"The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton…has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far out-weighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and—more important—the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-sold on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it…. Democrats no longer speak to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day.”
—Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas, 2004
Lately, we’ve witnessed a rash of Bernie Sanders supporters declaring that they refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Some are defiant, and some are surprised at themselves — they never expected to be so turned off by a Democratic candidate. This has, in turn, produced a backlash from Democrats of all stripes who are terrified of a progressive revolt that divides the left in 2016 and leads to a Republican presidency. They paint the Sanders heretics as selfish and petulant — a bunch of sore losers who are prepared to destroy the country by omission. What they don't consider, and what I hope to argue, is that there may be a rational, tactical justification for abandoning Hillary in the general election.
Like most political arguments in America, the debate has become instantly polarized, and has planted the seeds of bitterness that may well bear fruit if Clinton wins the nomination and the intra-left schism comes to pass.
Let me step out from behind the veil: As a Sanders supporter and a political progressive, I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll vote for Clinton if she holds her lead and wins the nomination. When I convey this uncertainty to fellow Democrats, I get one of two reactions. From progressives, mild to moderate agreement — it will be agonizing to abstain, and equally agonizing to vote for Hillary. Centrist Clinton supporters have a very different reaction, which I can only describe as form of exasperation that puts them at serious risk for tearing their hair out with both hands. They make a few emphatic points, and we may as well rehash them here:
1. By not voting for Hillary in a general election, you’re contributing to the potential reign of a Republican president, and everything that entails, for at least four years. Is your memory so short that you’ve forgotten the awful consequences of George Bush beating Al Gore because of a few thousand Nader supporters in Florida?
2. The next president may well appoint multiple Supreme Court justices, which would influence our national politics well beyond one or two terms.
3. Hey, idiot: No matter how much you dislike Hillary, she’s going to be miles better than some Republican! Even your own candidate says this!
4. We would vote for Bernie if he won.
And these are all good points. More importantly, I understand these points. I understood them from the start, in fact — they’re intuitive — and I’ve factored them in to the calculus.
Nevertheless, I still see it as a difficult choice. You might call this essay an exercise in confession — I know the potential disasters an anti-Clinton revolt entails, but I have to insist that for progressives like me, choosing whether to support her is not as simple as “fall in line or open the castle gates to the Republican hordes.” There’s strategic nuance hiding behind the façade of this binary thinking, and the consequences of throwing Hillary to the wolves are not as straightforward as many would like to believe.
These are divisive times on the left, and though the anti-Hillary movement is still marginal among progressives, it's growing, and it needs to be understood on its own terms to prevent a party-wide schism.
First, let’s revisit the popular notion that by not voting for Clinton, I’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face. There are really two separate assumptions at play here, and although it pains me to do it, I'm going to skip the first assumption, which is that rejecting Clinton would be a move made out of spite — a reactionary, adult version of taking my ball and sulking home.
Others have already written extensively on the issues that make her a deeply unattractive candidate to progressives; on how she's not just dishonest — a description that applies to even the best politicians — but strikingly dishonest ... as in, so comprehensively dishonest that dishonesty has become her unofficial modus operandi, to the point that when she defended her career-long support for Wall Street by invoking 9/11 and gender in the last debate, it seemed so perfectly Hillary-esque that most Sanders supporters didn’t blink; on how she and her husband used coded race-baiting in an attempt to destabilize the Obama campaign, and is employing a watered-down version of the same dirty game to imply that Sanders is sexist; on how her campaign has colluded with the DNC to reduce the number of debates — and to stage those few on awkward Saturdays — in order to limit Sanders’ exposure and prevent a repeat of Obama’s comeback; on how she has tacked leftward merely to combat Sanders’ progressive momentum — going against a lifetime of pro-Wall Street, pro-business action — and not because she actually espouses any of her shiny new positions; on how she will abandon even the rhetoric of reform the minute she wins the primary, as she and the rest of the New Democrats abandoned workers and the middle class long ago.
I'm "skipping" this part because it's not the thrust of my argument. However, it is worth reiterating that to Sanders supporters like myself, the two candidates are not separated by a matter of small degrees, but by an ocean of philosophy and behavior. Among Clinton’s predominantly liberal supporters, male and female alike, we see a lot of projection — people who seem to be mistaking her for Elizabeth Warren — and not a lot of introspection. It would be disingenuous to deny that Hillary's campaign inspires negative emotions, but this decision ultimately comes down to tactics and policy, not spite.
And with that unpleasant business out of the way, we arrive at the second assumption of this "cutting off the nose to spite the face" charge — that a Republican victory would be far worse, to the point of disaster, than a Clinton presidency. Bernie Sanders agrees with this, and in the short term, any left-leaning person with a brain would be a fool to disagree.
So: Do we choke back our principles, hold our noses and cast a vote for Hillary in the general? Or is there a long-term argument to be made for withholding our votes and letting the Democrat lose?
We have to remember that the presidential race in America is a zero-sum game, and if Hillary doesn’t win, that means someone like Rubio does. We saw in the Bush years how quickly (and perhaps permanently) a GOP president can screw things up, and at a time when America teeters on the precarious brink of several domestic and foreign disasters, it seems misguided to pretend that four years with another Republican in the Oval Office would have minimal impact.
On the other hand, there is a good strategic reason not to vote for Hillary, and it boils down to this: If progressives fall in line, it shows the DNC and the party's structural elite that they can have our loyalty for nothing. It sets a terrible precedent for the future. To steal a crass expression, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
Rowing in behind Clinton only justifies the establishment logic — “just feed the lefties a few scraps in the primary, wax poetic about the Republican bogeyman in the general, and they’ll shut up.” Progressives would be giving something quite important — their votes — for a party that hides behind fear-based arguments to maintain intimate ties with Wall Street while ignoring its supposed base.
But consider this: What if we didn’t vote, and Hillary lost as a result? Like it or not, that makes a profound statement. It would likely force the Democratic party to move left on economic issues and, fearing another schism, throw its weight behind a far more progressive candidate in 2020. Bernie Sanders himself says that we need a political revolution to enact real change, and if progressives plan to build a lasting movement in America, it has to start with making our voices heard on a national scale. Sending a message to the party that we won’t be placated by politicians who stand in the regressive center is one hell of an opening salvo.
If progressives like myself still believed that the party could right the ship of state without our intervention, perhaps this would be a very different discussion. But that’s not happening — since Bill Clinton, Democrats in Washington have slipped to the right one heartbreaking concession at a time, and the voters are the only ones who can stop that inertia. If we want the party to move left, we have to turn the ponderous ship around and drag it there ourselves.
There’s an analogy here to the far-right conservative movement, which has become so influential in the Republican party that establishment candidates are finding no traction in their own circus of a primary contest. Unlike progressives, the conservative far right has realized the extent of its power — they had a certain psychological advantage in the early days, propelled as they were by religious fervor — and for Sanders supporters to do the same, it’s imperative that we don’t capitulate to the Democratic party’s big money wing. If we do, we’ll never be taken seriously.
The final question becomes one of risk assessment. A Hillary presidency, we believe, would do very little to address wealth inequality, and the situation in the middle and working classes would continue to deteriorate. Republicans would have another villain to turn their base against — maybe even a better villain than Obama, if such a thing is possible — and a means of escaping accountability yet again. Maybe they’d win the next presidential election, and if not, they’d at least stir up enough hatred and backlash to maintain their ironclad grip on Congress and state-wide offices. When 2020 came, they’d gerrymander the hell out of every district in the country to ensure another decade of legislative dominance. It's status quo all the way, and the status quo doesn't work.
But! If Hillary lost because progressives abstained from voting, it’s possible that Republican incompetence would be laid bare, and that they’d run the country into the ground over the next four years. If that’s what it takes to show the people that a leftist political revolution is the only viable way forward, it will have been worth watching Hillary bite the political dust. Come 2020, we could be looking at a landscape where progressive politics can finally gather enough momentum to sweep the country, and usher in a new era of FDR-esque reforms.
The dark side of withholding votes from Hillary is obvious, and it has to be measured, but the longer you analyze the situation, the more compelling the bright side becomes. No outcome is written in stone, but I would argue that the mere presence of reasonable doubt may be the best argument of all — if there's a possibility of reframing national politics, why push ahead on the rotten middle path? Why not be guided by reasonable doubt, and let it open our minds to the possibility of positive political action?
In the end, there is something that feels viciously self-defeating about voting with a defensive mentality. We keep hearing from centrists that the time for progressive change lies somewhere in the rosy distance, and that for now we have to settle for whatever dubious compromise Hillary Clinton represents. But you can only be told to bide your time so often before the message begins to ring hollow, and those visions of a progressive future look increasingly like a mirage designed to keep us complacent.
Those are the terms. Will 2016 be the year when a revolt is justified? For now, I remain undecided. But the doubt is growing, and centrists should understand that when they accuse progressives of turning their backs on the party, it's hard not to laugh — we're simply fighting for traction against an erstwhile ally that turned its back on us.