The silly season is upon us, and it may be predicted–indeed, Alexander Cockburn did exactly that yesterday, in his recitation of the lessons of the parrot –that once again the pwogwessives will work themselves up over the Democrats, and it may also be predicted that once again you will point out their folly. Your facts and logic will be unassailable, and I and your other fans will enjoy CounterPunch’s mocking the pwogs stampeded to the ballot box in panic over the possibility of a Republican victory; yet you will convince few. Most of your target audience will close their eyes, grit their teeth, hold their noses, and swallow whatever the Democrats offer. Allow me to offer another argument.
Most people who vote Democratic do not do so because they believe what the Democrats say: indeed, one difference between Republican and Democratic voters is that the former hope their candidates mean what they say while the latter hope their candidates do not mean what they say. You have heard the assurances: Kerry or Hilary (or whoever) is going along with the war (or whatever) as an electoral ploy. In the meantime, aren’t they less evil than the Republicans?
The flaw in that line of argument is that in every election one candidate (although it can be hard to tell which) will be less evil than the other. Deciding on that basis not merely does no good; it does harm. The effect of the policy of choosing the “lesser evil” is that over time it makes the choices worse.
It works like this: In the U.S., lacking proportional representation, both major parties are coalitions, one ranging from the center to the right, the other from the center to the “left”. The dickering that takes place in other countries among parties after the election takes place here within each party before the election. Normally, each party takes its core voters for granted–where else can they go? The electoral campaign becomes an effort to occupy the center. As Nixon put it, the path to Republican success was to veer to the right in order to gain the nomination and then scurry to the center in order to win the election. Democratic politics are the mirror image of what Nixon described.
The effect of this process is to establish a “broad consensus” in the center, and to marginalize the “extremists” within each party; once the candidate is selected, they count for nothing–except their votes. But what if the “extremists” in one or the other party refused to be taken for granted–in other words, withheld their votes?
Recent history offers an instructive example of this happening. Despite Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, his supporters did not reject “extremism” and return to the “mainstream”. Instead, they refused to support the moderate, Rockefeller, wing of the Party. They watched their Party go down to defeat rather than allow it to adopt policies that contradicted what they thought it should stand for — in the words of C.L.R. James, “the essence of principled politics”. (Yes, the Republican Party won the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, for conjunctural reasons, but the Democrats continued to control Congress, Nixon accepted the Democratic consensus and did not represent the Republican Right.)
Reagan’s victory in 1980 was a turning point (one of those “critical elections political scientist James Burnham talks about, like 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, and 1932), 1992 brought the Gingrich “revolution,” and then came the triumph of the neo-cons. The effect of the principled course adopted by the Republican Right after 1964 was to shift the political debate in the country in their direction.
Contrast their behavior with the reaction of the liberals to McGovern’s defeat in 1972: Its memory still haunts them and from it they “learned” never again to take a stand on anything that could cost them votes in the “center”. Today’s Democrats — Kerry, Clinton and the rest — stand to the right of Nixon on foreign policy, the economy, civil rights, repression of dissent and virtually every other question (perhaps excepting personal conduct issues). The liberals and pwogwessives have contributed to this outcome by their habit of unconditional, if grumbling, submission to the Democratic establishment. Imagine the effect on politics if the millions of voters who oppose the bipartisan foreign policy, etc. were to say to the Democratic establishment, No, you cannot have my vote, not until you give me something besides a wink to tell me you are better than whatever monster the Republicans have nominated. Yes, it would probably lead to some Republican victories (which may very well happen anyhow), but it would also lead to a reconfiguration of the party system (posing new problems), and perhaps more.
Allow me to cite a personal experience. The only time I ever voted was around 1990 in response to a request from a friend who asked me as a favor to set aside my principles and vote for the rent-control slate in a city election in Cambridge, Mass., thereby helping him save his low-rent apartment. The slate won. Shortly after the election, a group of homeless people set up a tent city on a vacant lot owned by MIT, on which MIT was planning to erect “market value” apartments. The Cambridge police evicted them, tore down their tents, and destroyed their few modest possessions.
A motion was introduced in the City Council to censure MIT; predictably, it passed. Then a motion was introduced to withhold city approval of some MIT-sponsored project until MIT apologized to the homeless and made restitution to them. This motion was defeated when the majority of the rent-control slate voted against it, not wishing to offend generally “liberal” MIT. To this day, I wince when I remember that my vote contributed in a small way to the eviction of the poor from their tents. (By the way, rent control no longer exists in Cambridge, having been overturned in a statewide referendum a few years later; my friend’s rent tripled, and I might as well not have bothered.)
Beginning in elementary school, official society dins into us the message that voting is the way to be heard. Experience and reason suggest that sometimes not voting is the way to be heard (assuming that there exist any circumstances in which elections can make a real difference-a position I grant here for the sake of argument).
NOEL IGNATIEV worked for over twenty years in steel mills, farm equipment plants, and machine tool and electrical parts factories. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Race Traitor: a journal of the new abolitionism, the author of How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 1995), and co-editor, with John Garvey, of the anthology Race Traitor (Routledge, 1996). He teaches history at Harvard University. He can be reached at Noel.Ignatiev@massart.edu