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.