insert tired Douglas Adams lizard joke here

Ah — the season for browbeating progressives into submission has arrived! Here’s an essay by Allen Clifton in the old familiar style:

Let me list a few numbers for everyone:
Those are the ages that Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be when the next president is sworn in, respectively. The next president we elect (assuming he or she serves two terms) could very well be the individual who selects four Supreme Court Justices.

Now, in a world where we’ve all seen how powerful the Supreme Court can be concerning the laws that impact all of us, who on the left wants a Republican such as Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz or Scott Walker potentially selecting four Supreme Court Justices . . . ?

Liberals might not like hearing this, but it’s going to be Hillary Clinton or a Republican in 2016. It really breaks down to these two options:

Either get on board with Hillary Clinton, even if she’s not everything you’ve dreamed of. – or –

Whine and cry because Elizabeth Warren isn’t going to run, become apathetic, then let Republicans win the White House in 2016; likely replace four Supreme Court Justices over the following 8 years; start a war with Iran; ruin the planet; destroy our economy again; and undo all the good that’s been done these last 6 years.

Yes, it’s really that simple.

Well, I’m sure that chiding, superior, I’m-the-adult-here tone is really gonna get ’em to the polls, bro.

All right. I will try to be nice. There are, I think, three reasons not to be sucked into the Clinton vortex just yet. I will address them in descending order of their being likely to convince other progressives.

First, the nomination is not yet hers. At this point in the 2008 cycle, Obama had not yet declared his candidacy, and although he had given a well-liked speech, he was not really a familiar national presence. (As John McCain pointed out at every turn, he had been a senator for, like, all of five minutes.) There are plenty of interesting Democrats out there, including Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley (who are already in Iowa!) and even Bernie Sanders, who has been hinting. Clifton argues that Sanders is just too OLLLLLDD, get out of the way, oldie, even though a President Sanders would be 83 at the end of a second term, which is… the same age that Justice Ginsburg is now. (Justice Ginsburg, who is widely supported among liberals in her decision not to step her old ass down from the bench.)

Clifton also argues that Sanders is unelectable because he is a self-described “socialist”:

Even if you get past his age, which many wouldn’t, he’s also a self-described socialist. If you really think this country is going to elect a self-described socialist to the White House, you really don’t know much about politics.

I don’t know, man. 40% or so of the electorate thinks that any Democrat is basically Stalin, and Republicans will inevitably paint any Democratic candidate as a state socialist, because that’s the playbook. There hasn’t recently been a charismatic populist in a presidential race who was willing to own the “socialist” label, instead of scurrying away from it like a fearful ninny. Americans may be suspicious of socialism (the name, not the practice), but they’re even more suspicious of people who are cowardly. Voters can smell fear, and they admire straightforward conviction. I don’t know how much this term would hurt Sanders if he owned it and explained what he meant by it, early and often, in populist terms.

But even if Sanders is unelectable, there may be other Democrats who aren’t, and who tick at least some progressive boxes better than Clinton does. I don’t know why we have to assume, without discussion, that she gets the nomination.

The second reason I don’t think I have to roll over for Clinton is that we don’t know who the Republican nominee will be. I am not a single-issue voter, but to the degree that I have a single issue that dominates all others, it would be my generally anti-war position. I am not a pacifist, but I am an anti-interventionist, I favor dramatically limiting executive authority to wage undeclared wars, and in general I’m a follower of Smedley Butler. Hillary Clinton is, to say the least, a hawk. She voted for the authorization of force for the Iraq War, did not vote for an amendment that would have increased opportunities for a diplomatic solution, and never really apologized for any of it. (I mean, for God’s sake, Montresor — Andrew fucking Sullivan apologized.) She also has nice things to say about Henry Kissinger, has consistently supported militarization of the drug war, and has provided public and backroom support for creepy and dubious foreign regimes, like the one that ascended to power in Honduras in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Republican field so far includes someone who at least claims to be much less warlike — Rand Paul. Paul is an unlikely candidate in today’s Republican party precisely because he’s taken some dovish stances (Lindsay Graham is coming after him for it). As I wrote last week, Paul has already shown a willingness to capitulate to military-industrial interests, which makes his anti-war cred open to suspicion. But suppose he somehow seizes the nomination, and further suppose that he makes a less interventionist, less violent foreign policy an issue in his campaign. What then? I would have the opportunity to vote for a major party candidate whose first instinct is not to assert military dominance over every corner of the world. Would I have to consider that? Yes, I think I would.

Of course, Paul comes with his own zany baggage, such as wanting to eliminate the Department of Energy and privatize everything that’s not bolted to the floor. President Paul would be very bad on, e.g., the social safety net and abortion. Weirdly, for a supposed “libertarian,” he is also not great on immigration. It should also be said that, apart from Supreme Court justices, presidents appoint the people who run executive agencies, and that matters, too; for example, federal engagement with Indian tribes has surged under President Obama because it was an executive priority. On the other hand, Paul would be good, probably much better than Clinton, on things like drawing down the drug war and restraining police violence and warrantless surveillance. And to the extent that many of his domestic policies are terrible, President Paul would be constrained to some degree by Senate Democrats — and the same thing is true of his Supreme Court choices.

But presidents have wide latitude to wage war (and the warlike ones always seem to take even more latitude than they actually have), and the human suffering of people outside our borders should matter to progressives, just as the human suffering inside our borders matters. Al-Jazeera America has a good op-ed this week reminding us of the scale of misery the United States created with our misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

The report estimates that at least 1.3 million people have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan from direct and indirect consequences of the U.S. “war on terrorism.” One million people perished in Iraq alone, a shocking 5 percent of the country’s population. The staggering civilian toll and the hostility it has engendered erodes the myth that the sprawling “war on terrorism” made the U.S. safer and upheld human rights, all at an acceptable cost.

As the authors point out, the report offers a conservative estimate. The death toll could exceed 2 million. Those killed in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere from U.S. drone strikes were not included in the tally. Besides, the body count does not account for the wounded, the grieving and the dispossessed. There are 3 million internally displaced Iraqi refugees and nearly 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

I think there’s a lot to be said for not repeating that kind of thing in the coming decade. Fortunately, another debacle on that level seems unlikely to happen in the near future. But I am unconvinced that Hillary Clinton would not, say, get into armed conflict with Iran — or even just engage in the hinky shit we always get into when playing world policeman.

There is, of course, another big elephant in the room, one that affects human happiness or misery around the world for decades to come, and that’s climate change. Paul is a libertarian-ish Republican politician, so he’s probably never going to win the Ed Begley Lifetime Achievement Award. But his position on climate change is apparently evolving — he recently voted for an amendment stating that climate change is real and that human activity contributes to it, which is more than you can say for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. And he told Bill Maher that he’s “not against regulation,” citing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which practically makes him green for a Republican. Progressives are right to be skeptical of Paul’s change of heart, but at least he’s making movements, and in the correct direction. (So far, however, his suggested solutions seem pretty lackluster — deregulating natural gas, for example. (…?) )

In all likelihood, I’d vote for Clinton over Paul because of her much stronger take on climate change (though O’Malley and Sanders are better still) — that is to say, I’d be willing to risk the possibility that she’d get us into war, be lethargic about dismantling the drug war, and do nothing at all about the surveillance/security state, in order to have a better shot at preventing serious planetwide ecological disaster.

But that’s a pretty grim lesser-of-two-evils: voting to take two steps back from the worst of climate change, while continuing to take a step or two forward in state violence, is not a cheering thought. I take the anti-war and anti-violence mandate very seriously, and that’s something I don’t think I share with Clinton, and might share with Paul. It remains to be seen whether he is at all serious about a non-aggressive foreign policy, whether he is actually a complete moron or just puts his foot in his mouth, and whether he can win the nomination.

(Also, to go back to the Democratic field for a moment: Jim Webb was right on Iraq at the time, which is a rare quality, and seems otherwise a pretty unobjectionable liberal. Soooo… why Clinton again?)

The third factor weighing against a vote for Clinton is the possibility of a third-party vote. I’ve argued before that a third-party vote is not necessarily a wasted vote: if you have minority viewpoints, sometimes the only way you get traction in a coalition party (and both our major parties are coalition parties) is to be willing to walk out and deny the party managers your support. Tea Partiers grasped this, which is why they were able to steer the Republican Party, however haphazardly, toward their policy preferences. They lost some elections and won some, and not all of their ideas found welcome in the mainstream, but indisputably they dragged the party in a certain direction. Progressives should at least consider this basic principle of political life, even while acknowledging that it could result in losses for progressive ideals in the short term.

The great defining myth (in the social and psychological sense) for progressives about third-party candidates is that Nader Cost Gore The Election In 2000. I’m not entirely convinced, for reasons that others have articulated here and here, but let’s assume that it’s true. So what? That is in fact the point of a protest vote — to hurt the mainstream wing of the party. The fact that something terrible happened in this case, way out of proportion to what should have happened, because God or Mighty Thor reached down and gave us a 9/11, does not mean that denying the mainstream wing of our party the opportunity to rule will always and forever result in such calamitous developments.

Consider, for example, Theodore Roosevelt spoiling the 1912 race for the Republicans. Woodrow Wilson won handily, and Wilson was more progressive than Taft, the Republican nominee. Additionally, Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, by being in the race, was able to push ideas like “giving women the right to vote, the abolition of child labor, minimum wages, social security, public health standards, wildlife conservation, workman’s compensation, insurance against sickness and unemployment, lobbying reform, campaign finance reform and election reform” to the front. And by laying the groundwork for a strong, independent progressive wing of the Republican party, Roosevelt and the Progressives arguably made a bipartisan New Deal possible.

Of course it helped that basically everybody in the race that year (including, to a lesser degree, Taft) was some flavor of progressive — except Eugene V. Debs, who went Full Socialist and got 6% of the vote (see, Sanders??). When everybody is pretty close, splitting the vote arguably matters less. Still, 1912 shows, at the very least, that when the moment is right (I don’t know that it is yet, but I do think change is a-comin’), a spoiler candidate is not a bad thing and can even prepare the party and the country for some very good things.

And sometimes third party candidates do not swing the election but do meaningfully shape the debate. Consider Ross Perot, who did not swing the country for Clinton but did have a lasting influence (not for the better, in my opinion, but an influence) on the nation’s debt debate, putting the fear of God into voters about the national deficit and making it a viable issue for the Republicans.

And then there was George Wallace, who came close to throwing the 1968 election to the House of Representatives and foreshadowed the Republican Party’s turn to being the party of class resentments, racism, hippie-punching, and anti-intellectualism. (Not to say Nixon didn’t hold his own in those departments.)

Still other times (most times, in fact) third party candidates have had little or no effect on anything, and are remembered as either an embarrassment or a non-entity.

My best guess is that every election is different and probably every election is sui generis. I’m not willing to let the fact that a third party candidate (may have) brought us a heap of disaster one time poison me on third party candidacies in the future. Other people’s mileage may vary, and I’m comfortable with that. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that there could easily be situations, now or in the future, where voting for a third party candidate moves a certain agenda forward, changes the nature of a political party, and does not bring about an Iraqpocalypse (even if it does come with a certain price tag as to other things). I don’t know if that will be this year (I doubt it), but I go through the thought experiment anyway, because I think it’s important, for the health of the Democratic party and progressivism, for progressive voters to be able to say that it is possible to walk away, and to let things burn a bit, in order to reach a greater good.

So those are my three reasons for not being Ready For Hillary. One is what I hope for — primary challengers to either sharpen Clinton’s left side or replace her altogether. One is the Faustian bargain I’m willing, for now, to at least contemplate. And one is the Thing We Are Afraid Of, which I think we should not fear quite so much.

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5 Responses to insert tired Douglas Adams lizard joke here

  1. Eric says:

    Wilson was more progressive than Taft? Taft who busted more trusts than T. Roosevelt, got a corporate tax bill passed through Congress, favored a liberal immigration policy, and who preferred actual diplomacy-diplomacy to sending gunboats everywhere?

    Granted, Woodrow Wilson basically created the FTC. But it’s ironic you seem to be, I dunno, sort of elevating the guy who invaded Mexico and got the United States into World War I over William Howard Taft, whose foreign policy was much more to your liking. Plus, you know, the whole “virulent racist” thing would tend to leave a bad taste in the mouth of anybody talking about the Wilson Administration even if Wilson were a better President.

    I should attempt to be even handed: Wilson’s two terms weren’t disastrous. One can even be ambivalent about the legacy of Wilson’s military adventuring: he at least delayed entry into the war in Europe, consequently the American Expeditionary Force mostly had to deal with mopping things up in the final year of the Great War and the late show of strength combined with relatively mild casualties and expenditures allowed for America’s entry into the circle of Great Powers and golden status as a economically strong, militarily capable state in the 1920s. I.e. we weren’t nobody and we still had money to throw around after the War. Wilson deserves some credit for helping create the League of Nations. (Though he was a relatively late supporter of the idea. You wanna know who was a prominent advocate for a League long before Wilson got on board with the idea? Guess! Guess! Yeah, it was Taft. And the reason the U.S. didn’t ratify joining the League? Republican isolationists in Congress didn’t like the mandate imposed by the League Charter requiring members of the LON to send military forces hither and yon to support the League. Irony?)

    Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party undeniably had a whole lot of right ideas–indeed, one might go so far as to say they had all the right ideas except for one, and that one was a doozy: running a Presidential bid. Roosevelt’s independent campaign is a serious tarnish on his legacy; it basically was the first step towards the destruction of the Republican Party and its replacement by the shambling doppleganger that currently goes by that name today. The sole good news to be found in that political epoch is that the Democratic Party was beginning its own changes, and its co-option of the national progressive movement and leaders like William Jennings Bryan was so complete that by the mid-20th Century the Democrats would be a party of labor interests, social concerns, and embracing minorities instead of the no-taxes, invade everybody, add an extra dollop of racism party it started out as in the 19th Century. But Theodore Roosevelt basically destroyed the party of Lincoln. Don’t get me wrong, I like TR and think he’s one of history’s greats, but there’s a tragedy in the number he did on the original party of a fair deal for every poor schlub.


    But as for your main point, I can be brief: I voted for Nader in 2000. I have no regrets. In North Carolina, my vote for Gore wouldn’t have counted, plus Nader hadn’t revealed himself to be a venal jackass, plus I was under the mistaken impression I was helping the Greens get future access to ballots. But North Carolina has turned into a bit of a battleground state in the fifteen years since, going for Obama in ’08 and coming down to the wire in ’12. Suddenly, my vote counts. And it’s fair to say I’ll be voting for the Democrat even if Hillary Clinton loses the nomination to an actual, literal sack of garbage.

    I’m skeptical of Clinton. I love Bernie Saunders. Jim Webb seems to be mostly alright. Of the three of them, I imagine Webb would have the best shot at taking North Carolina, and that would help the Dems push their demographic/geographic/electoral edge. But it won’t matter much. The Republicans do not have a credible candidate I could possibly vote for. (I said “credible”: even if Rand Paul’s floats about criminal justice reform were enough to get me past his regressive views on civil rights, goofy fiscal ideas, what he’d do to the environment and the social safety net and how he’d gut government–they aren’t–I’ll need to buy a hat and eat it if he can convince GOP primary voters he was just kidding about everything he’s said during the past several years and then convinces the general electorate he was just kidding about just kidding. I’ll be mildly shocked if he does better in the primary season than Newt Gingrich did on his 2012 book tour.)

    Naturally, my vote for anyone who isn’t going to gut the country and try to reinstate the Gilded Age extends to Jim Webb or anyone else the Democrats are likely to nominate. But I’ve dabbled in third-party politics and have no desire to do it again when the stakes are this high. You’re in Cali and I don’t think your vote counts, so your mileage probably differs. Me? My vote could well be part of a 2% swing between red and blue next year.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      I knew that paragraph — that sentence! — was likely to get me a sharp comment. No doubt it serves me right for glibly trying to sum up the politics of an era in a short paragraph. Anyway, what I meant was not so much that the Progressives ended up with a president whose foreign policy was more to my liking (though I think Wilson did fine, faced with WWI, the “Big Event” of his time), but that they didn’t get a George W. Bush (let alone a Dick Cheney). They didn’t get an Iraqpocalypse. They got, basically, another sort of progressive, someone who did some good and some bad domestically and about the same internationally. I wasn’t trying to run down Taft, who, I agree, also had many fine progressive traits. (And was a good eater of breakfasts, according to something I read while researching this post! “He typically ate a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, and mounds of pancakes for breakfast, leaving him sluggish for most of the morning.” Man after my own heart.)

      I also think, you know, your points about the development of the Republican Party after TR’s defection maybe came back to the point I was trying to make — that third party defectors and spoilers have lasting effects and shape the party and the nation, in ways not always easy to foresee. (I mean, why did we seize on Perot’s obsession with deficits, but not his warning that NAFTA wouldn’t be good for American labor?) I guess my thought is that the turn of the Republican Party and Republican presidents to a pro-business, laissez-faire platform helped create/exacerbate the Great Depression, but that in turn led to a long run of successful Democratic liberalism from the 30s to the 60s, occasionally aided by a minority progressive/liberal wing within the Republicans. I don’t know; it doesn’t seem like a bad long-term outcome for the ideals of the Progressive Party. I’m not sure that you can blame TR for the fact that the inevitable Republican retooling in response came in the form of McCarthy and Reagan and Goldwater and the Southern Strategy.

      Anyway… I probably won’t vote for Rand Paul. My sense of him is that he’s not really a Reason Magazine libertarian, and also maybe he’s not that bright? And I think you’re right that he’s unlikely to make it through the primaries. But if he did, and if he showed himself to be willing to stand and argue for a less aggressive foreign policy, CJ reform, drug reform, and a drawing down of the surveillance state… if he did all that, I’d give him a listen. I’d hear the man out, some of his bonkers ideas notwithstanding.

      My best hope, though, is that the Dems don’t just hand it to Clinton. Jim think it’s going to be Clinton vs. Bush, which… I just feel like that would be a sign of a nation giving up. We might as well all put on sweatpants and go to KFC for the Famous Bowls.

  2. Eric says:

    I’m afraid I’ve kind of gotten to the point where American politics really can be summed up as a failure pile in a sadness bowl. I suspect Jim’s probably right about it being Clinton vs. Bush, just because those two are the lowest-common-denominator candidates for their respective parties in a deeply-entrenched two-party system. I’m not quite sure it’s “a sign of a nation giving up” so much as it’s a consequence of a nation cul-de-sac-ing itself with its own system of governance; it’s struck me that the reason Clinton and Gore are obvious nominees is very akin to the reason Hollywood replicates sequels and franchises–nobody wants to risk a lot of money on unknown quantities, and the only indicator most of the people writing checks and cutting deals know how to look at is past performance.

    Paul isn’t going to be the Republican candidate in part because the GOP–the “Hollywood studio,” metaphorically speaking–that’s trying to come up with a November blockbuster is skeptical of weird arthouse films. Jim Webb isn’t likely to be the Democratic candidate because he’s kinda sorta a Jim Jarmusch project: black-and-white, vaguely old-fashioned and cutting-edge at the same time, largely improvised, only has a kind of cult appeal among a subset of the people who actually know his work. Clinton and Bush are the Mission Impossibles and Marvel Cinematic Universe titles of the season; love them or hate them, they’re established, long-running, successful brands, and that’s what gets big-budget backing and wide distribution and promotion.

    And Ted Cruz isn’t going to pull an Obama ’08 and “steal” the primaries (or at least it’s not likely): for all his apparent “sleeper film” qualities, Obama was an insider insurgent, a candidate who ran because some of the top people at the studio… er, party… recruited and backed him as the anti-Hillary. That’s not to detract from Obama’s qualities as a candidate or even as a President; indeed, from one perspective, the fact that a young and relatively inexperienced junior politician became the go-to guy for some of the Wise Old Men of his party may speak even more highly of him. As far as anyone can tell, Cruz doesn’t have that deep-inner-party backing.

    But this all gets to the point that your only form of rebellion against having your candidates picked for you is to vote for someone who, yes, may influence the political environment but who, no, won’t be elected. (And we should add that while this has become a more obviously toxic process because of the expanded power of corporate interests, this is how it’s always been: the Founders wrote a Constitution that established an oligarchy where cronies nominated each other for the Presidency, Senate and Judiciary, and even the steps towards popular elections in the 19th Century simply meant the rampant nepotism was up for public review. This is hard-baked into our Republican system of governance.) And I’m not going to say that trying to exert that kind of vicarious pressure is without merit or reason, but I am going to say (again) that the cost may be four or eight or more years of somebody breaking things, and that the last fifteen years have demonstrated how it’s a lot easier to break things than it is to fix them.


    One more slag on Wilson before I go: sure, the U.S. didn’t get an Iraqpocalypse with Wilson, but that’s a little like saying we didn’t get a Vietnam War or Skynet turning our own nukes upon us. We were an isolationist, basically backwater Republic with a small military that had only really started to express much interest in the wider world beyond our own continent(s) in the decade-and-a-half prior to Wilson’s presidency (with the taking of Spain’s former Pacific colonies and subsequent debacle in the Philippines, and Teddy Roosevelt’s diplomatic intervention in the Russo-Japanese War). Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld had the largest, most powerful military in the world to play with, which is a lot like having The One Ring sitting idle in your pocket (“Hey, I know I’m tempting spiritual damnation and drawing the attention of the Supreme Evil in the world, but I really don’t want to deal with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins’ hassling me right now, so I’ll just use it a little.”). Wilson had a few gunboats and marines to play with–and he sent them to Veracruz because he didn’t like the way the Mexican Revolution was going. And then there was a war in Europe that was basically none of our concern, and he managed to get us into that, too, though happily it was already all-but-over when he did.

    There wasn’t any particularly good reason for the U.S. to get into the War, though, is the thing. The Germans wanted the U.S. neutral but stupidly sent a CYA plan B message via Great Britain to the Mexicans just-in-case; the British wanted everybody they could get on board against the Germans and leaked the message to us and we got pissy about it on general principles even though we knew full well Mexico wasn’t in any condition to accept a conditional German offer if they wanted (remember the Revolution, Wilson, the gunboats and marines in Veracruz). In other words, we coulda said, “meh” about the Zimmerman Telegram, or shaken our fists and barglefargled the way we did over the Lusitania, but we decided we were cowboys.

    It worked out well for us in the long run, mostly, unless you have a problem with Great Powers and Superpowers and think maybe the U.S. should be a nicer, more peaceable country with a smaller military budget and better relations with the rest of the world.

    Anyway, if Wilson wasn’t G.W. Bush, it had as much to do with his era and our place in the world as it did anything else. I didn’t even get into the Siberian AEF. For all his undeserved fame as some kind of pacifist, Wilson didn’t miss a lot of opportunities to send what Army and Navy he had at his disposal somewhere to shoot somebody.

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