The following was a message I wrote to my friends on the morning of November 6, 2016. Jeffrey Goldfarb recommended that it be published at Public Seminar. I have revised it slightly for this version, but it remains an informal piece. ZVS
With a few days left before the end of this election, I wanted to offer one final persuasive appeal to those who are against Trump, but also plan not to vote for Clinton. Though I understand and sympathize with the dissatisfaction many of you feel over the choice you’ve been given in this election, I still believe there are very strong reasons not to turn them toward protest voting (or abstention). I hope you’ll consider them.
I’ve spoken with a lot of people over the past few months and I’ve thought long and hard about their arguments. I’ll try to go through my counterargument step-by-step. And I will do it without apologizing for or asking you to change your mind about the things that have made you distrust or despise Clinton.
I. THE HISTORICAL CRISIS
One reason I believe it is important to vote for Hillary Clinton is that she represents far more than herself or even her party at this moment in history. In fact, she represents the continuity of American democracy. We are not faced with the choice between a Republican and a Democrat, or even a bad Republican and a bad Democrat. Our choice is between a Democrat — who many of you feel is quite bad — and a rogue ethno-nationalist quasi-fascist with no respect for and no understanding of the principles of a pluralist, democratic society and the institutions that make it possible. Even if Clinton represents what would otherwise be a bad choice, pitted against Trump, she is the safeguard against electing an executive who answers to the most ignorant, least democratic desires of the populace and, in return, rhetorically whips them up in a horrific feedback loop that will have truly dire results for everyone except white men.
If Trump is elected, of course, American institutions won’t crumble beneath him the very next day. But they will begin to erode. The powerful grassroots reaction against the multiculturalism, globalism, and progressivism of our time — a reaction whose size and extremity we underestimated until they had a mainstream public figure to legitimate them and bring them out of the woodwork — will have the empirical and symbolic accomplishment of having enshrined their politics and their vision of America and the world within the White House. Empirical, because the head of government will be their leader; symbolic, because this latter fact will embolden and encourage them even further. The tide of reaction will be difficult to stem when the power structure, quite literally, represents it.
Perhaps this country’s institutional safeguards, which prevent our democratic principles from giving way to unchecked and anti-democratic populism, will be strong enough to withstand this assault, but they will be weakened and people will be hurt. It will take a long time to come back from it. This is a risk I am not willing to take.
Most of you agree with a lot of what I’ve written above, I think, but you feel compelled to take the risk out of principle. Trump may be what I’ve said he is, but Clinton is terrible in other ways, and you cannot bring yourself to vote for evil, even if it is “lesser.”
My response to this is that elections are the pragmatic phase of politics.
I must reassert, first, that even an evil Clinton is a democratic Clinton, a President who will not fundamentally challenge the possibility of America remaining (or, for some of you, becoming) a place where the foundational principles of the republic are taken seriously and progressively applied. Trump is simply a historical disaster waiting to happen. For whatever reservations you may have about Clinton, and you have your good reasons for them, we can look at Trump and see that he represents nothing other than the forceful reimagining of America as a white, English-speaking nation with a clear stratification of sexes, a jocular disdain for the different and marginalized, and an economics based on profits for the business class at all costs — as well as the return of America’s world role as ruthless military superpower. In other words, the rolling back of everything people have been struggling for since before the twentieth century. Clinton’s policy plans reveal that she intends to preserve and further the progress we’ve made, and that she is well informed by history and research into matters that bear on her responsibilities.
But, even if you don’t agree, even if you believe that she is corrupt, that she is irresponsible, that she is a neoliberal, that she is a warmongering murderer, etc. — and I’m not even telling you not to believe these things — the fact remains: she is the pragmatic alternative to the historically anomalous horror-in-waiting of Donald Trump.
Politics happens all the time. Electoral politics is just one phase of it, the embodiment of political developments into representatives who are meant to carry them out. By the time you are faced with an electoral choice, the symbolic work of politics has been done, and it is too late to act symbolically without also having an effect pragmatically. When you cast a protest vote, it has an actual reverberation. It does not merely signify your discontent, nor does it ensure your moral purity. It implicates you in the actual slanting of the election. You should not approach voting as a personal act, as one that bears on your soul. It is a pragmatic act, which bears upon the polity. Your voting for an alternative party, or your decision not to vote at all, does not absolve you from participating in what you believe to be the moral quandary of this electoral choice. The pragmatic implication of your action necessarily implicates you. To paraphrase an article I read somewhere: your vote signifies nothing more than its own effect.* That’s it. There is no idealistic voting, only voting with actual, real-world consequences.
I believe it is important to remove moral responsibility from the realm of ideals at these pragmatic moments — moments where we are given practical choices and called upon to make them empirically — and transfer it to the realm of strategy. At these moments, the meaning of your action lies in the weight of its consequences, not in the purity of its intent. The people who will suffer most from a Trump presidency will not benefit from your ideals, which will never mean anything to them, but they will have a much better chance in the world if you assist them in the empirical task of preventing such a presidency from happening.
Electoral politics is practical civic action within a limited range of options. The genuine “symbolic” work of politics — when ideals get exercised, fought for; when change is demanded and achieved, when grand transitions in the very ground of meaning occur that force the hand of the state to comply with the progress among its citizens — this all happens between those elections. If you are dissatisfied with your electoral choices, this means that work must be done to push our public and political culture in such a direction that it brings forth and carries into office candidates who more closely resemble what we value. To attempt to make that statement through the election itself, again, is only to mix symbolic with practical action in such a way that I believe, at this particular juncture especially, is dangerous.
III. THIRD PARTIES
Some of you may even agree with me so far. But you feel stifled, repressed by the two-party system. You hate that every four years, you are faced with two choices, neither of which actually represents you. You wonder how long we will have to settle for this system and when we are going to offer a definitive resistance to it. You want to see more progressive parties challenge the hegemony of the Democratic Party. You want to see an American politics that looks more like a real left. And you’re tired of being told to put this task on hold because there is something more important in the offing, that you have to swallow the choice “one more time” for practical reasons. Even at this moment when I believe we are facing a situation more dire than we have faced in our lifetimes, I cannot help but sympathize with this frustration, this intuition that the unsavoriness of our politics ends up being its own justification, as we must prevent one terrible thing by choosing another one that we don’t like.
Consequently, I’ve given this one the most thought. And I realized something. I don’t believe in third parties.
Hear me out!
It’s important to remember that the parties are not immovable things, defined in charters from which they cannot stray without ceasing to exist. The parties change all the time. They respond to things on the ground, they listen to and are fed by society. Their basis of power is their ability to represent what sections of the population consider legitimate.
Now, the right, historically, has actually been the “not-left.” This is going to be a bit of a simplification, but I believe it has some serious purchase. Conservatism was born as a hybrid of reactionary positions designed to restore traditional society, i.e., society as it was before the French Revolution and its widespread instigation of democratic movements. While the left, associated with sociopolitical change, has necessarily splintered under differing interpretations of how to progress (liberalism, socialism, social democracy, communism, et seq.), the right has remained there as its antithesis, as the representative of “not-those-things,” as the bastion of a world with which the challenged are already comfortable. The right is not so much a political movement as it is institutionalized negativity.
Notably, when the right has internal dissension in the U.S., it usually takes the form of who should spearhead the Republican Party. Even the libertarians, whose philosophy is actually not conservative, have tried to position themselves as a new face for the major party. And when the right takes political action, it does so with a unity and clarity of purpose that the small factions of the left — usually groups advancing a particular, limited interest — almost never achieve. Just think of how the generic principles of “the right” were able to counter a movement like Occupy Wall Street, while most of us sat here wondering, “is this a party? is this anarchist? is this socialist? is this democratic?” and so on. Attend any political event: I call them “festivals of the left” — you will see every imaginable faction of the left there vying for its own followers. The people standing around them counter-protesting are not concerned with such things: they have an assumed solidarity.
This is the essential, if unfortunate, nature of politics — always has been, since the King was toppled. We on the left have many ideas about what we should be, whereas what people already value is generally secure, a given. We find ourselves dissatisfied having to accept the terms of some other vision, or having to compromise between them, while our opponents can be generally happy that they oppose all these visions, en toto.
In a situation like this, there simply has to be a left party as hegemonic as the Republican Party in order to challenge it. (For those familiar with the terminology, when I say “hegemony,” I mean it like Laclau and Mouffe, not Gramsci.) The American left has to be able to carry a majority vote, because without a similarly splintered right, the right will always, without fail, carry a plurality vote. The Democratic Party, over a historical process, has become that hegemonic party, and represents the only institutional power the left, as a whole, has against conservatism.
Now, importantly, I’m not suggesting that we just take the Democratic Party for what it is, support it unquestioningly, and suck it up. On the contrary, consider what I said before: the essential work of politics happens between elections. The Democratic Party can be influenced. It can be changed, and it has. It has to. In order to remain legitimate, it has to be a reasonable representation of the various positions that support it. It has obviously been failing to do so in the eyes of many, and so we now feel that we must abandon it — we must reject it for its mildness and start to put our votes into building up alternative parties, parties that take our concerns more seriously, even though the process won’t pay off for some time.
But I actually think that if we’re willing to put in the hard work, we should put it where it’s most likely to pay off. Dismantling the power of the Democratic Party, therefore, seems dangerous. I see how poorly the factions of the left get along. (And I’ve been on the wrong end of it.) Their grudging commitment to pooling their votes for the Democrats is pretty much the only thing that keeps them together. With that commitment eroding, we will be left with a bunch of factions, none of which will be able to regain that kind of power. I, thus, think the thing to do is to put pressure on the Democratic Party. Show the Democrats that they will be supported when they get serious about the issues we struggle for.
We saw a remarkable thing this year with Bernie Sanders. Sanders was trying to get the Democratic nomination, not run as a third party candidate, and in doing so he redefined what the Democratic Party could be. If you’ve listened carefully to Hillary Clinton, you’ll see that she was listening. She has moved left in very important ways since his defeat, absorbing his passionate concern for racial and economic justice. It would be a shame if we let ourselves believe that Bernie Sanders was the only hope the Democratic Party has to transform and that his narrow loss means we must throw the whole thing out. On the contrary, it means that we have reached a stage where it is possible to make a forceful argument for social democratic politics and be taken seriously! We are on the verge of something. We can use our everyday political activity to make Clinton’s presidency closer to what we want it to be, and in the future, with such a legacy secured, we can parlay it into even stronger candidates that will do an even better job of representing a politics that balances freedom, equality, and justice.
(Of course, I’m assuming that the various lefts can step outside of the tendency they have to totalize and ideologize, and thus function in synthesis. I sure hope they can. The alternative is grim.)
In essence: the most effective thing you can do in this election is vote for the party most likely to respond to your politics — and then push that party to do exactly that. We have to look at the ways that our ideals intermingle with practical consequences. I fear that in our righteous and entirely justified desire to break with this state of affairs and push into a better future, we are overlooking the best ways to do it, considering them contaminated. We need to remove this symbolic perspective from our electoral practices and transfer it to our everyday politics, so that we can act pragmatically while recognizing that politics is what we make it. That’s what democracy’s good for. What we do on the ground actually changes what happens above us. It doesn’t just descend upon us helplessly. And when it does, we have the power to intervene. We should do it, and wisely.
*I tried, but was unable to locate this article. If someone knows the reference, please comment and the text will be revised with a link.