Progressive voters are confronted with a moral dilemma. The candidate most in step with their principles, Senator Bernie Sanders, did not secure the Democratic nomination for President. In his place, the party has nominated Hillary Clinton, who progressives find lacking in several respects. On the other side of the political divide stands Donald Trump, who is the walking antithesis of every value these voters hold dear. What is a progressive to do?
Over the next several days, weeks, and months many pundits and intellectuals will attempt to answer this question by debating the particulars of this campaign season. We will hear plenty about Hillary’s many shortcomings and the virtues of third party candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Democrats will worry about depressed turnout of disaffected Sanders supporters and radicals will wonder about the moral costs of compromise.
What I propose to do here is to consider how a great progressive from our history, Frederick Douglass, grappled with a similar dilemma one hundred and sixty years ago. Perhaps reflecting on Douglass’ dilemma can help us confront our own.
Douglass’ dilemma, like ours, begins in the context of political turmoil. In his case, of course, the turmoil was rooted in the evil of slavery. The Democratic nominee for President, James Buchanan, was enthralled to the “slave power” and he had a determination to see the institution spread into the country’s western territories. The Whig Party, which had been the principal antagonists of the Democrats for years, had imploded and its members were now scattered among several relatively new parties including the anti-immigrant American (or Know Nothing) Party, the Radical Abolition Party, and the Republican Party. Douglass loathed the xenophobes in the American Party so his real dilemma was whether to support the Radical Abolitionist Party, which shared his commitment to an immediate end to slavery, or the Republican Party, which was committed only to preventing the extension of slavery into the territories (and promised to leave slavery alone where it already existed.) Translated into our time, the Radical Abolitionists were the Bernies and Jill Steins on the political landscape and the Republicans were the Hillarys and the Tim Kaines.
In April 1856 Douglass published an essay called “What is My Duty as an Anti-Slavery Voter?” The piece, like so much of the rhetoric currently coming out of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, is a paen to ideological purity and principled commitment. “The ultimate success of the anti-slavery [read: progressive] movement depends upon nothing,” Douglass declared, “more than upon the soundness of its principles, the earnestness, stringency and faithfulness which they are enforced, and the integrity, consistency and disinterestedness of those who stand forth as its advocates.” The Republicans (led by John C. Fremont) are marked, he continued, by “cold calculation” and “deliberate contriving” (how very Clintonesque!) and they fail time and again to live up to the moral truths at the heart of cause. The Radical Abolitionists (led by Gerrit Smith), on the other hand, are led by candidates with “tried anti-slavery character, and of decided anti-slavery principles” so “the path of anti-slavery duty” should lead us to support them.
Before concluding the essay, Douglass confronted the obvious counter-argument: by voting for the Radical Abolitionists (or staying home out of spite) aren’t we, in effect, offering our support to the proslavery Democrats? Douglass acknowledged that this is a “grave argument” that “cannot be lightly disposed of,” but he rejected it because he worried that supporting the middle-of-road Republicans would “certainly demoralize” the revolutionary spirit of the movement.
So there you have it: if the election was held on May 4, 1856, Douglass and those who were convinced by his arguments would have either stayed home or supported the Radical Abolition Party.
But the election, of course, was on November 4, 1856 and Douglass took some time to rethink his position. When readers of Frederick Douglass’ Paper picked up the August 15, 1856 edition they found an essay called “Fremont and Dayton” in which Douglass announced he had changed his mind. He recognized that this announcement would be an “unwelcome surprise” to his radical readers so he felt obliged to explain himself. Politics, Douglass explains, requires dynamism, not rigidity and we will always feel torn by principle and pragmatism.
His endorsement of the Republicans, he explained, was not an abandonment of the “genuine, unadulterated” principles of the Radical Abolitionists and it was his intention to “uphold the radical abolition platform in the very ranks of the Republican Party.” He insisted that our duty is to act in response to the most “commanding and vital” issues before us and to support the candidates who can “inflict the most powerful blow upon” the greatest evils we confront. We might be able to imagine plenty of folks who would be able to hit harder, but striking distance matters too.
It “is not within our power…to control the order of events,” Douglass explained, “or the circumstances which shape our course;” we must “determine our conduct” based on what is, not what ought to be. For all of their failings, Douglass told his readers, the Republicans are one hell of a lot less evil than the Democrats. Douglass concluded the essay by declaring that the “path of duty” requires us to act so that “great evil be averted” on the messy ground of politics while continuing to push society to ascend “the mountain peaks of the moral world.”
This, in the end, was what Frederick Douglass took to be his duty as a progressive voter. What do you take to be yours?
Nicholas Buccola is Associate Professor of Political Science and the Founding Director of the Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, and Justice at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. His most recent books, The Essential Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy, were published this spring. He is at work on a new book on the debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union in 1965.