With the full convention nominations of Trump and Clinton, electoral debates have picked up in intensity over the last few weeks. Most notably, Democrats supporting Clinton have become increasingly hostile to any suggestion that leftists and progressives might not vote for her in November. The debates between Clinton supporters and her left-leaning detractors are almost always excellent examples of people talking past—rather than to—each other. Each side takes the other to task for missing the central point. Each side attempts to convince the other with arguments that rest on premises that the other does not accept. Unsurprisingly, these discussion generally lead nowhere.
The easiest way to characterize the difference is to point out that most Clinton-supporters’ rhetoric is focused on the near- or short-term, while most of her left-leaning detractors discuss the long-term. The trouble is, neither side seems to realize that their arguments develop from these differing frameworks and assumptions. Clinton-supporters continue to stress the catastrophic consequences of a Trump presidency; the possibility of a Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice looms heavily in their minds, and the risks associated with him as commander-in-chief also stoke their anxiety. And of course, these are both serious threats. Recognizing these threats, such supporters focus all of their energy on electing Clinton, and see any criticism of her—however honest and well-supported by evidence—as necessarily supportive of Trump.
Meanwhile, most leftists and progressives respond that most of the major problems facing the nation and indeed the world will remain unaddressed, regardless of who is elected. Although on some issues—especially on so-called “culture war” issues—Clinton’s record and platform differ from Trump’s, on a host of other issues, including national defense, tax policy, regulation of the finance industry, combating global warming, increasing union density, regulating trade, etc. the differences are slight or even absent (the differences in rhetoric are at times substantial, but Clinton’s actual record of support—as First Lady, as a Senator, and as Secretary of State—betray the superficiality of much of what she says). The fundamental economic, cultural, and political structures that are destroying ecosystems and leading to massive exploitation of humans, especially of workers in developing countries, will remain completely intact, regardless of who is elected. From the long-term perspective, then, the fight between Clinton and Trump begins to look less and less important. What is needed is not a new leader of the system, but a radically different system to begin with.
The trouble is, neither of these perspectives—the short- or the long-term—has an exclusive claim to rationality or sound evidence. In truth, human decision-making always has to take both the short-term and the long-term into consideration. Problems arise when what makes sense in the short-term differs substantially from what makes sense in the long-term. Many leftists are pointing out that, with each election, the Democrats are moving more and more to the right on most issues besides the “culture war” ones which they use to differentiate themselves from the GOP and win otherwise undecided voters. They argue that unless leftists and progressives actually withhold their electoral support from the party, making it conditional on real legislative or executive action favoring working-class people, the Democratic Party has no incentive or reason to actually follow-through with any substantial progressive legislation.
But this kind of “disciplining” of the party would, in the short-term, mean risking giving whatever offices are up for election to Republicans, an even more reactionary political entity. Thus what seems necessary, if risky, in the long-term, looks absolutely suicidal in the short-term. There is no panacea to this tension between the tactical and the strategic, but some reflection on the intractability of our political situation may yield fruit.
It’s worth pointing out that “true” conservatives found themselves in a somewhat similar situation in the post-war period. From the mid-thirties onward, New Deal politics was ascendant, and by the mid-50s both parties both basically accepted a “mixed economy” as the default. (It’s important to remember that this was before the great realignment of the late 60s and early 70s; there were cultural liberals and conservatives in both parties, but the Republicans were the traditional party of capitalists whose businesses were labor-intensive.) Cultural conservatives and libertarians, especially the latter, were largely excluded from serious political decision-making. But instead of compromising endlessly with their opponents, these groups began to organize seriously, especially in academia and within think-tanks, and in fact soon became known for their absolute refusal to compromise. Though this meant that they were excluded from power in the short-term, it also meant that many working- and middle-class voters began to take their positions seriously, in part precisely because they were not publicly revealed as corrupted by abuses of power. And such ideologues were taken more seriously by rank-and-file Americans because they actually said what they meant and believed, year in and year out. They articulated a consistent vision for what they thought a just and righteous political order would look like, and they did not hesitate to withhold support from Republican candidates who did not play ball.
Eventually, of course, this strategy paid off. Not only in the Reagan period, but even more in the neoliberal turn of the 90s—when Democrats themselves began to pander to many neoliberal economic and neoconservative foreign policy demands (e.g. NAFTA, the ’94 omnibus crime bill, the ’96 welfare “reform” bill)—showed that, at least under the right conditions, a hard-line ideological stance can be effective in changing the very criteria used to judge what is accepted decision-making. They were able to change the context of what is seen as politically feasible. Of course, this lesson cannot be applied directly to leftist politics. All sorts of conditions affected the success of libertarian agitation in the late 20th century. Two obvious factors that were extremely beneficial were: first, lots of wealthy individuals and companies were eager to bankroll the movement, and second, economic trends—both domestic and global—were disrupting the post-war equilibrium. Nonetheless, their success might still point to a broad outline for how leftists can refine their organizing strategies for the long-term in a serious and disciplined way. My suggestion is that we must think in a more explicit and disciplined manner about how to act in order to effect this long-term change, rather than present our long-term anxieties within a political system that responds only to the short-term.
Next, I’d like to employ an extended metaphor to try and capture the existential difficulties of managing the tension between the differing incentives of the short- and long-term frameworks. Most people are familiar with the truism that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will recognize the danger and leap out to safety—but if you place a frog in room-temperature water and then slowly raise the heat, it will die before it realizes it’s in danger.
Our electoral situation today can, I think, be meaningfully compared to such a frog. The Republicans are calling for an increase in temperature of one degree each minute. The Democrats, dismissing this as crazy and irresponsible, suggest the much more modest increase of only half a degree each minute. There’s no question that a half-degree increase is better than a full degree; being cooked later is better than being cooked now. In the short term, supporting the half-degree party makes perfect sense; in fact, not supporting it seems patently insane. But both parties are still trying to cook us alive. In the long-term, the only possible action is, of course, for the frog to get out of the pot.
The question is: how can we simultaneously support the party that is only trying to exploit us at half-speed, while also working to turn the gas off? If we find that there’s a lid on the pot and we can’t get out quickly, then by all means, let’s support the half-degree party in the short-term. At the very least, it buys us some time. But if that’s all we do, then we are still doomed.
Now, in this metaphor, the half-degree partisans insist that they, too, support cutting the heat off if and when possible. Democrats suggest voting for Clinton to guard ourselves in the short-term, and then organizing over the coming years to enable more substantial, if gradual, change by holding Clinton and other Democrats accountable. But history suggests this is a dead-end. We have heard this time and time again. Every four years, Democrat politicians and think-tankers warn us that the Republicans are about to turn up the flame, increasing the heat two or three degrees all at once: we have to support the Democratic nominee no matter what, or else we will face an existential threat in the person of McCain, or Romney, or now Trump.
People are talking today as if Trump is the exception, that he is a unique candidate, so vile that we have to do whatever we can to prevent him from entering the White House. This may be true, so far as it goes, but the rhetoric we are hearing from the Democrats is not at all unique. The sky was falling in 2008 and 2012, just as it’s falling now. And the only acceptable answer to this collapse is, always and forever, voting Democrat. They promise that this not only guards us against Republican malfeasance in the short-term, but also that it is the foundation for more profound change in the long-term.
But in the past, in in the intervening years between elections, these exact same politicians and academics have worked tirelessly to support the very neoliberal economic (and neoconservative diplomatic and military) agendas they denounced in the election year. We must remember that in the 50s and 60s the half-degree party was actually a quarter-degree party. This is the problem with the “vote for them now and then hold their feet to the fire next year” strategy. The only fire we have to hold their feet to is the election itself. This strategy is a bait-and-switch. It always turns out that the progress we asked for isn’t the progress we were really looking for—the Party knows what direction we should be going better than we do. Those trying to pose today as borderline socialists turn out to be hardcore neoliberals outside of election years.
So, again: I agree that, come November, a vote for a half-degree increase is better than a full-degree for those of us feeling warm in the kitchen (and considering the rapid onset of global warming, this metaphor is perhaps more apt than we’d like to admit). But we also need to recognize that those insisting that we vote for the half-degree are not necessarily allies in trying to get the lid off the pot. Their power comes from being the lesser-evil, from gaining control by presenting themselves as the less-unreasonable group. In the short-term, sure, let’s tactically support them. But we are fools if we think such support is sufficient, and we are still fools if we think that we can somehow turn supporting the half-degree party into support for a lift-the-lid party. They have no interest in doing so, because at the end of the day, they (or, at least those who fund them) want to cook the frog all the same.
So, what does any of this mean? What do I suggest should fall out from these reflections? I might say something like this: we could agree with Noam Chomsky and John Halle that lesser-evil voting makes sense in swing states, but then insist that radicals and progressives not living in swing states have just as much a duty to vote for a leftist party as those who do live in swing states have to vote for the Democrats. This must be said, because the lesser-evil argument only ever seems to stress the latter point. But if those advocating lesser-evilism are arguing in good faith, they should be as insistent that electoral decisions, when they are not required for blocking Republicans getting electoral college votes, should always be used to push a leftist agenda. This remains the case, I believe, even if some of these lesser-evilists deny that electoral politics in general is the primary avenue through which radical politics can be articulated, built, and pursued. And this brings us to another common critique, advanced by, for example, Dan Savage. Savage critiqued Stein and the Greens because they had no chance of actually winning the 2016 election—but of course, this critique only has teeth if Stein et al. actually think they can win this election. In truth, of course, the purpose of launching a third-party presidential campaign under current conditions is to gain visibility for issues that the two main parties are ignoring, and, if possible, to win the necessary percentage of polls to enter debates, and the requisite 5% of the votes on election day to secure federal funding.
Savage and others have argued that if Greens are serious, they should be focusing on local candidates and not the presidency. This critique is misplaced for two reasons: first, of course, there are all kinds of Green Party candidates for local-level elections, something that Savage seems not to have bothered to research before crafting his polemic. Second, though, this whole critique is built on a faulty understanding of how parties, and social movements more broadly, are built. The fact of the matter is that, especially today, in a media-saturated culture, movements need a visible national-scale presence to really get any attention and traction. Furthermore, radicals recognize that we need to not only propose alternate policies, but actually alternative frameworks for thinking about policies. That is, we need a change of context, a re-thinking of our values and our assumptions about what the state and markets really should be doing. It is unlikely that we will achieve that by running candidates for local boards of education—as worthwhile as such campaigns are, we need to be trying to change the very principles of the debate we are having. Or, to return to our kitchen metaphor, we have to start asking why we are in a pot of heating water in the first place.
It is this change of context, a change of values, a change in what most citizens see as good and possible, that is important. I should be clear that I have no particular attachment to the Green Party; it is just the case that, for the moment, they are one of the few institutions that critique the status quo at the national level and get any attention. The point here is not that the Greens can save us, but rather that we can use their campaign as an opportunity to change the conversation, even as we admit that in some states, we will have to try to win the current argument.