If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the Democratic nomination for president, some Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for her anyway. I can respect that decision. While the differences between Democrats and Republicans are often overstated – to give just two examples (there are many), the same people advise Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz on foreign policy and Hillary Clinton is at least as cozy with Wall Street as most Republicans – there are some real and important reasons to worry about a Republican White House. The Supreme Court and heads of agencies are, in my view, the biggest concerns in this vein. I’d have low hopes for Hillary Clinton’s appointees but no doubts that they’d be better on balance than those offered by a Trump, Cruz, or Rubio.
Yet I will not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. While I understand the lesser-of-two-evils mentality, I disagree with it; most of Clinton’s policy positions are unacceptable to me. If Sanders loses the primary, I will probably vote for Jill Stein.
Wouldn’t that be a strategic blunder, some friends and family ask me? Democrats who aren’t quite as polite ask if I’m an idiot. Don’t I realize that this type of thinking led to George W. Bush becoming president in 2000 and that I may similarly “blow this election” by deciding to vote my conscience?
The premise of these questions, however, is completely wrong, and not just because, as Jim Hightower documented at the time, voting records show that “Gore was the problem, not Nader,” in the 2000 election. In fact, refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is both a principled and strategic decision that I encourage more people to embrace.
There are two possibilities when it comes to my vote: it will either impact the outcome of the election or it won’t. If my vote won’t impact the outcome of the election, I might as well vote for the candidate with the best policy positions, regardless of his or her supposed electability.
If my vote will impact the outcome of the election, I may have to decide which matters more: (a) the differences between a bad Democrat and worse Republican over the next four years or (b) the degree to which I’d undermine our chances to enact fundamental change to a broken political system in the long-run by pursuing a lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy.
As I’ve noted before, the type of political “pragmatism” that would lead someone to choose (a) undermines power-balancing policy goals. Because politicians and Democratic party officials know that many voters think this way, they have little incentive to listen to our concerns. Instead, they can pay lip service to progressive values while crafting a policy agenda and decision-making process more responsive to wealthy donors than to their constituents.
That dynamic is on full display already in the 2016 Democratic primary election. Clinton is campaigning against priorities, like single-payer health care, that Democrats are supposed to embrace. While early union endorsements for Clinton initially improved her rhetoric on education issues to some degree, she is already backtracking to assure corporate donors that her positions are unchanged. The unions who endorsed Clinton early have no negotiating power relative to rich donors who make their support contingent on Clinton pursuing their interests; given that fact and her record, she seems unlikely to keep her promises if elected.
The Democratic National Committee’s actions are also illustrative. The party establishment lined up behind Clinton before the race even started, and the DNC’s debate schedule is, despite their protestations to the contrary, quite obviously constructed to insulate Clinton from challenge. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s recent decision to suspend Sanders’ campaign’s access to its voter data (in response to a data breach by a since-fired Sanders staffer; the access was restored after the Sanders campaign sued the DNC) has caused even party loyalists to believe that the DNC “is putting [its] finger on [the] scale” and pro-Clinton journalists to acknowledge that the DNC’s behavior “makes Clinton’s lead look illegitimate, or at least, invites too many ‘what ifs.’”
Both Clinton and party leaders are making a mockery of many of the principles the party is supposed to stand for. And pledging to support Clinton in the end – no matter what she and the DNC do – enables this kind of behavior. It’s hard for me to see how we will ever fix our political process and reclaim our democracy by refusing to draw some lines in the sand.
I could accuse those who disagree with that assessment of propping up a sham political system. I could say that, by downplaying the unfounded smears the Clinton campaign has spread against Sanders and insisting that we must support Clinton in the general if she wins the nomination, they are destroying the Democrats’ credibility and thus helping to ensure ever more privilege-defending and corrupt elected officials and government policy. But it would be a lot fairer of me to acknowledge that a lot of the Republicans are really scary, that my strategy isn’t guaranteed to work the way I think it will, and that people evaluate the risks differently than I do.
Similarly, those who disagree can continue to accuse people like me of “helping the GOP” in the 2016 election by pointing out that the Democrats have extreme flaws and don’t always deserve our support. But it would be a lot fairer of them to acknowledge that millions upon millions of people have suffered at the hands of lesser-of-two-evils candidates over the years, that an open commitment to support a lesser-of-two-evils candidate robs voters of bargaining power, and that the Democratic Party has brought voter discontent upon itself.
Hopefully Sanders will win the Democratic primary and this discussion will become a moot point. In the meantime, it’s good for those of us who believe in social justice to push each other on our tactics. We would just do well to remember that reasonable people with the same goals can disagree about which electoral strategy is most likely to help us achieve them.