About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Making the perfect the enemy of the good, or why you can't vote 'none of the above' this year

Two anti-Obama articles by progressives have gotten quite a bit of attention in the blogosphere recently:  Matt Stoller's piece on Salon, and Conor Friedersdorf's article on the Atlantic Online website.  Both call for people on the left to refuse to vote for Obama.

I obviously disagree, and strongly.

These kinds of arguments tend to piss me off, I have to confess, because they make the perfect the enemy of the good, and seem to be based on a breathtakingly simple notion of how the world actually works.  This is particularly true for libertarian arguments (Friedersdorf is a libertarian).

Like most arguments from the left that claim there is no difference between the two parties (and candidates), I just think they are stunningly naive.  Stoller in particular writes as if he suddenly and recently discovered that both parties support corporate capitalism -- like an undergrad the first time they read Marx.

Really, the parties support corporate capitalism, and are more inclined to listen to the powerful?  No sh*t. 

Welcome to politics in the modern developed world, much as it has looked for 8 decades.  C'mon in and join the battle, Matt and Conor.  The water, I can assure you, is tepid.  Want it to get hotter?  Then get jump in, get wet, and heat it up.

To argue, as both of them do, that since both sides do bad things, I no longer have a moral obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, seems to me to be morally irresponsible.  You know why the lesser of two evils is better?  Because it involves less evil.  When I worked briefly as a labor organizer in my early 20s I constantly encountered this argument.  Hell, I think I made it too.  There is nothing easier than stepping outside the field of battle, and judging, keeping ones moral views pristine, while real lives are affected by real change.

But, as Edmund Burke once said, the only thing needed for evil to prevail in the world is for good men to do nothing.

Voting for a third party, or not voting, or arguing there is no difference between the two options, is doing nothing.  It is also empirically inaccurate.  These are the same arguments people made when advocating a vote for Nader in 2000.  How did that work out?

As an alternative, these two authors propose...what, exactly?  Voting for a third party?  Really?  Why not just not vote?  Hell, why not just vote for Romney?  When I was doing the labor stuff, I remember a number of colleagues saying that if we can push the system to a crisis point, then real change can take place.  This is basically what Stoller argues. 

But what tends to happen historically, when things go from bad to worse, is that they then go from worse to even more worse.  Revolutions end in blood.  States based on formal equality, with liberal institutions and the rule of law, that at least make some pretense to trying to balance capitalism and mass democracy, have only been the norm (even if frequently dishonored) for a very tiny portion of human history.  Even now, the vast majority of the world's population does not live in such places.  And these things do not persist of their own accord, and once they're gone, there is no guarantee whatsoever that they can be reconstructed.  And the fundamentals of that liberal system are under attack here especially, but in Europe too, in ways that Stoller notes.  To observe that they are being attacked and undermined through both political parties tells us nothing, when the differences between the two are otherwise so stark -- wider than they've been since the 1860s.

There is NO path to change in this country that goes through a third party, unless somehow that third party emerges from within the Democratic Party.  None.  There are only two -- interconnected -- paths to real change:  social movements for economic justice, and working within and pushing the Democratic Party.  Friedersdorf is concerned with drone attacks and civil liberties.  Stoller is concerned with inequality and the power of the financial sector.  Personally I'm much more concerned about the second one than the first one, but I just think it is stunningly naive to think that progress on either would be possible with today's GOP in control of 2.5 of the 3 branches of the federal government.

To vote third party this year, or to not vote at all, is an act of moral cowardice.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

No comments: