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Progressives Stop Obama from “Going to China”: A Thought Experiment

Could progressives have changed these dim prospects by using their vote more effectively?

Hager suggests the creation of a single-issue voting bloc to get rid of money in elections and dismantle the one-party electoral system.

In what remains of the safety of our own minds in the Obama era of extrajudicial assassination and NDAA detention, every citizen can try the following experiment.

The Query

Wall Street’s “Nixon-goes-to-China” candidate was, at the margin, re-elected by voters who would oppose nearly everything Obama does, if done by Republicans.

An anti-communist zealot thawed the cold war by going to China; it took Clinton to weaken his party’s union base by financializing and globalizing the US economy. It will take Obama to finish off the New Deal with an unpopular dismantling of Social Security. Obama pays lip-service to the boundaries by which liberals define their lesser of two evils (LOTE). But Obama himself agrees with the Reagan Republican who said: “I see Obama as actually being on the center-right.”

The principal benefit Obama’s second term holds for progressives is their avoidance of right-wing triumphalism for four years. Possible Supreme Court appointments during Obama’s second-term may or may not bring joy to liberals. But progressive and liberal majorities that currently exist on any given issue remain unrepresented. Policies causing inequality will almost certainly grow worse.

Could progressives have changed this dim prospect by using their vote more effectively?


Given a duopoly of two parties that both serve big political investors and ignore the wishes of their voters, the thought experiment is:

What if progressives and others forming the incipient movement Chris Hedges describes as those “who have as deep a revulsion for Democrats as they do for Republicans,” had in 2012 organized themselves into a small but decisive swing voting bloc to remove the impediment to majority rule – money in politics?

The US first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system rewards swing voting as much as it punishes third parties. FPTP third-party voting tends toward futility, splitting the base of the least disfavored (LOTE) party. To win, a third party must capture at least one-third of the vote, enough to make primary challenge to that party a preferable strategy.

Third-party voters and non-voters make a one-vote impact by subtracting a vote from the party whose “base” they abandon. But FPTP voters willing to swing between the two parties double their power. Subtracting a vote from one party and adding it to the other makes a two-vote impact on the victory margin. Unorganized independents, mainly influenced by expensive marketing strategies, currently occupy this powerful position.

Since attracting a swing voter is twice as valuable to a party as retaining a “base” voter, FPTP tends to divide voters between centrist parties that contest for swing votes. FPTP elections therefore tend also to produce narrow margins of victory.

An FPTP voting system operated by two corrupt parties revolves around a “center” where the big money falls because the policies actually implemented by both parties in exchange for that money overlap there. What the two corrupt parties raise by selling this “centrist” policy is spent to win independent voters. Meanwhile they distract their “base” voters with theatrics and deadlock.

Money is not the only way to reach swing voters. Knowledgeable voters freed of loyalty to partisan theatrics and united as an organized single issue voting (SIV) bloc could define a new center where the money does not fall and where voters’ views are not forged by paid propaganda. Such an organized bloc of progressive SIV voters could have threatened Obama’s defeat by pledging to swing to his nearest opponent, if necessary, rather than accept the other alternatives of casting 1) a hopeful but later regretted LOTE vote for an Obama, 2) a futile vote for a third party, or 3) either boycotting in protest or ignoring the election “to organize around their causes.”

A progressive SIV bloc having sufficient numbers and willing to take such responsibility could have bargained for Obama to change the corrupt system that determines his appointments and other uses of power. Such an SIV bloc might have obtained a firm promise – such as a Supreme Court justice committed to overturning the Court’s jurisprudence of plutocracy – or a specific concrete action prior to the election, such as supporting comprehensive legislation to get money out of politics.

Although in the world of professional activism, the “campaign finance” issue may inhabit its own isolated fund-raising silo, in fact money in politics underlies all dysfunctional policies and will remain the single paramount obstacle to effective change of those policies until it is eliminated. Inequality and jobs, mortgage and finance, climate, environment, energy, taxes, trade and immigration, foreign policy, war, social security, health industry, prison industry, agribusiness, telecoms, education and every other aspect of American life, where potential profit touches public policy, is rigged against citizens and consumers by the universal spoils system of money in politics that turns every policy against the public interest for the profit of the private interests who pay. Re-enfranchisement of the electorate by outlawing private interest money is the common thread uniting all proponents of progressive change. It is therefore the appropriate first goal of an effective non-partisan SIV movement.

The Numbers

Swinging the 2012 popular vote would have required a vote swing of 2.5 million votes, or 1.93 percent of the 51.02 percent vote for Obama. About one in 50 of these Obama voters could have swung the election if the 1.7 percent of voters who voted third-party had instead chosen SIV. The numbers required to swing the 2012 election could have been smaller still had the many Obama 2008 voters who stayed home instead chosen SIV.

In 2012 voter turnout slipped 3.4 percent (2.3 million fewer voters) from the 57 percent of 2008, while Obama’s total vote dropped 3.6 million. Since Romney gained about a one-million-vote bump over McCain’s total, while third parties gained .3 million, 3.3 percent (2.3 million) of Obama’s 2008 voters stayed home. These figures double if 2012’s nine million newly eligible voters turned out at the average rate. Obama buyers’ remorse thus triples the SIV pool for our thought experiment. This historic desertion of a sitting president also suggests how weakly committed to Obama many troubled LOTE voters at the margin must have been who reported, prior to the election, they “can’t say [they] will vote [for Obama] with any happiness.”

Experienced canvassers know that many eligible non-voters (95 million in 2012) refuse to take part in elections due to their principled objection to a system driven by money. Ten percent of these alienated but eligible non-voters, by considering the effective SIV use of their vote in order to abolish the corrupt system many eschew, would again double the pool of potential SIV voters for this thought experiment. Moreover, polling data showed a much closer race for much of the final month, before Obama’s late spending and air war advantage ultimately delivered a wider margin of victory. During this period when the election appeared more of a toss-up, a smaller percentage of SIV voters could have threatened a successful swing against the incumbent.

An effective progressive organizing effort united in support of an SIV strategy could surely have mustered the needed 1 percent to 2 percent (depending on the ratio of LOTE voters) of the 220 million eligible voters from among LOTE, third party, and the “boycott,” “pursue other causes” and principled non-voters, including especially the remorseful 2008 Obama voters.

If SIV organizing efforts were targeted at battleground states, then the number required to swing the election would be lower still. Rather than 2.5 million nationwide, switching less than 5 percent of that amount, 150,000 votes in five states, would have defeated Obama. Application of Victory Lab GOTV techniques would make this focused SIV strategy even more plausible.

Had SIV voters defeated Obama as described in this thought experiment, the election would have been determined by the principle that incumbents in a systemically corrupted democracy who do not prioritize reforming that system should lose their job. Instead it was determined by the usual mix of money, propaganda, outdated partisan loyalties, LOTE voting, voter alienation, and failure by opponents of this corrupt system to unite for restoring the consent of the governed, not money, as the basis for governance.

In the $6 billion 2012 elections, among Senate incumbents – who on average out-raised their closest challenger by $7.02 million to $1.69 million for a 316-percent advantage – 95.2 percent who ran won re-election; for incumbent representatives – who on average out-raised their closest challenger by $1,732,000 to $319,000 for a 443-percent advantage – 91.2 percent who ran for office won re-election. More than nine times out of ten, partisan voting tends to return incumbents. Incumbents raise more money because they are better-placed to sell out the public’s interest. Would the majority not be better-served by an SIV voting strategy that systematically defeated (unless they prioritized changing the corrupt system that empowers them) those candidates who most excel at selling out the public’s interest?

The Lost Benefits

Progressives and others who pledged to deny Obama a second term if he failed to deliver on their remedy for political corruption would now have a number of accomplishments worth considering, even had Obama – rather than take the steps requested to restore democracy against the interests of his big funders – forced SIV voters to deliver on their threat.

First, although a center-right to far-right neoliberal opportunist named Romney (R) rather than Obama (D) would be celebrating his inauguration, right-wing supporters of Romney could not feel much sense of triumph. It would be clear that progressive voters provided the margin of victory that installed their candidate, because SIV voters would have transparently pledged their vote in an online database in numbers proving that they swung the election. It would be just as clear that the same SIV voting used to defeat the uncooperative 2012 incumbent could be even more easily used to eject a similarly uncooperative Republican incumbent in 2016.

Partisan Democrats would, of course, bitterly blame progressives for every authoritarian and neoliberal Romney policy on which they are currently giving Obama a pass to “go to China” for positions on which they would have vocally confronted Romney. These partisans would also insist on their own two-party habit as the only possible reality, refusing to accept the fundamental principle that an SIV vote for Romney was merely the means to eject an incumbent proven unworthy, and in no way an endorsement of his closest challenger.

The partisan attack would be exponentially greater than the “tremendous vitriol” inspired by Matt Stoller for merely stating the reasons progressives should vote against Obama, noting Glen Ford’s view that rather than LOTE, Obama is actually the “more effective evil.” Without elaborating a thought experiment about the power and feasibility of an organized SIV strategy, as presented here, Stoller nevertheless envisions “power in resistance.” The SIV strategy would ultimately succeed to the extent that its publicly claimed and demonstrated power to defeat an incumbent were used prior to the next election to both force real political gains, and attract further pledges from voters who seek such empowerment, while SIV voters at the same time answered the Democrats’ vitriol. Paradoxically, the greater the partisan invective, the more power and independent legitimacy would be conferred on SIV voters, and the less triumph on the right.

Second, after Obama’s first term made what Thomas Frank labeled their “futility and irrelevance” clear to progressives, they cannot rationally expect to have any greater influence on Obama’s actions (as distinguished from his words) in his lame-duck term. Any minor influence at all over Romney’s typically vacillating views about money in politics, from fear that SIV voters could furnish his 2016 margin of loss, would have been preferable to their current total absence of leverage on Obama.

A first-term incumbent is more likely to “go to China” on the money issue, if so required to win a second term, than would a lame-duck Obama be to comply with demands that would betray his own big funders and likely future benefactors. Partisan Democratic voters see a difference between the two parties because they do not prioritize the paramount issue of erosion of democracy by money in politics. SIV voters who see beyond the partisan game to the corrupt system it sustains can be far more effective.

Third, incumbents might learn that they must deliver significant action on money in politics before the 2014 midterms if they intend to keep their seats with the help of pledged SIV voters. SIV also works for Congressmembers, though not as effectively as for the presidency or Senate. Gerrymandering of congressional districts artificially enlarges victory margins despite the razor-thin division of the national congressional vote. In 2012, Democrats won the overall vote in congressional races by about 1 percent. But the Republicans’ 2010 gerrymander enabled them to preserve a 33-seat House majority.

That 2010 gerrymander will, for the rest of this decade, provide the SIV strategy a far more congenial opportunity for reforming the corrupted electoral system than could any partisan-Democrat voting strategy. Polls show that fewer Republican than Democratic voters respond to the issue of money in politics. But gerrymandered Republican districts have tighter victory margins, while they shunt Democrats into fewer districts with wider margins. Therefore fewer Republicans will be needed as SIV voters in order to swing elections in Republican districts with tight gerrymandered margins. Meanwhile Democrats will require an electoral landslide to overcome their gerrymandered disadvantage, win the House, and govern.

Fourth, the SIV strategy requires pledged voters from both parties. Polls show that voters identified with the tea party share with progressives intense opposition to the interaction between big government and big business. The right focuses concern on the role of big government while the left focuses on the role of big business. But both object to the bribery/extortion process of influence-peddling achieved by the two-way flow of political money and influence from and to a controlling elite.

Satisfying these polarized factions’ common concern with public corruption requires stopping the flow of interested money into politics. By demonstrating their power and willingness to defeat a Democrat for this principle, progressives could have initiated some of the trans-partisan trust essential if these two opposed partisan factions are to join in reaching the one paramount goal they share. So long as activists on opposite ends of the issues spectrum remain divided on this fundamental obstacle to democracy, they will both remain conquered by the two corrupt centrist parties which serve neither base. United to eliminate money from politics, they can restore democracy as a means for resolving their policy differences. Research shows that addressing those differences one issue at a time involves far less partisan polarization than when those issues are aggregated, as parties do.

SIV, even more than Ralph Nader’s third party strategy, would incense those for whom their partisanship is more important than rescuing democracy from both parties. But the ineffective partisans of a corrupt system are not the political allies that progressives need to win back democracy anyway.

Finally, Republicans should take responsibility for their own dysfunctional neoliberal policies, rather than have them promoted by a nominal Democrat. Then, when those policies inevitably fail to serve the majority, voters could protest by swinging to a real opposition party for different policies, rather than swinging from their faux opposition back to the Republicans themselves for even more extreme neoliberal policies masquerading as change. After Obama, the political winds blowing against a Democratic administration responsible for carrying out failed policies will only move Democrats even further to the right, as they have for decades.

Lab Equipment

When money in politics was legalized in 1976, Democrats became the more hypocritical wing of a property party with two right wings. Their House leader immediately initiated the Democrat’s strategy of chasing Republicans to the right in order to raise money serving corporate interests, while still posing as the LOTE party to their base. Progressives enhance their influence by departing – to SIV – from this process whereby the LOTE party becomes progressively more evil.

SIV requires a secure web site where voters aggregate their pledges to vote for the leading opponent of any incumbent who refuses to support their demanded legislative action. For the money out of politics issue such a web site already exists. The specific action desired to get money out of politics is not futile advocacy of a constitutional amendment, but rather comprehensive legislation employing every constitutional means to abolish interested money from politics.

Such legislation can deny the Roberts 5 the last word on what are the “constitutional means” for abolishing money from politics. The same legislation that guarantees election integrity can also strip the Supreme Court of jurisidiction to decide the political question of whether Congress has the constitutional authority to enact it.

Experimental Results

As Obama proceeds with his trademark practice of losing staged negotiations with himself, tying his own hands by missing key battles such as filibuster reform, and generally advancing neoliberal policies in deed, which he opposes with cliche, the reader may conclude this thought experiment by deciding whether it would not feel better to have voted SIV to change the system that selects an Obama.

The reader may then consider performing the real-world experiment of preparing to use SIV in the 2014 midterms.

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