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Friday, July 8, 2016

The 2016 Democratic Primary and Presidential Election

I recently read several speeches given in the decades leading up to the American Civil War.  They expressed many shades of opinion, from abolitionism to the defenses of slavery.  They addressed both the substance of slavery and the politics related to its suppression, existence, and extension.  As I read, what stood out for me was a subset of those speeches that reflected the debate between abolitionists and anti-slavery politicians who nonetheless sought accommodation with the slave holders.  The accommodationists largely sought political stability, but I'm sure some believed that compromise was a tactic necessity for reaching larger goals.  This made me think of the current debate that is taking place within the Democratic Party over how, in the words of Bernie Sanders, “to transform America.” 

Many writers have observed that the debate between Sanders’s supporters and Clinton’s supporters is a reoccurring debate between “purists” and “pragmatists.”  I don’t think this distinction is apt, but the arguments based on this distinction arise often.  They surfaced dramatically in the 2000 presidential campaign when Green Party activists ran Ralph Nader for president.  Despite the Green Party holding many views on critical public policy issues that were diametrically opposed to Al Gore and the Democratic Party, many Democrats believed that Ralph Nader’s supporters were “self-indulgent purists,” who out of their purity were sacrificing political progress or at very least opening the door to political regress.  The same criticism is now being leveled against Sanders’s supporters in an attempt to persuade them to stop expressing their views and instead support Hillary Clinton.  Too often these arguments (and the arguments used to rebut them) reflect the one dimensional (left-right) simplicity of the popular understanding of the political landscape.  A more accurate understanding of the political space would reveal numerous issues, each with multiple dimensions.  Arraying people along a single political spectrum and then dividing them into only two categories (purists and pragmatists) obscures the complexity of politics.  Real political actors stand on principle on some issues and are willing to compromise on others.  Take for example, Sanders’s principled position on the death penalty and his willingness to compromise on gun regulation or Clinton’s principled position on gun regulation and her willingness to compromise on a $15 dollar and hour minimum wage.  We all have different and complex opinions about a variety of issues and we all make different judgments about long and short term benefits of particular public policies and political actions.  Who is or is not pure or pragmatic are questions that are too crude to describe our politics.

Let me illustrate the artificiality of the purist-pragmatist distinction.  In 2001, I was engaged in a debate within the Maryland Green Party over a party guideline which called upon Green Party candidates to limit the size of any single contributor's contribution  to $100 and donations by the candidates themselves to $400.  This was seen by some in the Party as imposing a needless handicap on our candidates in pursuit of “purity.”  In contrast, I and others believed that it was the only strategy available that could successfully challenge the domination of money in politics.  In our view, we were pragmatists. 

The root of the disagreement within the Party was in large part related to the goals we had in mind and how to achieve them.  The proponents of higher limits sought a better chance to get candidates elected in the current election cycle.  They argued that the more money the candidate had, the stronger the campaign would be, and by electing such candidates, a law requiring public financing for political campaigns would be made more likely.  Furthermore, in their view, higher or no limits on campaign donations would net more money for the campaign.  However, in our view, there was little to no chance that our candidates would be elected.  (Normally, third party candidates get no more than 2 or 3% of the vote in state-wide elections, even when running without contribution limits.)  Even if a candidate was (or a few candidates were) elected from the Green Party, our political influence in the Assembly would not be sufficient pass public financing for political campaigns.  Consequently, we believed the strategy outlined by the proponents of higher limits was doomed to failure.

As a positive alternative, we argued that the strength of a Green Party candidate would come from highlighting how big money corrupts our political system and undermines the political influence of the vast majority of citizens.  Establishing low limits on our candidates’ donations would bring the issue to the public.  My analysis of several Maryland Green Party campaigns showed that whether a Green Party candidate established a $100 dollar limit or a $1,000 dollar limit had no significant effect on the total amount the campaign acquired.  The loss of donations above $100 dollars due to the self-imposed limit was made up for by the number of people willing to make a contribution to a campaign adopting a $100 dollar limit, particularly when the candidate emphasized the donation limit to potential donors.   By running a $100 dollar campaign, we were creating an opportunity for proponents of public financed campaigns prominently to enter the political space on their own terms.  This would be both an equally effective short term strategy of funding Green Party candidates and a more effective long term strategy of bringing about campaign finance reform.  It would also significantly differentiate our candidates from the Republican and Democratic Party candidates, form a coordinated body of voters willing to work to transform our campaign finance system through electoral campaigns, and build the Green Party for future campaigns.  It remains, of course, debatable whose strategy would be more successful, but that there can be such a debate demonstrates the meaninglessness of the “purity vs. pragmatism” debate.

Contrary to much received opinion, one can as easily argue that Sanders is the pragmatist in the current campaign, if the goal truly is to transform America.  During much of her campaign, Clinton insisted that she was a “pragmatic progressive” who got things done and that political compromise was necessary for governing.  Setting aside the difficulty in understanding the meaning of “pragmatic” and “progressive,” Clinton’s recognition of the necessity of compromise “to get things done” inside government is clear and usually correct, but compromise is fraught with drawbacks.  Proponents of compromise often sound like Henry Clay who fashioned the Compromise of 1850.  Clay defended his bill on the Senate floor by observing that the country was divided between forces for and against slavery and that for the contest between these forces to be resolved, each side would need to give something to get something.  It was a classic defense of compromise.  The compromise gave California admission to the country as a free state, but it strengthened the notorious Fugitive Slave Act.  It abolished the slave trade in D.C., but confirmed the right to own slaves in D.C.  In the present political context, the country is said to be divided into “red states” and “blue states.”  Today proponents of compromise are in the same position as Clay.  For a president from the Democratic Party to “get things done” requires fashioning legislation that is to some extent acceptable to the Republican Party.  Proponents of compromise will declare incremental victory, but there are proponents of compromise on both sides of the aisle.  Consequently, incremental victory is also incremental defeat.  One gives a little to get a little.  It isn’t clear if progressive forces on balance make any headway and even less clear that they are transforming America.

During the debates over slavery, abolitionists made up a small minority in Congress and in the country.   Yet their principled stand against slavery divided both the Democratic Party and the Whig Party.  They brought the issue of slavery starkly before the public with powerful moral and practical arguments.  One cannot be certain what might have happened if the abolitionists had silenced themselves in favor of the more conservative Free Soil and Republican platforms of the 1850s, but Wendell Phillips pointed out that all of the arguments made by the anti-slavery forces originated in the earlier arguments of the abolitionists.  A similar dynamic has been unfolding for a couple decades now.

In 2000, the Green Party’s platform advanced most of what Bernie Sanders has been advocating in his campaign (along with additional public policies that reflect social democratic sensibilities).  The Green Party continued its advocacy of these positions in 2004, 2008 and 2012.  As in the 1850s, one cannot be certain what might have happened without the Green Party’s campaigns, but in 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement was launched.  Though famously without a defined platform, many of the actors in the movement called for prescriptions that appeared in the Green Party’s platforms, and these prescriptions are now openly discussed by the corporate media due to the Sanders campaign.  I don’t mean to overstate the role of the Green Party in bringing about the changes in public discourse.  I only mean to emphasize that sustained, uncompromising arguments in favor of particular public policies can have a role in changing public discourse.

The role of movements like the Green Party, Occupy Wall Street, and the Sanders campaign is historically common and politically effective.  There is a common belief that political movements must take a backseat to electoral politics during elections.  The thought is, “you can’t be transformative if you aren’t elected.”  What this fails to recognize is that political movements are the motivating cause of political change and electoral victories are merely the proximate cause.  Indeed, electoral victories aren’t always necessary for the success of a political movement.  Take for example the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  This legislation contained goals set by the civil rights movement at least as early as the 1950s.  The act was passed by a Congress that was essentially the same as in previous years.  In the 1964 congressional elections, only 7 new Senators were elected and 97 new representatives.  Assuming all of these new members replaced opponents of the Voting Rights Act, their votes were nonetheless not necessary to reach a majority in favor of the Act.  What actually brought about this legislative success was not victories at the ballot box.  Instead, the civil rights movement stirred the conscience of sitting members of Congress and persuaded them to change their votes or perhaps members of Congress simply saw that the civil rights movement was becoming so strong that their political future required that they accede to popular demand. 

Of course in other instances, changes to office holders are important for the passage of legislation, but significant changes to who holds office come about because of pressure from political movements.  After the defeat of Michael Dukakis in 1988, members of the Democratic Party (the Democratic Leadership Council or DLC) determined that the conservative movement which had its origins in Barry Goldwaters’s 1964 presidential campaign and later dubbed “the Reagan Revolution” had become so well entrenched that the Democratic Party’s future depended upon adopting a more conservative platform and by appealing to business and corporate donors.  Running Bill Clinton against more traditional labor Democrats, the DLC won Clinton’s victory in a three-way presidential contest.  Within a year of holding office, Clinton used his political capital to pass NAFTA in 1993, a crime bill in 1994, and welfare reform in 1996.  Each of these measures was originally championed by Republicans and other conservatives in Congress.  One might be tempted to attribute the passage of these bills to Clinton, and no doubt he played a role, but he was mostly the instrument of a conservative shift in the electorate.  The conservative movement was able to effect a change in the Democratic Party.

These two examples – the Voting Rights Act and the laws passed during the Clinton administration – demonstrate the power of political movements to effect change.  Electoral victories and defeats are merely epiphenomena in relation to the movements that bring them about.  This brings us to the “political revolution” that Bernie Sanders has been promoting.

Just yesterday, Bernie Sanders was reported as saying, “the goal isn’t to win elections, the goal is to transform America.”  This stunned those who believe that electoral success is necessary to bring about change, particularly House members who seem to be constantly thinking first and foremost about elections; but as history shows, the motivating cause of change, particularly transformative change, is the formation of a powerful political movement.  If one’s goal is transformational change, pragmatism usually requires that one concentrate on building a movement and not just winning elections and passing compromised legislation.  This was the shocking message that Sanders was bringing to House Democrats.  It would be counter-productive were Sanders to veer from the task of transforming America by silencing the movement's message in support of a single candidate who appears not to be dedicated fully to transformational change.  Happily, the movement for a political revolution appears to be holding together, despite failing to nominate Bernie Sanders; meanwhile, movements that that support factions in the Republican Party and the ideology of neoliberalism in both parties appear to be weakening.

Four important political movements have found an intersection in the Sanders campaign:  the labor movement, the movement to address student debt, the movement for universal health insurance, and the environmental movement.  Three efforts are significant to the labor movement: defeating and repealing neoliberal international trade treaties, increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, and addressing the country’s profound disparity of wealth.  Sanders made these issues central to his campaign and generated great enthusiasm for them in the Democratic electorate.  So much so, that Clinton has changed her views (or at least her rhetoric) in a number of ways to roughly align herself with most of these positions.  This was not entirely due to Sanders’s campaign as her embrace of some of these policies predated the Sanders campaign, but nearly everyone agrees that Sanders has "forced Clinton to the left."  The same can be said of Sanders’s and Clinton’s positions on student debt.  Sanders has been expressing the full aspirations of students with his call for “free college education,” while Clinton is advocating “affordable college education.”   With regard to health care, Sanders again articulates the full aspirations of the movement, while Clinton advocates expanding the Affordable Care Act.  Sanders also made environmental issues central to his campaign, coming out against fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline, and in support of a carbon fee and dividend plan.  Clinton insists that she is on board with the environmental movement, but her record here is quite mixed.  On the positive side, she has promised support for an infrastructure that will provide renewable energy to 100% of America’s residences, but she supports fracking and remained neutral at best during the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.   Most recently, her appointees to the Democratic Party platform committee voted down a call for a carbon fee and dividend plan.  All this shows how the most significant motivating movements inside the Democratic Party have raised up a political candidate and are pressuring the establishment wing of the party.  These movements are calling for transformational change and are coalescing in opposition to the neoliberal and corporate control of our society, including the Democratic Party.

One important movement popular among progressives is the Black Lives Matters movement.  It has forced its way into both the Sanders and Clinton campaign.  Both candidates point to previous sympathy for criminal justice reform, but it is clear that both have raised it to a critical priority due to the movement’s effectiveness.  The Black Lives Matters movement shows how a docile political establishment can be pressed into action by concerted grassroots action. 

The movements that animate the Republican Party are different, of course, and they are by and large waning.  They have maintained a successful coalition for several decades and have been able to elect a huge number of officials at all levels of government.  The coalition appears, however, to be coming apart.  It has been composed of social conservatives, libertarians, militarists, white supremists, nativists, and neoliberals (who reside in significant numbers in both parties).   Following the election of Barak Obama, the more radical elements of these movements coalesced into “the Tea Party,” bankrolled by the libertarian Koch brothers.  This movement has had its predictable effect on Republican office holders.  In fear of a primary challenge, many have adopted quite radical "Tea Party" positions.  Again, this is an instance when a movement has been able to achieve success without always winning office; however, over time, the extreme views of the Tea Party have created fissures in the coalition.  The Tea Party movement is showing signs of reaching its peak influence.  Furthermore, the relative popularity of Donald Trump within the Republican Party has alienated many of the coalition’s most powerful elements, deepening the divide between the factions.  It is not clear whether the Republican Party coalition can be held together following the likely defeat of Donald Trump or even if it continues to exist today.

Under the circumstances of a rising social democratic movement and the decline of the movements in the Republican Party, it makes good sense for Bernie Sanders to concentrate on building the social democratic movement and not focus only on elections.  This is particularly true as the administration of the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee is likely to take much more cautious steps toward transforming American politics than the rising movements would like.  In all likelihood, Clinton will be elected president.  Respected poll analyst Nat Silver gives her an 80% chance, and it is hard to imagine that Donald Trump’s astonishingly high unfavorable ratings (60%) can be turned around.  Furthermore, the electoral map strongly favors any Democratic Party presidential candidate.  In the last quarter century, democrats have won five of six presidential elections (counting the 2000 election as a “victory” for Al Gore based on the national popular vote and what the outcome would have been had all of the votes been counted in Florida).  Furthermore, if Clinton wins all of the states that Democratic presidential candidates have won in each election since 1992, she only needs Florida to win the Electoral College votes.  If she loses Florida, there are a host of other states that combined will put her over the top.  Consequently, there is no good reason for the proponents of transformational change to silence themselves in hopes of greater electoral success on the part of a candidate with a clear neoliberal record.

Finally, I should say something about the two-party system.  Much of the pressure to accept compromise and “pragamatism” relies on the argument that a worse candidate might be elected.  Setting aside that this is currently quite unlikely, one should recognize that voting not only adds a tally to a candidate’s total, it serves to give them the illusion that their policies are favored by the voter.  It provides them with a degree of political legitimation when the voter in fact might not favor their policies nor feel they have a legitimate claim to authority.  Given the power of money to determine who can appear on our ballots in November, the winner of an election can hardly claim democratic legitimacy.  Not voting for one of the two establishment-sponsored (plutocratic) candidates is a way of refusing to accord them the basis for claiming a higher degree of legitimate authority.  Additionally, the two-party system will not be dismantled by members of those parties any more than the private funding of campaigns will be ended by candidates who are successful at raising private funds.  By voting for third party candidates, one escapes the trap of legitimating officeholders that one finds illegitimate and one builds an electoral organization that can demand the transformation of our politics to a multi-party democracy. 

Regardless of these considerations, one might still be convinced that voting for “the lesser of two evils” is rational.  I believe this is true at times; however, it is never true for the vast majority of voters during presidential elections.  Given that our electoral process involves state-by-state elections of delegates to the Electoral College, one’s vote for the president counts only in a few swing states.  In nearly all states, one is free to vote one’s conscience without fear that “the greater of two evils” will be elected.  If voting one’s conscience becomes common enough for this to happen, then the movement for a multi-party democracy will have been (or will be on the verge of being) successful. 

Much to the surprise of many of my fellow Green Party members who have heard me make the case for voting for Green Party presidential candidates even in swing states, this election has me concluding that there is a strong argument for swing state voters to cast their vote for Hillary Clinton. I don’t expect this election to be close, even in traditional swing states; but one issue stands out for me that makes me dread the election of Donald Trump:  the unfolding sixth great extinction of species on the planet.

It is not controversial that our population and global industrial society have initiated a precipitous decline in the number of species the planet harbors and that if this decline to continues, we will witness one of the six great extinctions of life on the planet that natural history has recorded.  During the last great extinction, 66 million years ago, 75% of all species were wiped out.  At the end of the Permian period, roughly 250 million years ago, 90% or more of all species were wiped out.  That is, life was nearly extinguished from the planet.  We are currently risking an event of such magnitude by our continuing disregard for critical ecological systems, particularly the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans.  Donald Trump appears to be poised to put in place officials who do not recognize the gravity of this situation.  Hillary Clinton, while also not recognizing its gravity, will likely appoint officials who will take it somewhat more seriously.  This might create openings for activists to make progress toward mitigating the effects of our ecological folly.  At this point, the urgency of the problem is so extreme that increasing the possibility for mitigating action, even in the slightest, overwhelms any other consideration.  In relative terms, no issue comes close to averting or at least mitigating a sixth extinction.  Consequently, I believe the political progress that might be made by voting for a multi-party democracy must take a back seat in swing states this election cycle.  If I voted in a swing state and if the contest for Electoral College delegates was close, I would vote for Clinton.

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