Friday, July 25, 2008

Why I Will (Probably) Vote for Ralph Nader (Again)

This year, as in years past, the Nader campaign counsels “voting one’s conscience” (or sometimes “one’s values”). Cynthia McKinney, this year’s Green Party candidate, has said the same. I will probably vote for one or the other of them – most likely Nader. But I won’t be voting my conscience. I’ll be doing what nearly everyone else does in our political system – voting for the lesser evil. However, unlike many others, I won’t be voting for the lesser evil because I want my candidate to win; that is a plain impossibility. Neither will I be voting for Nader or McKinney because Barack Obama doesn’t pass some “tolerable lesser evil” threshold; though I must say that, with each passing day, he increasingly falls short of the mark. Consider just his plan to shift quagmires, from Iraq to Afghanistan, in the so-called War on Terror. That would be reason enough to vote against him, were he not running against someone much worse. Nader’s and McKinney’s politics are better, vastly better, than Obama’s. In the end, that’s why I probably will vote for one or the other. However, the sorry fact is that having better politics is not a compelling, principled reason to vote for one or the other of them, though, in some cases, it can be a good enough reason. Let me explain.

First, though, a comment on “voting one’s conscience.” Measured against any plausible normative theory of democratic institutions, or even in comparison with other so-called democracies, American institutions fail miserably in this respect: they deny many (perhaps most) citizens the opportunity to vote anything like “their conscience” – in other words, to register even some pale approximation of their real preferences through electoral processes. The higher the level of the office in contention, the more this is so, but the problem doesn’t just afflict the federal and state governments; it is evident at regional and municipal levels as well.

The situation is worse here than elsewhere for two reasons: first, because it is more difficult than elsewhere for choices reflecting real preferences to be represented; and, second, because most of our elections are not genuinely competitive. It is all but impossible for many (perhaps most) voters’ real preferences to be represented because we have an entrenched duopolistic party system that makes it so – mainly, but not only, by making ballot access difficult for all but Democrats and Republicans. The reason why many, indeed most, of our elections are not competitive is similarly the duopoly’s fault: thanks to their gerrymandering electoral districts, the outcomes of most legislative contests are known in advance. Then, in the case of presidential elections, there is the problem of the electoral college – dividing the country up into red and blue states. [To repeat a complaint I’ve voiced several times before: how is it that the more heinous party gets the color red!] Of course, the political coloration of an electoral district or of a state can change over time. We are very likely to find, this year, that much has changed since 2004 and even since 2006. But in the weeks leading up to an election, very little changes. Reasonably informed people in most, but not all, electoral districts, will know, before they vote, who the winner will be – because the parties will have chosen their voters, rather than vice versa. More importantly, voters in most states will know in advance which presidential candidate will get their state’s electoral votes. Needless to say, the corporate media is utterly complicitous in these undemocratic machinations.

Foreclosing all but Republican and Democratic voices forces a particularly virulent form of lesser evilism upon us. It would be different if we had run-off elections, instant or otherwise, proportional representation, or even fusion. But except for fusion in a handful of states, we have none of that – and, in any case, fusion seldom addresses the problem in presidential or state-wide electoral contests. Therefore, for the most part, we can only vote for or against Democrats or Republicans on the grounds that one will be less bad than the other. In almost all cases, the Democrat, no matter how awful, will be the lesser evil.

* *

Why bother to vote, if the outcome is already determined? There are reasons. Voting has an expressive dimension, irrespective of its effect on outcomes. This can be valuable for more than just the psychological equanimity of voters. Protest votes can be useful – not for picking winners, but for affecting what the winners will say to gain office and even what they will do once they are in office. There can also be some point in putting up a good fight, especially if you believe that circumstances are changing so that the party sure to lose today will become a serious contender tomorrow. For example, it is widely believed that although Texas is still a safe Republican state in 2008, Democrats will have a chance there in 2012. If that’s true (or even if it is only believed to be true), Texas Democrats, though sure losers in the contest this year for their state’s electoral votes, have a reason to make as good a showing as possible for Obama – for the sake of elections to come.

It’s against this background that one must decide how to vote. A few people probably will be able to “vote their conscience.” Many more of them will be Democrats than Republicans. Could John McCain be anybody’s real preference? Perhaps Joe Lieberman’s and the neo-cons. But people who think like they do are hardly worth engaging – unlike people who are disposed to vote for McCain because they think he is the lesser evil. Some of those people, this year, are racists, but the majority are not moral or intellectual reprobates – they’re just misinformed and/or obviously wrong. Obama’s case is different. There is a kind of liberal (I use the term pejoratively) for whom he evidently is a close approximation of the ideal. Then there are others, quite a few it seems, whom he’s adept at fooling into voting for him, and not just against McCain. It is urgent that those people be engaged too – in order that the Obama presidency will be as good as it can be (which will probably not be very good at all).

* *

What then are we on the left who are unable “to vote our conscience” to do? The default answer, of course, is to vote for the lesser evil, Obama. But it isn’t always quite so simple.

One relevant factor is how “safe” one’s state is. Those of us who live in safe states have less reason to vote for Obama than those who live in “battleground” states. But the implications are not always clear cut: first, because nobody really knows how one’s own state will go; and then because, even in battleground states, abject lesser evilism isn’t necessarily the best strategy. Voters, especially progressive voters, can be too clever by half. Had progressives voted less strategically in 2000, the Greens would have probably gotten what they were after – enough of the popular vote to assure future ballot access and public funding. Then, even with Al Gore’s Democrats letting George Bush steal the election, we’d all be better off today. Had voters voted less strategically in the 2004 Democratic primaries, perhaps the Democrats would have fielded a better candidate than John Kerry. Then maybe Bush and Cheney would not have been quite so able to steal that election too. [Arguably, they stole the 2004 election “fair and square” (that is, within the limits of “normal” chicanery); in 2000, with a little help from their friends among the Supremes, they just plain stole it.] So far, strategic hyper-shrewdness does not seem to have been a factor in Obama’s successes. But that was then. Now there is a looming strategic choice for voters who are to Obama’s left and who are tempted by one or the other of the more progressive candidates in the race. Most likely, many of them will again be too clever by half.

Voters who can indeed “vote their conscience” by voting for Nader or McKinney will have an easier time of it than I will. As I said, I’ll probably vote for Nader even so. To the extent that I’m “undecided,” it’s more between him and McKinney than between one or the other of them and Obama. Only if my state, Maryland, suddenly becomes unsafe would I consider voting for Barack Obama.

I’d like to vote for Cynthia McKinney mainly because she has all the right enemies. Also, for those who care – as I do, somewhat – she’s (unambiguously) African American, female, and outspoken. But, lets face it, the more she says, the clearer it becomes that she won’t do the progressive cause well. She’s too much of a flake. Her running mate, hip hopper Rosa Clemente is even worse. [Am I the only one who finds it remarkable that, this year, the Green Party is not all that interested in green causes? It is more interested, it seems, in becoming what the Rainbow Coalition, under Jesse Jackson’s leadership, might have been; a voice for the excluded. But, for that, it would need an articulate and charismatic leader, like Jesse Jackson and unlike Cynthia McKinney or Rosa Clemente.]

Nader is, by far, the more forceful and articulate proponent of progressive ideas. I wish he were running as a Green, as he did in 2000. Then there’d be a “party building” reason to vote for him. But I have no problem with making him my lesser evil; and not just because he too has all the right (liberal Democratic) enemies. [I would have had no problem even with the more progressive of the “electable” Democratic contenders for the nomination, John Edwards or even Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, though their views are far to the right of Nader’s. My lesser evil standards are not very high!] Nader is good; but his views don’t represent my “conscience.” They are, so to speak, neo-New Deal Democratic. As Democrats should (but don’t), Nader seeks left alternatives within capitalism. That makes his positions infinitely better than Obama’s. But they don’t address the “conscience” or “values” of anyone who, like me, thinks that capitalism itself, not just inordinate corporate power, is the problem.

Still, there is something to be said for casting a protest vote, especially from within a safe state. There is probably no defensible principle that mandates it. But my intuitions tell me that, all things considered, I can do more good voting for Nader than by adding to Obama’s (likely) “mandate.”

It would probably be better were the progressive protest vote not split. But the situation may not be as bad as it appears. Despite his politics, Nader has never done well among voters “of color.” Perhaps McKinney, aided by Clemente, can make some inroads there. The more serious problem, in communities of color and in the constituencies that Nader has been successful in reaching, is Obamamania. It is likely to make both campaigns more than usually futile. But both Nader and the Greens are determined to push forward; and the quixotic aspect of their efforts is no reason to gainsay their determination.

One further point bears mention. Were the Democrats at least nominally better than they are – were they more like the pre-Blair Labour Party in Britain or like almost any European Social Democratic Party – there’d be a reason to be loyal to the party even for people in “safe” districts. It would be a way to voice solidarity with a certain (largely abandoned) militant tradition and its values. I’m not sure how compelling such a reason would be (it would depend on the circumstances), but it would be a relevant consideration. However, Obama is running on the ticket of a party that has almost nothing in its past that is even remotely estimable, except that it has been reliably the lesser evil. Yes, for a few years in the mid-30s, after popular pressure forced the New Deal to take off and before the enemies of progress – and then World War II -- succeeded in stalling it in its tracks, the Democrats were, for the most part, a force for good. But that was little enough and long enough ago not even to count as a relevant, much less a compelling reason to be loyal to the party of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and, worst of all, Bill Clinton. Except for Carter who, out of office, has shown an unseemly tendency to tell the truth (most recently about Israel/Palestine), these are the Democrats’ role models. They are a truly villainous lot who offer nothing worth emulating. For them, as for Obama, the best that can be said is that the alternatives to them that our very undemocratic institutions permitted were even worse.

1 comment:

Chris H. said...

Will Obama's VP choice sway you much at this point?

I used Engaging Political Philosophy from Hobbes to Rawls this past semester while teaching Modern. It was very helpful for the students.