A Clash Over 'Lesser-Evil' Voting
It seems I upset a lot of people with my recent article looking at the four previous times in modern U.S. politics when many on the Left chose to punish the Democrats by casting ballots for third parties or not voting, a tactic under consideration again this year.
My hope had been to break through the calcified debate over whether it’s better to vote for “the lesser evil” Democrat or let the Republicans and their increasingly right-wing agenda prevail. Instead of engaging in that longstanding argument, I thought it might be helpful to see if the “teach-the-Dems-a-lesson” approach had worked in a practical sense.
After those four elections – in 1968, 1980, 1994 and 2000 – did chastened Democrats hew more to the left? In the longer term, have U.S. government policies become more progressive and less war-like over those 42 years? In other words, did the tactic work and thus should it be tried again on Nov. 2?
And a broader question: Has the American Left engaged in a realistic approach to politics that today’s deepening crises demand?
I realize these are not comfortable questions for many people. Several writers were so angry with me that they vowed to punish Consortiumnews.com financially, noting that we depend on donations for our survival.
Some critics accused me of arrogance in my treatment of the topic. Another complaint was that I didn’t offer a prescriptive alternative to either acquiescing to the Democratic Party or rejecting it in favor of a third-party approach.
One e-mailer said he was considering voting for Tea Party candidates to encourage even more reactionary government policies and thus to “sharpen the contradictions.” His thinking was that a more desperate America would eventually turn left.
Some writers brushed aside my “how-has-it-worked-out” question and simply resumed the “lesser-evil” debate regarding whether the Democrats deserved defeat for all their compromising and half-measures.
One e-mailer accused me of “Green [Party] bashing.” Another chastised me for not recognizing the value of building organizations that are independent of the Democratic Party.
While I appreciate the heartfelt comments – and I didn’t mean to disparage the hard work that many people on the Left have invested in the political process – I also feel I should respond to some of the criticisms that the story provoked.
First, as for building independent institutions, the fact is that I have spent the past 15 years trying to build a truly independent news outlet in Consortiumnews.com. Anyone who reads us should know that we don’t have sacred cows and don’t shy from criticizing Democrats, Republicans, the Right, the Left or the Center.
For that matter, in the “teach-the-Dems-a-lesson” story, I examined serious political abuses by the Republicans and failures by the Democrats to do the right thing. I didn’t pull punches on anyone. Yet, despite that, some critics said my implicit criticism of the Left’s impracticality would stop them from ever contributing to Consortiumnews.com again.
One writer, who lashed out at the story, said its evidence of Democrats taking dives on Republican accountability made him even more convinced that he should withhold his vote from the Democrats.
What’s ironic, however, is that many of the story’s examples of Democratic timidity – such as Defense Secretary Clark Clifford advising President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 that blowing the whistle on Richard Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace negotiations wouldn’t be “good for the country” – exist in the public domain only because of the reporting done by Consortiumnews.com.
Further, the broader need to build independent institutions has been a recurring focus of my writings for the past two decades.
One of my biggest criticisms of the Left is that it hasn’t done enough to build an effective infrastructure of media outlets and think tanks for informing the American people or making the case for progressive ideas, a failure that has created a dangerous imbalance in U.S. politics.
That wasn’t always the case. In the last 1960s and early 1970s, when the American Left was a much bigger player in U.S. politics, there was a vibrant “underground press,” including outlets like Ramparts magazine and the Dispatch News wire service that exposed major national security scandals. The left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies also was a powerful voice among Washington think tanks.
Not coincidentally, that period was also a time for significant reform, with the federal government taking steps to address the nation’s environmental and energy problems. Ralph Nader’s consumer-oriented organizations also worked cooperatively with Democrats and even some Republicans to enact common-sense safety policies.
However, a new wave of thinking gradually took hold on the Left, a fear that progressive media and policy institutions would fall prey to Washington insider-ism. The antidote was to largely abandon Washington and shift the Left’s emphasis to “organizing” in the countryside. The operative slogan was: “Think globally, act locally.”
As a result, media outlets were shut down or sold off. Not only did Ramparts and Dispatch News disappear, but other left-of-center publications and radio stations were sold to neoconservatives and conservatives or they were taken over by big corporations.
For instance, The New Republic in Washington fell under the control of neocon Martin Peretz and progressive radio stations like WBCN in Boston went corporate, replacing the likes of Danny Schechter, the News Dissector, first with a “classic rock” format and eventually with “shock jock” talk radio.
The Right Capitalizes
As the Left retreated from national politics and media, the Right moved in to fill the void. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, right-wing foundations and individuals invested heavily in creating a network of media outlets and think tanks based primarily in Washington and New York.
Despite warnings about the dangerous imbalance that was being created, key Left funders stuck with their approach of supporting local “organizing” and trying to meet the widening gaps in the social safety net (food, housing, clothing, medical care) resulting from the Right’s growing power.
In this conservative political environment – that abhorred “government solutions” and treated the word “liberal” like a curse – governing Democrats increasingly went on the defensive. They shied away from principled battles with Republicans over whether the government could do any good at all.
Overwhelmed by corporate money going to Republican candidates and right-wing media, governing Democrats also shifted their positions so they could get their share of the corporate cash and deflect some of the harsh campaign attack ads on “tax-and-spend” Democrats.
During this period, the chasm widened between the governing Democrats and the Left, with both sides feeling aggrieved with the other. The governing Democrats felt that the Left was enjoying the luxury of living in a fantasy world that took no account of the harsh political realities of Washington, and the Left viewed governing Democrats as mostly corporate sell-outs.
Ralph Nader, who had achieved most of his major consumer reforms by collaborating with members of Congress in the 1970s and bureaucrats working for President Jimmy Carter, personified the Left’s growing alienation from the governing Democrats. The Left began looking toward alternatives, such as building a third party, despite the political implausibility of this strategy.
The reason why the Green Party or some other leftist party makes no practical sense is that the U.S. political system operates under winner-take-all rules, including selection of the president. There is no parliamentary system that allows for proportional representation. All that leftist parties can realistically do is siphon off votes from Democrats and help elect Republicans and rightists.
This dilemma has led some on the Left to advocate a new constitutional convention that would put the United States under a parliamentary system or to find some other way of permitting proportional representation.
But that is simply not pragmatic, at least in the near term. Indeed, given the Right’s upper hand in getting out its message to the American people, a constitutional convention would more likely end with a Christian nationalist government beholden to corporate interests than anything tilted left.
Which brings us to the e-mailer who is considering voting for Tea Party candidates to “sharpen the contradictions.” Though the frustration on the Left is understandable, the idea of wanting the United States to move even further right – as a way to create more desperation and thus a political shift to the left – is dangerous, and always has been.
Not only was that the fatal mistake of the German Communists in the 1930s who embraced the slogan, “after Hitler, us,” but there is no particular reason to believe that making life more miserable for Americans would automatically convince them to opt for leftist solutions now.
If history has taught us anything, it is that rightist propaganda can be extremely effective in finding scapegoats for social ills, whether it was the Jews in Nazi Germany or Muslims and Mexicans in today’s America. Economic fear has often been the fuel for right-wing reaction.
Still, some on the Left still seem influenced by the flawed thinking of Karl Marx who prophesized the inevitable collapse of capitalism and its replacement by egalitarian communism. The fatal mistake in this thinking (even assuming that his larger point is correct) is that Marx did not take into account that the human species doesn’t have unlimited time for such a transformation to play out.
Any long-range vision of revolutionary change runs headlong into the approaching deadline for reversing global warming which is making the earth uninhabitable for future generations. Even in the near term, climate change – floods, droughts, severe weather – is sure to produce dangerous political and economic dislocations.
These political and economic challenges – mixed with the incendiary ingredients of nationalism, religious animosities and nuclear bombs – are a recipe for existential catastrophes even before the brunt of global warming is felt by a desperate mankind.
So, what to do?
It seems to me that the only realistic choice is to blend a practical approach toward short-term electoral politics with a more ambitious longer-term strategy for building media outlets and other institutions that can revitalize American democracy by generating real information and sensible solutions.
In other words, it may be time for everyone to lower their sights from the ideal to the necessary – and to act accordingly. There is real value in having people in high office who are sane and knowledgeable, rather than reckless and ignorant, especially in a country possessing a vast nuclear arsenal.
I’m sure this answer won’t satisfy many readers. I may well receive a new flood of angry comments and e-mails.
But it has become my belief that there are no good solutions left (and surely none that are utopian). All we can do is get serious about salvaging the planet for our posterity and making life a bit less brutish for those already here.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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