The Power of Voting Against

Is this a summer of discontents? It certainly seems less than satisfactory to me, mainly because of what management is doing to me in my first job situation, yet also for a certain lack of vigor, of spirit, in the progressive political landscape. Most major features of the progressive political landscape remain largely as they have been for a number of years: our government is captured by the war machine that relentlessly wastes the taxpayer’s treasure in ill-defined adventures of foreign war, our “mainstream” or “lamestream” media can be counted on to pick up right-wing narratives with ease while burying progressive truths, and approximately 70% of Democratic Party elected officials at all levels are fearful corporate whores who cannot be counted on to advance a progressive agenda. The specific scenes of this summer are mostly disheartening: the constant outrages from the Fox/Breitbart arm of the media, the Gulf Oil spill that seems to symbolize our collective guilt in the slow-motion murder of Mother Earth.

The major new feature in the landscape is Obama and his administration; without trying to summarize the millions of words of arguments that have graced progressive websites since his emergence, it’s best to say that his description depends on your own point of view. For optimists, he is a glass half-full, and for pessimists he is glass half-empty; he’s either a bulwark we can build upon, or an obstacle impeding progress. And since progressives have not acted, for a million individual reasons, to create our own political organizations of sufficient strength to make the Obama administration and/or the Democratic Party react to us, we continue to be forced to react to their needs and agendas, sometimes serving as their cheering section, and sometimes harassing their guarded flanks.

Thus the major narrative of the late summer and fall is already set: the battle of Democrats and Republicans for Congressional (and statehouse) seats, and the question of how the Democrats may act – or tell stories – to energize the progressive base, which, if we turn up sufficiently at the polls, may and should hold the power to stop any advancing Republican tide. (Author’s update: oh well, the Democrats and ourselves failed spectacularly. In round numbers, overall voting turnout fell from 125 million in 2008 to about 75 million in 2010.)

My modest proposal here is that each of us on the progressive side protect our own most cherished goals and ideals by a simple act – resolving to vote in November, AGAINST those candidates and parties which you fear the most. The rhetoric and bandwagon effects of political campaigns want you to have positive reasons for voting for their candidate – that’s in their interests, not in yours. Protect your own ideals, your own most favored causes, by searching out and voting against the candidates and parties that most threaten your causes – acting in your state and locality, according to your ballot choices, using your best judgement as you see fit.

I have generally been on the left margin of the Democrats since the 1960’s, generally supportive (and loving the rhetoric in most convention speeches), yet well aware of the corporatist/security-state allegiances of most establishment Democrats, and ready to bolt for any rational leftist alternative. I have also practiced voting against in the vast majority of my choices on local and national ballots since I was first old enough to vote (in 1972, for McGovern, taking a long bus ride in my janitor’s uniform to get to the polling place, on the West Coast and people on the bus already had radio news that the networks were calling it for Nixon).

Indeed, some of the cases where I was most involved in voting for a candidate – Carter in 76, Clinton in 92, Nader in 00, Kerry in 04 and Obama in 08 to list the nationally known cases – have been the most personally and politically disappointing to me in their longer-term results. By contrast, my patient habit of voting against what I considered to the be the most evil and inimical choices presented in all those dozens of now-forgotten local government and state legislature and Congressional races through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and into the present, has, I believe, contributed to the modest defense of the modest freedoms and democracy we continue to enjoy in the corporatized, global-security-state-empire of the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st Century.

And to digress just a bit, let’s consider the two biggest drop-offs in our dwindling freedoms and democracies. The first in my opinion, was the Supreme Court’s disgraceful decision of Dec. 12, 2000, handing the Presidential election to G. W. Bush. I’ve long held that both the Democrats and Greens shared some culpability for that monstrosity, as we both ignored how determined the Republicans were to steal that election. And in retrospect, both Dems and Greens should have come together to vote against Bush, and that was a big failure of progressives that I’ll take my share of responsibility for.

Unfortunately, the second biggest drop-off in our freedoms and democracy took place under the last six years of the Clinton Administration, as establishment Democrats eagerly embraced corporatist free trade policies, corporatist-elitist modes of political organization, the relentless expansion of the national-security-military empire, and other Republican/elitist policies and ideas. This trend did send me away from the Democrats in those years, and while the vehicle I chose to organize and vote against these policies (the Green Party) has so far been a disappointment, at least I was sincerely working for what seemed the best and most promising choice at the moment – even as I accept that the very-long-term judgement of history on the wisdom of my choices is yet to be made, and will rest on long-term outcomes that lie still in the future.

On your ballot this November, in your locality, you won’t have any clear-cut national-crossroads choices; at most you’ll have a Senatorial or Gubernatorial race with some national dimensions, or maybe a Congressional race that draws some interest outside the district. You’ll have state office and local office races in which, most likely, all candidates are non-progressives at best, and at worst all candidates are known elitists and/or corporatists, if not ranting racist neocons or tea-partiers. You’ll have to consider carefully your choices: which one do you dislike the worst? And what is the best vehicle for voting against that choice? Each of us will have to come to our own conclusions, as best we can.

In my voting history of “against” over the last four decades, in 19 cases out of 20 I have come to the conclusion that the Republican candidates are most frightening, and that the Democratic candidate is, often despite many known flaws, the best way to vote against the Republican. But not always! I remember voting against Feinstein (for mayor) and Boxer (for Congress) back in California in the 80’s over specific issues I found important, I have voted for third party candidates on occasion and for about 10 years I worked really hard to help organize a third party.

So maybe you too will find, as I am finding in 2010, that most Republicans are the most fearful, and that most Democratic alternatives will be the most effective way of voting “against.” Perhaps some of you will find 3rd party candidates on your ballot to be an effective vehicle for “against;” and a few of you may even be so alienated from corporatist politics that you embrace the “Leninist” theory of voting Republican to “make things worse” in order to cause some reformative convulsion in the future (although in my historical opinion, this almost never works out). And if you do even up marking a candidate’s box for “against’ reasons, always be sure to write several letters and make several phone calls letting that candidate know, what their own flaws may be and why you can only support them in a “voting against” stance. Somebody may actually be listening, once in a while.

Whatever choice you may end up making, let me be a small voice reminding you not to get caught up in bandwagon effects that cloud your judgement, in the dubious-but understandable desire to be part of something positive, something positive in a larger movement of progressives and liberals that can be emotionally-satisfying in these dis-satisfying, discontent-filled times. Keep your own counsel. Protect your own most deeply-help values. Don’t get too caught up in day-to-day mainstream media mudslinging. Most of the choices on your local ballot will probably be unsatisfying and conflicted; decide who you hate the most, and how you can most effectively protect yourself. Use the power of voting against.

About philosophical Ron

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