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The Party Left Me And Other Complaints of the Voter-As-Atomistic-Consumer

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Freddie deBoer has made his quadrennial Dramatic Exit from the Democratic Party. Are the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign, the fact that a very brief period of unified Democratic government produced a collection of progressive reforms with fewer than five equals in all of American history, and/or the facts that the Democratic candidate will be running on the party’s most progressive platform in decades encouraging signs? Nope — as we know, for Freddie politics is supposed to be the instantaneous boring of wet tissue paper, and if you don’t fully succeed the first time you play you should take everybody’s balls home and destroy them.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting at the outset that deBoer repeatedly frames this as a dispute with the “Sanders campaign.” But of course it is not. It is a dispute with “people who will not support the Democratic candidate for president, despite the many horrible foreseeable material consequences for the most vulnerable people in America that would flow from a government controlled by Trump and a Republican Congress.” Bernie Sanders has repeatedly said that despite their real differences Clinton is vastly preferable to any Republican and that defeating Donald Trump is a critical imperative for anyone on the left. deBoer is against Sanders and most of his supporters here, not with him. It is also worth noting that this is not an ideological dispute; it is not about FAILING TO RECOGNIZE THAT THERE ARE PEOPLE TO YOUR LEFT. Noam Chomsky believes that swing-state voters should support the leftmost viable candidate in general elections; Tom Friedman, conversely, shares Freddie’s view that there really needs to be a third-party candidate that agrees with him in every detail because coalition-building should be obsolete for today’s consumer.

Anyway, most of this very long piece is just a list of ways in which Hillary Clinton is to Freddie deBoer’s right, which is of course neither here nor there in terms of the question the general election presents, i.e. is “she substantially better than Donald Trump?” This has all of the problems that “dealbreaker” arguments always have. It is worth noting, however, just how threadbare some of his “dealbreakers” are, and how nutty the theory of politics they’re connected to is:

I am opposed to a Hillary Clinton presidency because I find that, despite the way her supporters claim her as some sort of champion of social liberalism, she has in fact had to be dragged to progressive opinions on social questions for years. She was publicly opposed to gay marriage up until that point where it became untenable for a Democrat to be so. Her previously-mentioned support for the crime bill and welfare reform demonstrates a failure to understand where social problems come from. Her squishiness on abortion concerns me. In general, her stance on social issues frequently seems defensive and motivated by political concerns rather than principled.

Hillary Clinton is running the most aggressively pro-reproductive-justice campaign of any major party candidate in history, and it’s not close. She doesn’t merely favor the restoration of Roe v. Wade; she favors ending the Hyde Amendment, and has made the explicit case that barriers to abortion access disproportionately affect poor women. Is this celebrated? Nope; deBoer remains concerned about her “squishiness” on abortion because of disagreement on a single issue. He is, however, not so concerned with reproductive rights that he thinks it’s at all important that Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and/or Anthony Kennedy be replaced with justices who support the restoration of Roe rather than its overruling. Why, it’s almost as if his real concern is not the reproductive rights of American women but finding any possible pretext to declare himself too good for the Democratic Party. (Note the Catch-22 deBoer is setting up for the Democratic Party here, his preemptive refusal to ever take “yes” for an answer. Even as the Democratic Party is shifting to the left, it’s still never worth supporting, because if you have to move to the left it doesn’t count.)

But worse than that is that the conception of politics here is absolutely ridiculous. Of course Hillary Clinton is in part “motivated by political concerns.” That’s what politics is. Trying to get people in positions of power to move in your direction is why ordinary people engage in politics. Drawing sharp distinctions between “principle” and “politics” when dealing with leaders of large brokerage parties is making a category error. Hillary Clinton will nominate judges who will restore Roe v. Wade, and she will veto any bad abortion regulations a Republican Congress would put on her desk. What mixture of principle and prudence motivates her is completely irrelevant.

Three presidents can be plausibly said to have greater records of progressive accomplishment than Barack Obama: LBJ, FDR, and Lincoln. Were these men, as deBoer suggests they must be, consistent left-wing ideologues, men who were committed to consistent left principles who did not concern themselves with practical politics and never had to be “pushed” from the left? Er, no. Good God, no. They were practical men. They were not ideologically consistent. They had progressive records in large part because of the organized pressures from the left placed on them. Lyndon Johnson had a voting record in the Senate that makes Hillary Clinton look like a Wobbly. Did civil rights and labor groups follow deBoer’s advice, refuse to work with him and support him, and seek to throw the election to Goldwater in the hopes that a REAL ally could eventually control the White House? No, they did not, because they understand politics as deBoer does not. And the result was arguably the most progressive domestic policy presidency ever. The Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise motivated in large measure by political expediency. So what? Who wants political leaders who disdain politics, who aren’t responsive to their constituents?

And it’s amazing that deBoer would bring up same-sex marriage, which constitutes about ten own-goals for his worldview. The national right to same-sex marriage was created through a path that deBoer repeatedly assures us can never work. Did the LBGT community leave the Democratic Party because Democratic leaders continued to nominally oppose same-sex marriage? No, they did not. They recognized that politicians who can potentially be pressured to adopted your favored positions are better than those who cannot be. They also recognized that what presidents do is a lot more important than what they say. Bill Clinton nominally opposed same-sex marriage when he took office, and so did Barack Obama when he took office. And yet, the four Supreme Court justices they appointed were all in the Obergefell majority. And the four first choice Republican nominees all dissented. And it’s also worth noting that the swing vote that lead to victory, Anthony Kennedy, was on the Court because a lot of liberal voters held their noses and voted for Democratic senators like Howell Heflin and Richard Shelby and Sam Nunn, who were a good sight less than ideal but were still with the party on some key issues like “should Robert Bork be confirmed to the Supreme Court?” Same-sex marriage is a perfect illustration that the White House is generally where changes end, not where they begin. And it’s also an excellent illustration that you don’t walk away from the political coalition that’s closer to your interests because you don’t win immediately.

He continues, in vain, in this vein:

I reject the insistence that it’s my responsibility to vote for Hillary Clinton out of support for the “lesser evil” because the lesser evil argument contains no coherent argument for how change occurs. The lesser evil is not good enough; lesser evilists never articulate a remotely compelling vision of how one proceeds from the lesser evil to the greater good. Politics is a form of negotiation. The lesser evil argument compels us to concede to our negotiation partner (the candidate we are meant to support) our only source of leverage (our vote) before receiving any concessions at all. You might try this in any other form of negotiation and see how well that works for you. Promising to vote Democrat no matter what ensures that Democrats have no reason whatsoever to actually improve as a party. And as long as Republicans are in a death spiral, “better than the Republicans” is a designation that simply gets worse and worse over time. Lesser evil thinking is a road that has no ending and inevitably leads to the bottom.

deBoer attacking other people for lacking a “coherent argument for how change occurs” is…astounding. There’s a reason why this argument operates entirely at an abstract level, with no historical examples. This is because history has continually and decisively refuted deBoer. Voting for Johnson, as we’ve discussed, was a classic “lesser evil” vote in the sense that he means it. So was FDR, given the many compromises the New Deal had to make with the white supremacist faction of the party. So was Lincoln, an incrementalist on an issue of the utmost moral urgency. Major progressive reforms are almost always the result of lesser-evil voting and coalition-building, and are virtually never the result of dramatic flounces out of the coalition, as the same-sex marriage movement shows. Did movement conservatives take over the Republican Party by voting third party if they didn’t win? They did not. They try to get their candidates elected in the primaries, they won some and they lost some, but they kept pushing. It’s not complicated, but it works. As a theory of political change, it’s perfectly coherent. deBoer’s isn’t even a theory; it’s a retrospective justification for his belief that he’s too good to form any political association with people on the left he deems not left enough. Let’s say enough of the left agreed with deBoer to successfully throw the election to Trump. Do you think this would be good for the American left? That it would increase their influence? The whole idea is nuttier than a warehouse full of fruitcakes. It’s a ridiculous idea in theory that has an extensive record of failure in practice.

Refusing to support Hillary Clinton from any point on the democratic left and trying to persuade others not to do so, although this election presents one of the widest gaps between the parties of any presidential election in American history, can mean one of two things. One is that all of the horrors that would flow from at least four years of a President Trump almost certainly joined by 4 years of a Republican Congress are a price worth paying to “punish” the Democrats (note: it is not Democratic leaders who would actually bear the brunt of the punishment, but people of much less privilege). This is a monstrous position, in my view, given that the horrible things are certain and the speculation that the bad things would lead to better things implausible in the extreme, but if it’s your position at least own it. Conversely, you could privately believe that Sanders is right that President Clinton would be significantly better than President Trump, and you don’t actually want the latter to happen, but you feel comfortable publicly trying to persuade people not to support Clinton because you’re confident it will be ineffectual. In some ways, this is even worse. I mean, at least “heighten-the-contradictions” is an ethos. “I refuse to support Hillary Clinton as long as I’m sure I won’t matter” isn’t “principle”; it’s “utter wankdom.” If that’s your position, why bother writing about electoral politics at all? Just write in the only person who could ever be worthy of your vote — yourself — if you bother to vote at all, and be done with it.

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