Donald J. Trump is now officially the Republican Party nominee for President. Many, many people predicted he would never get there (myself included, in print and over the airwaves). But the unthinkable has happened.
Something else strange is happening as well. The closer Trump gets to the White House the more political radicals who self-identify as leftists complain that fearmongering about Trump is being used as an excuse to get voters to support the presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. They say it is blackmail that is being used by more moderate liberals to extort radicals to their left into voting for someone who they say is only slightly less worse than Trump. Whether you think the threat of Trump becoming some kind of fascist dictator is real or not, my question is since when did voting for Hillary suddenly make somebody a liberal?
Hillary is no radical leftist. She is not even a more moderate liberal. Over time, her politics have become more complicated tacking left and right as necessary to build a majority coalition of supporters in an increasingly conservative political climate. It makes her less than totally believable when she speaks on various issues. She has a shady history of being less than forthright with the public about her personal behavior. Her near-indictment over her emails as Secretary of State is just the latest incident undermining the public’s trust about her as a person. As a result, she is an outstandingly unpopular candidate, only marginally less distasteful than Trump as polls consistently show. Certainly, voting for her doesn’t demonstrate you are some kind of leftist seeking fundamental change in our politics.
Yet, voting for Hillary is also by no means evidence that instead you are some kind of weak-knee liberal who simply wants tepid reforms that basically keep in place the existing class-race-gender system, commonly referred to as the socio-economic order. In fact, the vote by itself indicates nothing much either way, especially given our politics today.
Trump is an embarrassment to us as a people who aspire to having a democratic political system that can work to treat its citizens fairly and justly. He is an abomination: cognitively, emotionally, personally and politically. He can’t think straight. He can’t keep his temper. He has a history of personal misbehavior that borders on the criminal, and his politics is beyond the pale, pandering to racists, xenophobes, misogynists and jingoists. No greater a demagogue has come this close to the presidency in the entire history of the United States. Compared to Trump, Hillary is a sign that our democratic aspirations might live on if we find a way to work with her and her Party. People who are to the left of Hillary, liberals and radicals, can vote for her in good conscience that they are preventing disaster and laying the groundwork for better days.
But the key point here is that choosing to vote for someone in our presidential system should not be seen as the defining act of your political identity. Given the limitations of the system, the dominance of two major parties, the outsize influence of big money donors, the fact that most Americans are not automatically predisposed to support left-wing parties and candidates, and a host of other limitations, we should not burden the vote (which can only do so much in such a system) with being the definitive marker of a person’s politics. People of all kinds of political affiliations might vote for a candidate for all kinds of reasons in spite of their underlying political philosophy or predispositions.
There are no universal laws of politics (as many leftist political theorists have insightfully noted). Instead, politics needs to be understood as it plays out in any one place and time. It is contextual, and action is guided by contingent strategic considerations. So what might have been the best way to proceed to get progressive change back in the day under the old ordinary capitalist political economy may not be appropriate for acting now in the new neoliberal capitalist political economy. Today, political power is greatly concentrated, and the opportunities for radical change are more limited. For now, we need more than previously think about how to work through the existing political system rather than focusing on simply toppling it. By the way, toppling implies it is already teetering and just needs to be given an extra little push before it falls over (as Benjamin Barber once noted). That is not the situation today.
As unappealing as it might sound, today, we need to think less in Marxist and more in Weberian terms about how to work through the political system rather than just trying to go around it. That might mean voting for Hillary even though she is not entirely consistent with what we would like in a candidate. A strategic voter for Hillary does not mean you are not a leftist. You can still be one beyond the voting booth.