A stench too great

For many progressives, the "lesser-of-two-evils" argument is no longer enough

By David Futrelle

Published October 7, 1996 8:52AM (EDT)

the American left might not agree on much, but on one thing there is
virtual unanimity: Bill Clinton is no Eugene Debs -- he's barely even a Jimmy
Carter. Most of us who describe ourselves as progressives
face the same horrid question every four years: should we
hold our noses, as they say, and vote for the lesser evil? Usually the
answer is a troubled yes; this year more and more of us seem to be saying

Already several prominent progressives have come out against voting -- or, at
least, against voting for Clinton. In the pages of The Nation last week,
Marc Cooper and Micah Sifry
endorse Ralph Nader -- who, if you haven't
already heard, is running for the Presidency, albeit in a somewhat
half-hearted way, on the Green Party ticket.
The previous week, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt explained why she's not going to be voting for the man who just slashed the welfare state; she doesn't seem to have a candidate she can call her own.

Meanwhile, in the Village Voice, James Ridgeway, who is particularly incensed at Clinton's environmental record, asks a tough question:
"Faced with a homogenized, mainstream political landscape, what's a decent
voting citizen to do?" The answer, he suggests, may be waiting in the
wings -- in the formface the same horrid question of the Nader candidacy and in the small formations of
the New Party and the Labor Party. Sure, the chances of Nader winning are
about as remote as the chances of Fabio winning the Nobel Prize, and
neither the New Party nor the Labor Party are even bothering to field
national candidates. But, Ridgeway suggests, this election may well "push
people into rethinking the reason for voting" -- and towards real third-party

This is hardly the first time that leftists have suggested bagging
the two-party system. Countless small sectarian groups opt out every four
years, running their own quixotic campaigns or urging the American people
to "boycott the elect-chains" (as one leaflet I've gathered up suggests I

But election after election, progressives have found reasons to
vote for the Democratic candidate as the lesser of two evils. Sure, he may
be an opportunist, but consider the alternative! Our boy will protect the
safety net; he'll defend gay rights; and just think about the Supreme Court! This year, such arguments hold less water: Clinton has slashed welfare;
he signed a bill invalidating gay marriages; and his court appointments have been, as The Progressive pointed out earlier this year, "wealthier and more closely tied
to the business and prosecutorial wings of the legal profession than the
nominees of Ronald Reagan and George Bush."

Such palpable discontent was rare four years ago. Then, many progressives
looked upon the Clinton victory with enthusiasm; the left-leaning biweekly
In These Times (for which I'm a contributing editor) graphically celebrated
the election results by bedecking its cover with Clinton/Gore balloons -- and
for the next three years, faced torrents of angry mail from readers
whenever it gave the President a hard time.

Now many of these critics aren't so sure. NOW's Patricia Ireland wants Clinton to win. But, as she confessed in a Nation round-table, she "will have a difficult time voting for Clinton,"
and "for sure I will not lift a finger to campaign for him."

In part, ironically, this
anti-Clinton sentiment on the left stems from Clinton's relative popularity
with the population at large: since no one expects him to lose,
progressives feel freer to cast a protest vote -- or even not to vote at all.
In other words, at this point a protest vote is still merely a protest vote. Apart from Ross Perot's big-bucks Reform Party, a party that has even less
appeal to leftists than it does to the public at large, the left-wing alternatives are slender reeds indeed. Nader,
running ostensibly on the Green ticket, is in fact barely running at all;
his campaign, such as it is, is more accurately described as an
anti-campaign. He raises no money, and promises to spend no more than $5,000
of his own; he won't file with the Federal Election Commission; he doesn't
even have a stump speech.

The other alternatives on the left aren't much weightier. The recently formed Labor party isn't running a
Presidential candidate, and the New Party -- despite the endorsement
of such lefty notables as Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel
West -- refuses to run national candidates until it has a proven track record
in smaller elections. (So far, it's won 94 of the 140 state and local
elections it's participated in -- though most of its candidates ran in
nonpartisan elections and only 5 percent explicitly held aloft the New Party

Pollitt's implied solution -- not voting for President at all -- has a sharp,
clean logic to it: you don't have to "hold your nose and vote," as the
saying goes, and leave the election booth feeling used and abused by a
candidate who's sold you out.

And, as Nation reader Andrew Hunt argued recently in the
Nation's online
, by abstaining you have a chance to convince the Democrats to stop
taking progressive votes for granted. "Bill Clinton does not even make an
effort to court progressives, because he knows that no matter what he does
to alienate us, enough of us will keep coming back for more," Hunt
complained. "The time has come to quit groveling, like so many pathetic
dogs, at Clinton's feet. If everybody on the Left -- progressives,
environmentalists, socialists, liberals, radicals -- withholds their votes
for the Democrats, you had better bet the Democrats will begin to take the
Left seriously."

But unless you can make the reasons for your abstention compelling -- and public-- say, by publishing a letter to the editor,
or writing a column in The Nation, this kind of
purity is hard to distinguish from simple apathy. If you're not going to
vote, you need to make some noise -- otherwise you're really opting out.

The American left, in short, finds itself in the same predicament as millions
of dissatisfied voters across the political spectrum: up the creek without
a candidate. As Republican pollster Linda Divall noted on PBS' NewsHour
earlier this year, approximately one third of the voters say they want some sort of third party -- but (as she delicately phrased it) "you rarely see a specific
candidate able to match that desire."

Still, some among the pundit class are predicting big changes over the next few years. In the Washington Post this August, David Broder argued
that the next couple of years are "Last Chance Gulch for the old parties."
Unless the Democrats and Republicans both are able to respond to voter
discontent, he argued, our two-party system will crumble beneath us.

Broder expects Perot's Reform Party to be the one that capitalizes on the instability of the current system. However, such
dramatic changes would undoubtedly open up space on the left as well. Even
though our complaints (and protest votes) aren't going to make much of a
practical difference this year, the third party efforts already underway
may well bear fruit down the line -- perhaps as early as four years from

David Futrelle, a regular contributor to Salon's Sneek Peaks, wrote about teen sex in a recent Newsreal. He didn't vote for Clinton four years ago, and will not be voting for him this year.

Quote of the day

What he really meant to say...

"I want you to know that I'm a big enough person not to bring up the whole sordid Whitewater affair in which you're hopelessly enmeshed nor will I discuss Susan McDougal -- currently languishing in prison and despair because she's trying to cover somebody's butt, I'm not saying yours, Mr President, but it does make the American people wonder -- and how you probably are going to pardon her at the first opportunity; nope, I'm not going to drag that mud into public so all can see your shameful behaviour and the shady way in which you operate and what are you going to do about all that
anyway? And by the way, I'm not bringing this up."

-- The Capitol Steps version of Bob Dole's subtle Whitewater references in last night's debate. From "The Candidates Debate (or something ...") in Monday's The Capitol Steps: SoundBytes on the Net

David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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