they pursue—and not pursue? I submit to you that a pretty big hint is contained in the fact that the main transgression of the Bush US Attorneys was their failure to probe “voter fraud.”
This is the reality across the issues spectrum. Thirty or forty years ago, the only people who wanted to go into government service were basically liberal. Many were Republicans, but they believed in government doing something.
But now that has changed utterly. The conservative infrastructure, as we call it—that sweaty congeries of think tanks and institutes financed by people like the Koch brothers—spends millions of dollars a year training young conservatives for government… well, it’s not quite accurate to say “service,” is it? They are taught to distrust government (not that they didn’t before) and to go work in Republican campaigns, thence to win appointments to positions at Justice or the EPA or the Department of the Interior or the FCC (care about net neutrality, do you?) or what have you, where they are coached by the higher-up political appointees in the art of not doing what they are theoretically, and indeed legally, there to do.
This is what you’re helping unleash on this country with your “protest vote.” And something else I’ve noticed over the years: protest votes tend to be cast by people who don’t have much skin in the game when it comes to the direct delivery of government services. That is, their own day-to-day lives won’t really be affected much by which party controls the White House. But most people who are direct beneficiaries of government programs and services can’t afford the luxury of being protest voters. Yes, millions of them vote Republican, because their guns (or whatever) are more important to them than their pay packet. But most poorer people still vote Democratic, and I can’t imagine that you could have gone to, say, the corner of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue in early November of 2000 and found many Ralph Nader voters.
In other words, there are Americans, many millions of them, for whom a Democratic presidency, even a deeply flawed one, is personally important. Yes, Obamacare wasn’t all that it should have been. But yes, it has insured more than 6 million Americans with Medicaid expansion. With a Republican president and Republican majorities in Congress, they’re out of luck. Those are real people, and their fate alone seals the argument for me.
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I know all the counterarguments, and a lot of them are spot-on. They were best expressed by Adolph Reed Jr. in the March 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, though Reed has been making such arguments for a long time. He argues, correctly, that the only real long-term answer to getting better Democratic presidential candidates is a reinvigorated labor movement. And, of course, he isn’t wrong at all that today’s Democratic Party is too corporatized.
So how to fix these problems? Build a labor movement. Elect more Sherrod Browns, where possible. Apply whatever pressure you possibly can to Democrats to make them tackle issues like inequality more directly. There are ways. But casting a protest vote is probably the single least effective way to nudge Democrats to the left. Politicians usually respond to people who vote for them, not against them. If a Democratic member of Congress or presidential candidate wins office over the conspicuous protests of voters on the left, he or she will ignore those voters completely once in office. This is how they think. So, if anything, protest votes have the effect of nudging Democrats to the right!
This is an age-old debate, of course, in the pages of The Nation, which has often urged its readers to cast such protest votes. And more: back in 1956, the magazine editorialized in favor of a vote for Adlai Stevenson and then invited its readers to consider four options, with contributors making the case for Dwight Eisenhower (“constructive moderation”), Stevenson (“He stood his ground to ‘talk sense’ to the American people at a time when hysteria was so rampant”), the socialist alternatives (“To choose between Republican X and Democrat Y is merely to choose which particular representative of the capitalist class will help make the laws in the interest of that class”) and, finally, not voting at all.
This last entry was the most interesting, authored as it was by W.E.B. Du Bois. He scorned Eisenhower for “carrying on the greatest preparation for war in the history of mankind,” and Stevenson for “surrender[ing] all party differences in foreign affairs.” And he found Stevenson, accurately, to be not so great on civil rights. But the magazine itself said to vote Stevenson.
Digging back even further, we find that no less an eminence than the founding grandfather of this magazine has my back on this question. The year was 1864—an election year—and the venue was a January meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. A debate ensued as to whether Abraham Lincoln was doing enough for the cause of freedom. Wendell Phillips, a lawyer and crusading abolitionist, introduced a resolution that criticized the Lincoln administration for being “ready to sacrifice the interest and honor of the North to secure a sham peace…leaving the freedmen and the Southern States under the control of the late slaveholders.”
But William Lloyd Garrison stepped forward and defended Lincoln: “The President must be judged by his possibilities, rather than by our wishes or by the highest abstract moral standard. In my judgment the re-election of Abraham Lincoln…would be the safest and wisest course.” Garrison—whose son, ironically, was named Wendell Phillips Garrison, in honor of his adversary that day—lost the argument, much as I imagine I’m probably not making any headway with many of you. Phillips’s resolution passed. But Garrison stuck to his guns, delivering a short but powerful pro-Lincoln speech that May that is a textbook defense of lesser-evil incrementalism:
When I remember how nearly a majority, even at this hour, is the seditious element of the North, and then remember that Abraham Lincoln has struck the chains from the limbs of more than three millions of slaves; that he has expressed his earnest desire for the total abolition of slavery; that he has implored the Border States to get rid of it; that he has recognized the manhood and citizenship of the colored population of our country; that he has armed upwards of a hundred thousand of them, and recognized them as soldiers under the flag; when I remember that this Administration has recognized the independence of Liberia and Haiti; when I remember that it has struck a death blow at the foreign slave trade by granting the right of search; when I remember that we have now nearly reached the culmination of our great struggle for the suppression of the rebellion and its cause, I do not feel disposed, for one, to take this occasion, or any occasion, to say anything very harshly against Abraham Lincoln.
Garrison accepts here that Lincoln had enemies—powerful, wealthy, deeply reactionary enemies. So does Barack Obama, and so does Hillary Clinton. Sure, I wish both were more courageous. But both are also circumscribed by financial, institutional and structural forces that are far more powerful than their own personal will or lack thereof.
That’s something that hasn’t changed since Lincoln’s day. But something else has changed: the way the entire machinery of government will be redirected toward reactionary purposes if a Republican wins the White House. The other side already has Congress (perhaps for the foreseeable future). And it has the Supreme Court, although this raises another argument, and a powerful one: If the next president serves from 2017 to 2025 (two terms), she or he will quite possibly name four new justices to the Court. In other words, a Democratic president can flip the Court to a liberal majority that would uphold and reinstate key portions of the Voting Rights Act, keep Roe v. Wade the law of the land, undo Citizens United and associated rulings, reverse the Hobby Lobby decision, countermand the Roberts Court’s odious school-resegregation decision of 2007, and who knows what else. And that liberal majority, if the president chooses well, could stay in place for thirty years.
There are many ways to protest in this country. People should pursue them all with zeal—except in the presidential voting booth. No Democratic president is ever going to be everything one wants. But too many millions of Americans need the many-tentacled presidency to be working for them rather than against them.