Glenn has found yet another “provocative” (or is that proactive? Third party vanity campaigns — a totally strategically dynamic new paradigm!) piece arguing that True Progressives should be working to throw the election to Romney. I probably shouldn’t take the bait, but this one is built around a particular fallacy I’ve never really addressed before, so I might as well. The piece has a lot of common errors — green laternism, an allergy to historical perspective — but this is the real key to his argument:
But, let us be clear. Win or lose, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama will all be fine. They win either way. Lucrative lobbying, banking, and advising jobs await all of them. “Speaker fees,” often six-figures, will be plentiful. The gravy awaits, and it’s all good. Of that we can all rest assured. What of the economic fortunes of the vast majority of the American people? Obama’s former supporters? The unemployed? Underwater homeowners? The victims of fraudulent foreclosures?
Well, here’s some news: He’s just not that into you. We’re adults. It is time to get over it. You owe him nothing because he has done nothing for you and plans to do nothing for you – unless you count the positive harm of cutting Social Security and enacting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If voting for such a person “rocks your boat,” feel free. But surely it can be understood why more than a few people may feel differently.
The idea that Obama has “done nothing” for his constituents is obviously absurd. (Hint: when a True Progressive dismisses, say, a massive expansion of Medicaid as being too trivial to even be worthy of consideration, the well-being of the less affluent may not actually be their top priority.) But I want to focus on the argument that progressives don’t “owe” Obama anything. Well, of course they don’t. No part of the coalition, from socialist to Blue Dog, “owes” their vote to the Democrats. What progressives do have a moral and ethical obligation to do with their vote is to advance progressive values. Obama and Axelrod (and, it must be said, most people urging people to support third parties) will be fine if Republicans win — but nobody actually thinks this is important. The issue is what happens to the “the vast majority of the American people” if enough people were to take Prasch’s advice. How does withholding support for Obama advance the progressive values that Obama is being criticized for not sufficiently advancing?
As with virtually all such arguments, Prasch spends very little time on this question, and rather devotes most of his attention to a litany of things Obama has done that were not sufficiently progressive, and linking to other such litanies. But in and of itself, withholding support from leaders of parties in two-party systems don’t agree with you on every issue is puerile. Positing a President who agrees with you about everything (and, implicitly, can win a majority coalition and will have the powers of a Westminster Prime Minister to enact this agenda) as a solution to political problems is no less narcissistic wankery coming from a leftier-than-thou Obama critic than from Tom Friedman.
So how exactly would throwing the elections to Republicans advance the progressive interests Obama is neglecting? He has an answer:
Anyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away. The ability to walk away explains why the service we get from our local dry cleaner is significantly better than what most of us get from our local cable provider. When you have a choice, and demonstrate a willing to take that choice, you become empowered as consumer (I might add that the same is true of labor markets, which explains why most employers prefer a higher level of unemployment than their employees). Right now, a deeply cynical reelection campaign is betting that progressives will be too afraid of Romney to seek to empower themselves. This, let us remember, has been the strategy pursued by an increasingly right-wing Democratic National Committee for close to thirty years. Every four years we are asked to vote for the lesser evil. In a couple of weeks we will all learn if this plea will pay off again. The question is, will we learn? Will we learn to bargain with a faithless leadership of the Democratic Party? If not this election, then when?
This voters-as-consumers thing is silly. “Walking away” isn’t actually how political change works in the real world — never has been, never will be. Conservatives didn’t take over the Republican Party by running third party vanity campaigns. Before the Great Society, it was the segregationists who got routed, not the civil rights and labor groups who eventually prevailed, who were threatening to take their ball and go home. A left-wing third party threw the election to Bush in 2000, but this certainly didn’t radicalize the Democratic Party. Indeed, according to Prasch the Democratic Party has actually been moving to the right. I think this is dumb — I don’t long for the Golden Age of the Democratic Party 30 years ago when Robert Byrd was the Senate majority leader and four years of unified rule produced pretty much bupkis — but certainly Obama is only marginally more progressive than Gore. “Bargaining” by throwing elections doesn’t actually provide you with any leverage, not least because the strategy is self-discrediting in subsequent. People who believed Ralph Nader when he spent a year telling them that George W. Bush was a harmless moderate no different than Al Gore aren’t going to get fooled again when you say the same crap about Mitt Romney hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and two massive upper-class tax cuts later.
Actual progressive change is hard work. Magical thinking about third parties that agree with you about everything doesn’t make hegemony go away. It’s a bad idea not because Democrats “deserve your vote” but because if it “succeeds” it actively bad for the interests and values progressives are supposed to care about, in exchange for no benefits whatsoever.
…rea in comments: “If your town has only two dry cleaners, and one turns your suits purple when you take your clothes there to be cleaned, your ability to walk away in the course of bargaining with the other is somewhat constrained.”
…and, yes, what Pierce said.