The drive to return us to the 1890s, prior to the existence of such socialist measures as child labor laws, social security, unemployment insurance, and medicare, is in full swing. Republicans smell blood with respect to the next presidential election. The race for the Republican presidential nomination is attracting a variety of hopefuls, among whom, even the least radical are scrambling to establish themselves as the most bloodthirsty.
The Democratic administration is quietly solidifying its strong Wall Street connections, and accumulating a huge war chest for the oncoming campaign. There is no argument among the Democratic leadership as to who the nominee will be, and so no need to waste energy on primary politics.
On the other hand, those who, for want of a better term, might be called liberals, seem traumatized by the barrage of defeats they have suffered on almost all their issues, and by the open contempt for them displayed by the administration they were instrumental in electing. (They did achieve some, at least partial, victories with respect to gays in the military, and gay marriage, matters of no interest to the corporate elite that rules the major parties.) There is virtually no discussion among liberals as to what they should do in connection with the 2012 election.
Meanwhile, despite the lack of leadership, and the heavily biased media, large numbers, sometimes majorities, of Americans have indicated in polls that they disagree with both major parties on issues such as the wars, single-payer health insurance, bank bailouts, dismantling of US industry with the accompanying loss of jobs, and tax breaks for the super-rich. What can people with such concerns do? The principal tool available to them is the vote. How can they best use it? I will start by examining how the strategic thinking of liberals has led us to the current situation, and then I will suggest an alternative approach. But first consider the peculiar role of a single voter.
In an election involving at least tens of thousands, or even millions, of voters, the likelihood that the vote of any one individual could determine the winner is vanishingly small. You might then ask, "Why bother to vote?" Why waste perhaps an hour in going to the polls, if your doing so cannot affect the outcome? This is a paradoxical situation, where thinking as an isolated individual can have serious negative consequences. Suppose a large percentage of people with political views similar to yours, or who, for reasons different than yours, are inclined to support the same candidate that you prefer, act on this basis and refrain from voting. Then it is quite possible that this candidate, who might have won had these votes been cast, would instead lose or, if not a contender, might not get enough votes to become a future contender.
This justifies an argument that, to prevent such situations, every citizen has a moral duty to vote in significant elections. Dereliction of this duty victimizes fellow citizens whose preferred candidate is the same as the abstainer's. More generally, failure to participate weakens our democracy, for which real elections reflecting the wishes of the citizens are a major pillar. Since many people do not, in effect, feel morally obliged to vote, we do indeed have large numbers of non-voters, a circumstance that contributes to our current sad condition.
The duty to vote would doubtless be more widely fulfilled if it had the force of law. Indeed in some countries, including Australia and Brazil, failure to vote can be legally penalized. If voting is made compulsory, it is important that voters be able to cast "none of the above" votes, and that reasonable excuses for not voting, such as illness, or even conscientious objection to voting, be considered. An alternative to penalizing non-voters (the most common penalty is a fine) would be to reward those who do vote, perhaps with a rebate of a modest fraction of their income tax.
Those who think of themselves as part of a community, sharing some common set of beliefs, are not as likely to act on the assumption their votes would be meaningless. They would feel an obligation to do their bit and vote to support their "team", or, equivalently, to vote in accord with their beliefs. People with this attitude are more likely to determine election outcomes and influence events.
Voting is a type of activity where straightforward, principled behavior is most likely to have positive effects. Our views on what we consider to be the most important issues will have the greatest chance of prevailing if we cast our votes for, and support in other ways, only candidates in substantial agreement (we can't expect perfection) with us on these issues.
Millions of Americans made an honest mistake in 2008, voting for a man who they thought would promote significant change in a positive direction. By now, most of them have probably recognized that they were deceived. What should they do about it?
Many now talk angrily about retaliating by staying home on election day. This will doubtless be done by some, perhaps by many, but it is not a very effective use of one's political power. No clear message is sent by not voting. This act (or rather non-act) can always be interpreted in multiple, contradictory, ways and so is tantamount to surrendering one's chance to exert influence.
The predominant liberal view today is typified by the following line of reasoning:
This type of strategic reasoning, an application of what is sometimes called the lesser evil (LE) concept, has been accepted and followed by the great majority of liberals for a long time. It is based, to some extent, on the game theory principle of making moves that minimize one's maximum loss. There are serious problems with this approach.
The first, and perhaps the most important, is that it is a prime example of short-term thinking. It ignores all elections after the upcoming one. It fails to consider that, while point 4 above may be valid (or may not be—see below), a strong campaign to build a third party now would make it possible for such a party to win a future presidential election, perhaps in 2016.
Arguing that it is too late to start now is tantamount to ruling out a third party permanently, since, no matter when the formation of such a party is proposed, the same argument would be made that it would not be a contender in the "next" election. Therefore, following the LE strategy means abandoning any serious chance to end control of our country by the two-party coalition owned by corporate interests.
It would also mean that the influence of liberals in the Democratic party would remain essentially zero, since they would continue to have no alternative but to support the Democrats, no matter what that party does. There is virtually no chance for them to gain control of that party, as should be clear from the history of the past half century, during which their power in the party has steadily decreased.
Another problem with the LE strategy is that it implies giving up on the idea of effectively promulgating the ideas one believes in. When you support for election candidates whose positions on important issues oppose your own positions, your ability to effectively advocate your views is greatly undermined. For example, voting for, and urging others to vote for, those who repeatedly get us into wars, is not compatible with promoting a pro-peace foreign policy. One cannot credibly educate people about the importance of civil liberties while supporting the election of people who trample on the Bill of Rights.
Yet another defect of this LE approach is that the conclusion stated in item 5 is not valid, even in the short term. When Republican George Bush initiated the Iraq War, implemented the Patriot Act, violated constitutional protections against torture, bailed out the Wall Street banks, etc., there was significant (tho inadequate) opposition, mainly on the part of liberals. This resistance, weak as it was, did slow down to some extent the rate at which Bush was able to implement his program. But now, when the Democratic administration is doing what provoked cries of outrage from liberals when they were acts of the Bush Administration, the great majority of liberals are silent, as they don't want to weaken the administration they helped elect. E.g., the strongest resistance to the recent renewal of the Patriot Act was by libertarian Rand Paul, while President Obama praised the bill, as he signed it [Abrams]. Liberals, with few exceptions, meekly accepted this. The refusal of the Obama administration to prosecute, or even to investigate, those high level members of the Bush Administration responsible for authorizing torture and other crimes, has made the repetition of such crimes in the future much more likely.
So, if Obama were to lose as a result of millions of votes cast for a third party strongly opposing these policies, we would be better off than if he won with no noticeable third party opposition. Resistance to such acts as new military adventures, additional erosion of civil liberties, more damaging assaults on the environment, and economic measures to further enrich the rich at the expense of middle and working class people would not be inhibited by loyalty to the Democratic Party.
The assumption here is that efforts to grow the third party would be accelerated after the election, with widespread grass roots organizing, and the fielding of candidates at all levels in off-year elections. Note that an obvious way to build a strong third party would be to expand the Green Party, which is already organized in most states, and which has some excellent leaders, such as Howie Hawkins in New York. Dave Lindorff suggests that, if some strong labor unions could persuade a substantial number of the progressive members of congress to bolt the Democratic Party and join the third party, the process of creating a formidable new political force would be greatly accelerated, and an upset victory in 2012 might be a possibility [Lindorff].
There is not now, and never has been, a shortage of slick politicians ready and able to deceive the public on behalf of wealthy elites. What is in short supply today are both leaders and followers perceptive enough to understand what is happening to our country and with the fighting spirit to turn things around. Passively accepting the two-party scam can only lead us further down the road to multiple disasters [Unger-1].
Unfortunately, there are additional factors that mar our democratic system. These include campaign finance, the plurality voting system, evoting systems, and the electoral college. These problems, all of which are solvable, are surveyed elsewhere [Unger-2].
The most hopeful factor is that most Americans are unhappy with both major parties (as mentioned above) and are receptive to the idea of one or more new parties. The votes are there. Come and get 'em!
P.S. As I put the finishing touches on this essay, I found a fascinating piece by economist Jeffrey Sachs [Sachs]. I always thought he was a conventional economist, as I recalled his having given advice to the Russians two decades ago that might have come direct from Milton Friedman, and similar advice to some other countries. Now he vigorously attacks both major parties, concluding with the statement:
America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites. Until that happens, the political class and the media conglomerates will continue to spew lies, American militarism will continue to destabilize a growing swath of the world, and the country will continue its economic decline.
Jim Abrams, "Obama, in Europe, signs Patriot Act extension", The Boston Globe, May 27, 2011
Dave Lindorff, "To Hell with the Democrats!: Time to for Any Real Progressives in Congress to Bolt the Party and Start a New One", This Can't Be Happening, 07/21/2011
Jeffrey Sachs, "Budgetary Deceit and America's Decline", TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7/23/11
Stephen H. Unger-1, "Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: Our Fake Two-Party System", Ends and Means, January 5, 2011
Stephen H. Unger-2, "Fixing Our Broken Democracy", Ends and Means, October 22, 2009
Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
Don't forget to replace (at) with @ and (dot) with .
Return to Ends and Means