Several commenters have noted Adolph Reed’s response to critics of his Harper‘s cover story, which is worth reading. Near the top of the article, he makes an important refinement to his argument:
There’s a vast gulf between “elections don’t matter” and “shut up and lineup behind this season’s Democrat.”
For the record, I don’t argue for backing third party candidacies, which as a rule are quixotic by definition, and I agree with Goldberg that in any given election it’s overwhelmingly likely to be true that the only realistic choice is to vote for whichever Democrat is running. So her beef on that score is with someone else, not me.
At this point I think we’re mostly in agreement on tactics. I should say, though, that I think Reed’s implication that he was being misread are somewhat unfair. Consider this from the original essay:
Even those who consider themselves to the Democrats’ left are infected with electoralitis. Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection. For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the “pivotal” Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was the last time.
It’s absolutely true that Reed does not explicitly endorse third-party campaigns in the article. But the “there is only one option” language strongly suggests that those to the left of the median Democrat should consider doing something else than vote “for whichever Democrat is running.” If it doesn’t mean that, I’m not sure what it does mean. I don’t think it’s unfair for readers of the article to draw the clear inference from this argument, particularly in the context of an argument about how the Democrats keep getting worse and worse. But, at any rate, since he seems to have repudiated this implication the point is moot.
There remain a couple points of disagreement. First, we can return to “dealbreakers” logic:
My vote for Nader in 2000, by the way, stemmed mainly from the right-tilting campaign Gore ran, which was embodied in his selection of reactionary tool Joe Lieberman as his running mate. (And I’m still proud to say that I’ve never voted for Lieberman for anything.)
First of all, I simply don’t agree that Gore ran a “right-tilting” campaign. It was a significant more populist campaign than Clinton or Dukakis ran, and more to the point 43% of the electorate saw Al Gore as “too liberal” (versus only 34% of the electorate saw Bush as “too conservative.”) Had Gore run any further left, Florida’s electoral system and vote suppression, the Supreme Court, and Nader all would have been moot because Bush wouldn’t have needed any of them. As for the Lieberman point, well certainly Lieberman was terrible even pre-Iraq. And while I understand Gore’s logic — it’s an essentially ceremonial position, and selecting Lieberman caused pretty much the only truce in the media’s two-year War on Gore, history teaches us that selecting someone who isn’t fit to be president to chase trivial-at-bets electoral advantages is a bad risk. Gore made a poor choice. Having said that, the vice presidential selection is a particularly strange choice of dealbreaker. FDR’s first vice president, a segregationist and anti-labor reactionary, makes Lieberman look like Paul Wellstone — does anyone think FDR was unworthy of liberal support? It’s also not, ah, clear to me that getting Dick Cheney as vice president to avoid Joe Lieberman is a good tradeoff.
Leaving aside the realm to tactics to return to the meat of Reed’s argument, I remain unconvinced. Here, I think, is an argument that reflects the key point of my disagreement with Reed’s analysis:
But we haven’t been able to win anything that a left would want in a long time, longer than most of the Nation‘s ideal readers can remember.
Leaving aside things like DADT repeal, the Ledbetter Act, and the DOJ’s increased action on issues like police brutality and voting rights — none of which are trivial — if comprehensive health care reform that includes a massive, historic expansion of Medicaid isn’t something that “a left would want,” well…I guess we have a very fundamental disagreement about the left should want. This is exactly why the “ACA was a Republican proposal” fallacy is so pernicious — an issue that demonstrates a massive gulf in the priorities between the parties has been used to blur them, in a way that both diminishes the importance of the most important social policy legislation since the Johnson administration and is far, far too kind to the Republican Party.
It’s true that while the ACA is not “neoliberal” it’s also not a total liberal victory; it reflects a compromise between progressives and conservative Democrats. But if the fact that it’s not a total victory is enough to take it out of the left’s win column, none of the New Deal counts either. Forced compromises to achieve progressive goals is far from something new under the sun; until we get a parliamentary system apportioned by population liberal social policy is going to require buying off vested interests, and this isn’t a problem clever tactics or increased labor density will solve.
And so I still don’t buy Reed’s argument that the Democratic Party’s “center has moved steadily rightward since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” It’s instructive that in the response most of his examples of Democratic perfidy come from the Clinton administration, and one of the two prominent examples from the Obama era is a case where Reid and Pelosi stopped something from happening. On education policy, granted, Reed is on more solid ground, but if the argument is that Obama/Reid/Pelosi is supposed to make me nostalgic for Carter/Byrd/O’Neill, I’m going to have to continue to demur.