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“If You Want to Send A Message, Use Western Union”

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In her fine recent piece, Michelle Goldberg makes a point about electoral nihilism I’ve never seen put so well:

But here’s the thing: arguments for ignoring electoral realities, for backing some quixotic third-party candidate or imagining that leftists can sway the system through ultimatums, are based on precisely this fantasy. Movements lead politicians, not the other way around, and simply deciding that the politicians we have aren’t good enough won’t will a movement into being. A left that absented itself from the dirty work of electing a president would be indulging in the very reflex Reed decries: trying to send a message to those in power rather than contending for power itself.

The right understands this; it has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up, built a huge network of interlocking intellectual, legal and political institutions and mobilized every four years to try to elect a Republican president.

Precisely right.

One curious thing about the Reed essay is that we don’t have to discuss the merits of electoral nihilism in the abstract — only a little more than a decade ago we saw a segment of the left declare war on the Democratic Party, assure supporters that there was no meaningful difference between the parties, and attract just enough support to produce catastrophe for the world. Reed’s attempt to deal with this obvious rebuttal was…not one of the stronger points of his essay:

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.

I didn’t really understand at the time how anyone could have thought that a candidate who governed to the right of the Texas legislature, running with the Republican congressional coalition of 2000 on this platform, could have been seen as a harmless moderate not really different than Al Gore. But, OK, the candidate’s father was a fairly moderate Republican, Clinton was a fairly conservative Democrat — I can sort of reconstruct this peculiar blend of cynicism and wishful thinking however strongly I disagreed with it. But to continue making the argument after 8 years of George W. Bush? “Hundreds of thousands dead all over the world, arbitrary torture, two massive upper-class tax cuts, Sam Alito and John Roberts, letting New Orleans die, Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, total economic collapse — that compassionate conservative really didn’t work out too badly in the end!” If you think that was a price worth paying to send an ineffectual message to the Democrats, I just have to conclude that the premise is an unfalsifiable matter of faith.

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