Voting Is One Thing, but Let’s Not Let Partisan Loyalties Numb Us to Injustice

It's time to change the rules of the United States' electoral process that systematically discriminates against third parties.(Photo: DonkeyHotey)

To all those whose driving motivation this election season is to stop Donald Trump at all costs, and see voting for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine as the only means of accomplishing it, I want to say that I get it. Totally! I see Trump as a frighteningly huge threat, too!

But what I don’t get is why so many people who have decided to vote Democratic in this election as a means to stop Trump don’t simultaneously see a Clinton/Kaine administration as a tremendous threat. And every time I hear someone deny, ignore, or soft-peddle how destructive the policies and interests that Clinton and Kaine represent are, my sense of threat only intensifies, because it means that they are more likely to look the other way in the face of the coming administration’s crimes, just as so many did and continue to do, with the crimes of Obama/Biden and Clinton/Gore.

It makes me ask, as I have before, how it is that so many people seem to be able to muster intense moral outrage in the face of wrongdoing, but only when Republicans are the perpetrators. Why is it that when the Democrats are the guilty party — indeed, even when they are advancing Republican policies that liberals had vigorously denounced only a few short years before — the response is a resounding silence?

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

This is not to say that there are no differences between Democrats and Republicans. There are! The key point, however, is that it is not a static difference, but rather a dynamic one: the two parties have been moving to the right together for several decades. So, while the Republicans may be to the right of the Democrats at any particular moment in time, on most issues, both Democrats and Republicans are to the right of their respective positions at earlier points in time.

Since at least Carter’s initiation of what later came to be known as Reaganomics in the late 1970s, the Democrats in office have represented one-step-forward-three-steps-backward, while the Republicans have represented three-steps-backward, and it is the former that has made the latter possible. The Democrats thus play an absolutely indispensable role in perpetuating this dynamic by enabling the Republicans to become more and more extreme. And with every rightward move the Republicans make, Democrats argue that we must do whatever it takes to keep them out of office, including following in their footsteps, because the alternative would be so much worse. Hence, the rightward march of the political system in fact thrives on the interdependent and shifting character of the differences between the two parties.

As I see it, then, Trump’s emergence is the result of that long downward spiral, and unless and until we devise a way of breaking out of it, we can only expect far greater threats in the future. Just as we’re now told that we have to vote for an option that is in many respects worse than candidates whom we were told in the not-too-distant past that we had to stop at all costs, I anticipate that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be told that we have to vote for someone very much like Trump in order to prevent someone even worse (or as Katha Pollitt put it in 1996 — back before she declared herself “excited about Hillary” — organize votes in hell for Satan in order to defeat Beelzebub).

As someone who has followed politics intensely (and even got involved in electoral campaigns) since 1968 when I was nine, I desperately want to get out of this downward spiral, which is perpetuated by the same narrow debate about lesser and greater evils every four years, only to begin again from a worse starting point with the next turn in the vicious cycle.

I’ve been through eight more presidential elections than my oldest child, nine more than my middle child, and 10 more than my youngest, and I don’t want them to reach my age having gone through eight to ten more turns in this vicious downward spiral, and the nastier and nastier versions of lesser and greater evils it will produce.

So to all those who are supporting Clinton/Kaine as the means to defeat Donald Trump, I want to know what the plan is to get us out of this mess. And I don’t want to be told that we’ll “hold their feet to the fire,” because that promise has been made and left unfulfilled so many times, it has become an enraging insult to anyone who has been paying any attention to this history.

I also want to say that I get the concerns about the “spoiler” effect of voting for a third party, even though arguments about that effect so often ignore the far bigger significance of so many Democrats voting Republican (such as the 308,000 who voted for Bush in Florida in 2000, compared to the 24,000 who voted for Nader).

If the spoiler effect is real, and it certainly could be in certain circumstances, there are two main ways to deal with it. One is to try to kill the spoiler, which is the approach that the great majority of supporters of Clinton and the Democrats adopt, either through their active support for the severe institutional restrictions on third parties and the vicious propaganda campaigns directed at their candidates and supporters, or by just looking the other way while others do the dirty work.

But this is not only highly anti-democratic; it also guarantees a conservative bias in the electoral system (including by weakening the progressive wing of the Democratic Party) and thus does the work of the right for it.

As I have explained elsewhere, what gives voters leverage over a party and its candidates is an exit option — i.e., the credible threat to vote for a better alternative if they find the current direction of a party unacceptable. In a two-party system, however, no such leverage exists because the only available alternatives are abstention or an unviable third-party option, neither of which poses much of a threat to dominant party candidates. Thus, a necessary condition for reversing the rightward march of the Democratic Party, and of the political system as a whole, is the existence of a strong party to the Democrats’ left. But this possibility depends entirely on institutionalizing a multiparty system, which means radically democratizing the rules of the game.

More immediately relevant to the purpose of dealing with the spoiler effect, however, is that trying to kill the spoiler is destined to backfire because by facilitating the system’s rightward march and thus fueling the downward spiral, it also fuels ever greater alienation, which in turn will continue to motivate people to try to build a left electoral alternative (and of course, others to support people like Trump). Finally, by focusing the blame on small third parties, it gives the Democrats a ready-made excuse, thus distracting attention from their profound shortcomings and weakening the impulse to hold them accountable (see the 2000 election).

The other way to deal with the spoiler effect is to democratize the electoral system by changing the rules of the game that systematically discriminate against third parties, and thereby establishing a multiparty system (through such mechanisms as multimember districts, proportional representation for legislative offices, instant runoff voting for executive offices and broadly inclusive debates). In putting an end to the two-party system, this would not only guarantee that the spoiler effect would be eliminated. It would also greatly increase the possibility of building a left alternative and pulling the whole political system to the left (including within the Democratic Party), thereby reversing the downward spiral.

I can anticipate that many might respond by saying that changing the electoral rules of the game is just too hard, that we’re stuck with a two-party system. I’m sorry, but I don’t get that either. How is it that so many of us can rage against such deep-seated and monumental problems as racism, sexism and even capitalism, but when it comes to a dysfunctional institutional feature of our electoral system, we throw up our hands and say that it’s impervious to change, as though it were part of the natural order? There are, of course, many who see a transformation of the political system as essential to advancing on these other fronts, but their voices are drowned out by those who insist that it cannot be changed.

Meanwhile, the right demonstrates over and over again that the electoral system is subject to repeated change — for the worse. They don’t see it as natural, but rather as one among many institutional arenas that are subject to constant redesign. The same is true of the Democratic Party itself, which has long collaborated with Republicans to limit competition. And, of course, as many learned this primary season, the anti-democratic process internal to the Democratic Party is hardly natural, but rather the product of deliberate design to favor establishment candidates over left insurgents.

As I see it, then, we have a clear choice: either continue with the same self-defeating, anti-democratic strategy that is both guaranteed to fail and to intensify the downward spiral and the threats (and fears) it generates; or pursue a different path that is both democratic and offers a real solution. Put differently, we have a clear opportunity to do something that is not only right but also smart.

So to all those who intend to vote for Clinton/Kaine as the means to stop Trump, I say fine, I get it and I respect your choice. But I want to know what you all are going to do the day after the election, and the days after Clinton/Kaine are inaugurated, to fight them tooth and nail and to get us onto a better path so that we don’t face a more intense version of this downward spiral four, eight, 12, 16, 20 or 40 years from now when my youngest child is my age.