Thursday, June 9, 2016

Rejecting the lesser evil -- Why you should not buy into mainstream narratives about voting

As the upstart and surprising Bernie Sanders campaign appears, sadly, to have lost to corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton (who I have noted in the past in anything but a left candidate), the calls for leftists and progressives in the United States to rally around her Presidential candidacy to "stop Trump" are getting louder and louder.

As a Canadian, of course, my rallying to her cause would be of little importance even were I so inclined - which I am not - but even here in this country one finds people calling for a sort of moral endorsement anyway presumably as our good vibes or something will somehow help to get some of our reluctant leftist neighbours on board.

But the American Presidential election aside, Canadians are more than familiar with the "strategic voting" and "lesser-of-evils" arguments as they have polluted our politics on all levels of government for decades. Arguments around the necessity of voting -- and of voting for a party or candidate who, moreover, can supposedly "win" -- have been used by countless candidates for or advocates of the Liberal Party and, to a lesser but still very significant degree, the NDP.

Every election leftists are told that the "danger" of the election or re-election of (insert the name of the threat here) to our democracy, society, polity, people, etc., is so great that there is "no choice" but to hold one's nose and do the adult or socially responsible thing and go vote. Even if you are voting for something or someone you do not believe in.

Every election we are met with same sterile, empty arguments to defend these exhortations to the ballot box.

I think it is time we look at some of these arguments for "lesser-of-evil" voting -- or voting at all -- more closely for what they are worth. Which is nothing much.

1) If you vote for a "fringe" candidate or a candidate who "cannot win" you are wasting your precious vote!

The grandparent of all of these arguments is this one. We will return to the question of the morality and undemocratic aspect of telling people that voting for what they believe in is wrong, while voting for something they do not really believe in is somehow right, but even on a technical level this specific argument is in many cases actually quite absurd.

This is due to the way our electoral systems work and the uneven distributions of support parties or candidates have across various geographical boundaries.

Simply put, in many areas the "lesser-of-evil" candidate or party either cannot win or, alternately, is basically guaranteed to win.

For example, if you are in a state, say Texas, where in the coming election Trump ends up 20 points ahead in the lead-up to voting day, you are no more "throwing away" your vote by voting for Green Party leader Jill Stein than you are by voting for Hillary Clinton.

The reverse is equally true. In a state where Clinton leads by a significant margin there is no "tactical" need to vote for her even if one thinks that necessary where it matters.

In the Canadian system, there are ultimately always only a small number of ridings that actually end up being a real battle where a "lesser-of-evil" candidate can truly knock out an "evil" one, in our case presumably the Conservative. Most ridings -- in fact far more than you might commonly think -- in a national election (and many provincial ones) will be ridings where a Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat is virtually certain to win, or where the race is between the Liberals and NDP and the Conservatives have no chance.

In none of these ridings or states does the "wasted vote" argument stand up at all. By not voting or by voting with your "heart" you will not effect the outcome in anyway. In fact, in some cases, as in many Canadian ridings in the last federal election, voting "strategically" can even lead to bizarre outcomes such as the defeat of NDP incumbents to help "Stop Harper"!

In  other words, people are being most often called upon to sacrifice principles and beliefs in many cases when this will make absolutely no difference whatsoever other than to (a point to which we will return) give your endorsement to a candidate that you did not want.

But what of those minority of cases where a small number of votes might actually (and not just rhetorically) make the difference?

We will get back to those shortly.

2) If you don't vote or "waste your vote" your voice is not heard/does not matter/you have "no right to complain"

From a leftist perspective this is a particularly bizarre argument to have leveled at you for one very simple reason -- our voice is already being left out, does not matter and is not being heard!

And this is also why you certainly do have every right to complain whether you want to vote or not.

People such as myself basically have no say already in that none of these parties or candidates who can "win" represent our views. For people living in poverty, the working-class, and racialized and marginalized communities it is not at all apparent to me how their "voice" will be heard by voting for parties who often barely or simply tokenistically claim to represent or fight for their interests and who, once in power, generally act directly against these interests.

And, ironically, it is these very arguments we are confronting here that we hear election-after-election-after-election-after-election that keep ensuring that we have no voice. They do so as, if we always end up voting and working for these "lesser-of-evil" parties and candidates we are directly preventing the emergence of alternatives that would be worth supporting and that, one day at least, might win or effect change.

As to the claim that if you do not vote "you cannot complain", I think it is time to turn that rhetorical flourish on its head.

If you keep showing up to vote for one or another flavour of the same bullshit, if you cast a ballot endorsing parties or candidates you fundamentally disagree with or who act in ways inimical to your interests, why, by enabling this, should you have anymore right to complain?

Your participation and vote acts as a reinforcement to whatever you back and to the process as a whole as does implying that it is a necessary act.

Given that you directly are participating in creating the mess in the first place, how is this somehow more morally praiseworthy than those who by rejecting voting or rejecting voting for the "lesser-of-evil" refused to do this?

3) Not voting "undermines democracy"

Apparently, for some, democracy is about the act of voting, which is a convenient liberal idea.

Democracy, of course, is about far more than that and withdrawing one's vote or participation in the mainstream narrative is a completely democratic act.

What is increasingly inimical to democracy is the narrowing of the discourse and the political options over the era of neo-liberalism. The major parties in Canada and the United States, including the once social democratic NDP, now only differ from each other on economic issues by a small degree. On foreign policy issues this is also true.

This does not mean the parties are the same. They are not at all. On important issues like criminal justice, abortion, LGBT rights and others there are real divergences that do matter, as these issues matter.

What it does mean, however, is that when it comes to basic issues around inequality, economic injustice,  poverty, the power of corporations and the fundamental nature of capitalism itself, the parties offer up "solutions" and "alternatives" that are all framed within the ideological construct of neo-liberalism and its handmaiden austerity.

Even minor attempts to break this mold -- such as the Liberal stimulus plan in Canada right now -- only do so in a very limited way that does not challenge the underpinnings of austerity itself in that they do not reverse the essential trends in taxation, privatization or social spending that led us to where we are today. They also persist in framing their "stimulus" as temporary and in lauding a return to the "normal" fiscal regime and constraints as the ultimate goal.

Part of what made Bernie Sanders' campaign so exciting for many, in spite of its flaws, was that he is the only major political figure in North America in a generation who pushed back against this, and out of nowhere this electrified millions of Americans who felt disenfranchised and forgotten by Wall St. Democrats like Clinton.

The narrowing of the possible, as when Hillary Clinton ludicrously portrays universal health care -- something that has been achieved in every other advanced developed nation in the world other than the United States -- as somehow an Utopian and unrealistic goal, is the real and actual undermining of what is left of our democracy.

And it is part of the reason people do not bother to "show up".

That they do not necessarily articulate their indifference to the process in political terms does not mean it is not a political action. Only elitists think that political acts are always accompanied by a manifesto of some type.

If we want to expand democracy, we need to reject rather than embrace a mainstream politics that is anything but democratic in the possibilities it allows, the choices it offers and the access to power it grants.

How is voting for something you do not actually believe in or want "democratic"?

4) But what about Trump?

"Do you want Trump to win?"

Get used to hearing this facile cry should you dare to suggest you might stay home or vote for a real left-wing candidate like Jill Stein in the US.

We have heard this one before of course. Many times. Whether Harper or Bush or countless other examples from Rob Ford in Toronto to whomever. And it sounds convincing.

The logic is that if you "throw away" your vote or do not vote this is de facto the same as voting for whatever evil person it is that you should be voting for someone like Clinton or Trudeau to oppose.

The problem with the logic lies in what I call the Ralph Nader fallacy. The totally false contention, spouted by countless liberals and Democrats everywhere, that it was Ralph Nader who lost the election for Al Gore in 2000 thereby allowing George Bush to come to power and enabling all the "evil" that flowed out of that.

But it is not true. Al Gore lost because of Al Gore. He lost because he could not persuade those who voted for Nader to vote for him and he could not persuade tens-of-millions who stayed home to bother. He lost because he was so uninspiring he could not even carry his own home state of Tennessee which he lost by a far wider margin than can be explained by Nader's vote there, and that would have given him the Presidency.

In fact, in only two states did Nader have a percentage of the vote that might have made a difference. Florida and New Hampshire. New Hampshire going to Gore would not have effected the result. Gore winning Florida, of course, would have.

But in the end Gore lost Florida, as we all know, due to the actions of the Supreme Court.

In every other state in the US voting for Nader had no impact on the ultimate result at all. It is hard for me to accept the notion that Nader is responsible for the decisions of the US Supreme Court.

Far more absurd is the presumption that those who voted for Nader would have either voted or would have all voted for Gore and thereby handed him the election. That is simply that. A presumption.

It is good propaganda but also fundamentally total bullshit.

The slightly over 1% of the voters in Florida who voted for Nader did not "elect" Bush or play spoilers. They simply did not feel it was worth voting for Gore.

This one and rather exceptional example, that is rendered facetious by the many other states that Gore could have won but did not and that had nothing to do with Nader, has been used to browbeat and terrify progressive and left voters in both the United States and Canada ever since.

But its presumptions are not its only flaw.

So are its more aggressive assertions. Which are, in this case, that Nader voters should be held accountable for the actions and consequences of the Bush Presidency despite having voted for someone else.

This may have seemed compelling in the wake of the war in Iraq, but it seems far less compelling after the bloody, imperialist, drone-loving administration of "progressive" Obama that has achieved relatively little domestically and that has rained down death internationally.

Obama's Secretary of State was, of course, Hillary Clinton and she is an unrepentant imperialist and military hawk. She supported, enabled and directly participated in the decisions that led to things like the bloody coup in Honduras. She is a stalwart supporter of Israel and supported grotesque initiatives like the lowering of the minimum wage in Haiti and now the imperialist austerity assault on Puerto Rico.

As I have outlined in the past, there is simply no leftist case for supporting Clinton for the Presidency other than that she is "better" than Donald Trump.

While this may be true, this does not absolve those who vote for and support Clinton of their direct responsibility of what she then does as President. Not indirect, not by allegedly "allowing" someone to win, but by actually having voted for the person who then does what they do.

If Nader voters are allegedly culpable for the actions of Bush, how much more so are Obama voters for the actions of Obama who they actually voted for? If you are going to try to force those on the left who choose not to support a candidate like Gore or Clinton to own the actions (or presumed actions in the case of Trump) of those they were or could be defeated by, then you had better own the actions of those who you are supporting with your vote.

You had better own the austerity, pandering to Wall St., false narratives, dubious past record, violent imperialism, drone strike murders, killing of Honduran activists, lack of real progress and much more that you enabled by voting for it!

That blood and viciousness is actually on your hands, all cries of  supposedly having to be "realistic" aside.

It may be that Trump represents a "once in a generation" threat that makes a more compelling case for a "tactical" vote, though I do not agree with that. Even if one does, as Seattle Socialist Kshama Sawant pointed out in her appeal to Sanders to eschew the Democratic Party, "If electing a Republican is really Bernie’s main concern, there is no reason he could not at least run in the 40+ states where it’s absolutely clear the Democratic or Republican candidate will win, while not putting his name on the 5-10 closely contested “swing states.”"

The same is true of the rest of us.

Do not make voting for a terrible reactionary like Hillary Clinton, for a farce like Trudeau or a sham like the NDP some great example of or pretense of virtue. Nor the act of voting itself for that matter.

In the end, most often, the supposedly tactical vote is the crutch we fall back on to explain why we did not do more to create something we should vote for. And this is why the mainstream narratives about voting are not just a dead end for the left but will reinforce our irrelevance and culture of defeat.

See also: There is no socialist case for supporting Hillary Clinton

See also: Rejecting a Mulcair or electing a Sanders or a Corbyn is not enough

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