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Can The Democratic Party Problem Be Solved?


The midterms have essentially ended any prospect for substantial progressive legislation for at least two years and probably longer, so progressive infighting will only intensify. Many critiques of Obama from the left — especially on his civil liberties record and his glacially paced and timorous process for executive and judicial branch nominations — are very much valid. On domestic politics, the question is more complex; in general, both the press and among both the Democratic and third-party left greatly overrate the president’s ability to enact legislation in general and overstate the importance of presidential rhetoric by a factor of about twelve billion. Still, there’s plenty of room for disappointment. The standpoint from which some of the more overheated criticism comes from is another question. As pointed out by Berube in this thread, the strangest form of criticism comes from the small faction (of which lambert is the definitive but by no means the only example) who sees Obama’s failures not as an indictment of the Democratic Party or America’s political institutions and culture, but as an argument that things would have been much better had the primary come out differently. The attempt to turn Hillary Clinton — a politician with impeccable DNC credentials whose campaign was being run by Mark Penn, fer Chrissakes — into the second coming of Eugene Debs couldn’t be more bizarre. However one evaluates Obama’s first two years, there isn’t the slightest reason to believe that the outcomes would have differed significantly no matter which viable candidate won the primary.

Greens, at least, because they harbor no such illusions about the Clintons or any other possible Democratic presidential candidate can at least offer a more plausible and coherent critique. But do they offer a viable solution? This brings us to dsquared. Daniel is a great blogger who is often a great contrarian, and the key skill of a great contrarian (like a great lawyer) is to ask and answer the right questions. This defense of third party voting is an excellent example. Scalia once said of an especially appalling Kennedy opinion that what “is obviously true is not relevant, and what is relevant is not obviously true.” I think here Daniel goes further here — everything he says is true, but none of it is really relevant. It’s true that the congressional Democratic caucus as a whole is unimpressive and not especially progressive, but unless third party voting or non-voting can change this it’s beside the point of his central claim. The reheated Anthony Downs that comprises the great bulk of his argument is true but in context proves too much. It’s true that it doesn’t matter whether any individual votes for the Democratic Party — but this applies not only to all voting but all political action. There’s no political “opportunity cost” to taking the time to vote since no not-voting political activity that an ordinary person could engage in during that time could have any impact on the course of American politics either. If we’re going to apply Downs properly, the appropriate response is just to be free riders and ignore politics entirely, not to vote Green or donate money to the ACLU or MoveOn or Chairman Bob Avakian or whatever.

Arguments about third party voting, then, generally aren’t arguments about whether any single individual should vote for the Democrats but whether groups of similarly situated individuals should vote for the Democrats. At this level, the advocate of third party voting in a first-past-the-post system has to address the fact that an unwillingness to sully one’s purity with strategic voting has very real downsides (such as hundreds of thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars wasted attacking a country that poses no threat to the United States, fiscal policy that increased inequities and make s future progressive reform much less viable, several decades each of Roberts and Alito, etc. etc. etc.) and no discernible benefits. If third party voting is supposed to be the key to making the Democrats better, well, Nader already succeeded in his goal of throwing the 2000 election to Bush — how did that work out? According to Daniel, not very well — and, remember, this is true! So I’m not sure why the next time will be the charm.

…as Pithlord notes in comments, see also Julian Sanchez.

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