The political left has been tearing itself up of late with a rousing game of “Who Wants to Be the Most Liberal Liberal Ever To Liberal,” much in the same way it seems to each and every election cycle. The current battle, between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, would be much more entertaining if the arguments for and against both campaigns weren’t variations on the same tired leftier-than-thou rhetoric and blind loyalty that were worn out even before Ralph Nader threw his rumpled corduroy blazer over his shoulder and slunk off into the humid Florida night.
I’ll get to some of those arguments in a minute, but first I’m going to pull on my old-man pants, hike the waist up to my armpits, shake my fist at some clouds, and share a couple of the strongest memories I have of the months leading up to the 2000 election, when I was a 26-year-old, semi-politically-aware liberalish Gen-X voter.
I recall a debate that year about whether true liberals should vote for Nader because, in his formulation, there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major-party candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush. I recall email blasts from at least one acquaintance in a toss-up state trying to interest his friends in states that were safely for Gore in a voting trade of sorts, whereby one of us would cast our vote for Nader; in return, our friend would cast his vote for Gore. The thinking was that this would preserve a Democratic victory in both states while also registering liberal protests at the centrist drift of the party.
I recall spending the night before the election drinking in a P.F. Chang’s in Los Angeles with a group of friends, one of whom had brought along a reporter from the L.A. Daily News who planned on casting her vote the next day for Nader. There had been some vague concern over polls showing the race for California’s 54 electoral votes might be close, but she assured us all that this was not the case. California was safely in Gore’s column, so liberals might as well cast that protest vote.
I recall thinking that this was a dumb idea, mostly because I followed the campaign closely enough to believe that the “not a dime’s worth of difference” formulation was utter garbage. But there was a nationwide movement of voters like my acquaintance and that reporter pushing the deal.
I recall spending election night lying on the floor of my room, nursing an enormous hangover, screaming at my TV when the networks started calling Florida for Bush. It seemed that some liberals in Florida had cast those protest votes in the closest of close races because they just couldn’t bring themselves to pull the lever for Gore. So we got Florida and the recounts and the Brooks Brothers riot and generally a display of American democracy in action that was more embarrassing than anything in the previous 30 years, which up until then you wouldn’t have thought possible.
Now, 15 years later, does anyone want to argue that there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the potential Gore administration and the clusterfuckery that we got with Bush? Because if you do, my family owns some swampland – er, I mean highly prized and valuable real estate in Florida — that we would be happy to sell you.
“But Hillary’s personality!” I can hear you screaming. So, tell pollsters you’d rather have a beer with whomever the Republicans nominate. Just don’t vote that way. It’s a stupid question anyway, though that didn’t stop someone from asking it in 2000 and in every election since. More people answered Bush in 2000. I shudder to think it might have earned him some votes.
“Who cares about the Supreme Court? It’s not an issue!” As Scott Lemieux never tires of pointing out, the justices a president might nominate very well should enter into your calculations. Just ask anyone affected by the votes and decisions of Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts. That would include, off the top of my head and in no particular order: voters in Southern states who lost the franchise thanks to Roberts helping to gut the Voting Rights Act; poor people shut out of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion because Roberts basically invented a new judicial doctrine to justify making it optional for states; and women who will lose their access to safe and legal abortion if the court overturns Roe v. Wade, which could happen in the next term.
It’s no problem, those decisions only directly and negatively impacted many millions of your fellow citizens. By all means, let’s take a chance on whomever SCOTUS justices Ted Cruz sees fit to nominate. The fact of the matter is that there are currently four judges over the age of 77, so actuarial probability suggests the next president will get to appoint a couple of new ones.
“Bernie Sanders will fight for more progressive issues!” Yes he will. But he will also work under the same constraints with Congress that any Democratic president would be – namely, that the GOP has a lock on the House and even a Republican minority can gum up the Senate – as President Obama can tell you. We’re electing someone to head a co-equal branch of government, not a banana-republic dictator who can cow his legislature into doing whatever he wants.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, she will likely work to pass some progressive bills and kick some others to the curb. Bernie Sanders will do the same if he wins, even if his worldview is consistently more liberal. Which means that broadly speaking, no matter which of them wins you will get some progressive legislation that you want, and not get some other legislation that you also want. A president only has but so much political capital to spend in the horse-trading that accompanies every piece of legislation that rolls through Congress. As Denis Leary once said, “Life sucks. Buy a fucking helmet.”
The Democratic Party may be moving back to the left, but don’t be fooled into thinking the prominence of Sanders or Elizabeth Warren signals an imminent major shift. The party is still a long way from consolidating around the type of liberalism that those figures represents. (If it wasn’t, Hillary wouldn’t be crushing Sanders by better than 20 points among Democratic voters in national polls.) And while the presidential election is certainly important, Sanders getting into the Oval Office is not a panacea for right-wing governance. There is the House and Senate, to say nothing of all the state legislatures and governor’s mansions where Republicans are enjoying the largest electoral successes they have had at just about any time in history. There is a limit to how many liberals in down-ballot races a Democratic presidential candidate will drag along with him or her in 2016. Hell, first you have to find some liberals to run in many places.
The appeal of a protest vote is understandable. And in the primaries, that’s fine. I don’t even like to use the term “protest vote” in those circumstances. You’re voting for the candidate you think will be better. If your guy loses, though, you don’t get to hide behind ridiculous protestations about Hillary Clinton being a Republican to justify writing him in or staying home in the general. Particularly if it puts an extreme conservative like Cruz or Marco Rubio or, heaven forbid, Donald Trump in the White House.
Some in my generation made a mistake in 2000 because they were unrealistic. Don’t make our mistake in 2016. There is too much at stake.