On Third Parties

A recent post to The Hill reports that forty-eight per cent of Bernie Sanders supporters intend to cast ballots for Jill Stein, Presidential Candidate for the Green Party. The reluctance of many Bernie Sanders voters to support Hillary Clinton is confirmed by the dozens of posts that cross my screen daily on FB and Twitter #AnyoneButHillary (posts I have reason to believe may be pushed by Trump’s campaign).

The #anyonebuthillary campaign offers a unique opportunity to explore the warrants behind supporting third parties in general and left wing third parties in particular. Support for third parties and third party candidates is a judgment call. It implies that “the moment is ripe,” that the price of supporting the compromise candidate is greater than the risk of throwing the election to the right wing opposition. Here, let us assume that Sanders supporters voting for Stein are fully aware that the next President will appoint a Supreme Court Justice to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. Let us assume that they are aware and are willing to accept the almost certain consequences for women’s reproductive rights, undocumented workers, and Muslims that will follow from a Donald Trump victory. They have counted the cost. And the cost of voting for Clinton are higher than the cost of a Trump presidency.

Let us also place to one side the condition — certainly not implausible, given current polling data — that, unlike 2000, when George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Florida was less than the vote for Ralph Nader, Trump’s margins of victory in key states is greater than the vote for Ms. Stein. In this case, since Ms. Clinton was not going to win in any case, votes cast for Ms. Stein were neither “thrown away” nor “cast for Trump.” In this unique case, a vote for Ms. Stein was — well — a vote for Ms. Stein. While not implausible, however, I think that this unique case is unlikely.

Finally, let us also place to one side the incoherent argument that, while some voters are casting ballots against their principles, others vote with their principles. This argument is incoherent because, presumably, principles are driving the decisions of all voters. Voters, for example, who support women’s health or who oppose mass deportations of Latin American men and women or who oppose singling out religious or ethnic groups for special legal scrutiny may decide, on principle, that a Clinton presidency is better than a Trump presidency. In other words, since all are voting on principle, “principled voting” as a criteria of judgment is incoherent. What, in fact, someone is saying when they say they are voting “on principle,” is that nothing could convince them to vote for a candidate whose principles are other than their own. While this criteria certainly enjoys validity, it also implies that I am not open to changing my mind no matter what arguments — climate change, women’s health, homophobia, Islamophobia, undocumented immigrants, etc. — are placed before me.

Which brings me back to the judgment call. The time is ripe. No matter what the cost, the cost of voting for Ms. Clinton is higher than the cost of a Trump White House. We have crossed the line. Casting a ballot for Clinton is no longer compromise, it is collaboration.

This takes me back to 1918 and 1920/21, when the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Walter Benjamin duked it out over the role of violence under the civil war conditions that reigned in Germany following World War I. (For anyone who has not read these pieces or not read them recently, here are links to Ms. Luxemburg’s “What does the Sparticus League Want?” and Mr. Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.”)

At first blush, the conditions in post-war Germany were so dissimilar to conditions in contemporary United States as to not warrant a first, much less a second take. Although it enjoyed superior fire-power and strategic planning, Germany had just been defeated. Armed right wing “freedom fighters” (Freikorps) battled “reds” in the streets of Germany’s cities. Germany’s infrastructure was gone. Civilian rule had disappeared. It was then under these conditions that Ms. Luxemburg and Mr. Benjamin penned their famous articles — one defending, the other counseling caution (I simplify) in the use of violence.

Why violence? In post-war Germany, the reasons for taking “violence” as the central organizing principle were fairly clear. Fascists and reds were, in fact, in the streets killing one another already. In this instance the question was whether to “go all the way” — were the conditions “ripe”? — and support the Spartacists (i.e., the Communists) or to compromise with the SPD. Mr Benjamin’s insight in this respect was that all law-making and law enforcement — left, right, center — follows from an initial act of violence, whether imposing a new order or establishing the legitimacy of an old order. In any case, under no conditions are laws made or enforced absent violence.

To imagine the conditions in post-war Germany, think of present-day Syria or Sudan or Afghanistan or Iraq. Imagine places so dismantled by war, neighborhoods so warn down under PTSD that violence and fear are hard-wired into the psyches of every infant born. This is Germany in 1918, where, or so it is thought, conditions were “ripe.”

But now recall that the largest and best organized party in Germany following the war was the Social Democratic Party, our equivalent of the Green Party. Here is the breakdown of the 1920 federal election results in Germany:

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.06.12 AM

That big blue pie piece, top right? That’s the Social Democratic Party. The red pie piece just underneath it? That’s also the Social Democratic Party, a break-away splinter group nearly as large as the SPD. Together they garnered 39.6% of the total vote. True, in absolute numbers the 17M who cast ballots for “People’s” parties outnumbered the 11M or so who cast ballots on the left. Yet, the right was so splintered by internal divisions that it would take a Great Depression to bring them together under the same roof. The SPD by contrast was remarkably united. One more thing. That slender shaft of red at the very top? That’s Ms Luxemburg’s Spartacists.

I know that some will want to compare our own “ripe” moment with Germany’s “ripe” moment in 1918 or 1920/21. They will point to the armed gangs trolling our streets. They will point to unremitting violence in our cities and countrysides. They will remind us that although they make up only 12–13% of the American population, African Americans make up 35% of jail inmates, and that 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates are African American. Like Germany in 1918, we too are at civil war, call it what you will.

Even supposing, however, that by adding Mr Sanders’ roughly twenty-five per cent of the electorate to the Green Party’s likely three per cent (based on 2000 results), we begin to approach (although still falling short) the SPD’s 1920 numbers, the German SPD was a seasoned party, familiar with and successful at organizing workers and professionals. No one in 1920 would have said that a vote for the SPD was a vote for the German National People’s Party. Far from it. In 1920, the SPD won the election, hands down. Conditions were “ripe.”

No one casting a ballot for Ms. Stein this November believes that she will win. 1920 is not 2016 by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, what they believe is that a vote for Ms Clinton only forestalls, but does not prevent, the inevitable conflict — the civil war — between the far right and the center-left that hovers just over the horizon. We have been moving toward this final conflict for the past forty years it is argued. And with each passing election — 1976, 1980, 1992, 2008 — the Democratic Party has adopted positions are further to the right than the 1972 Republican Party platform, while the Republican Party has since 2000 adopted positions much closer to the National Socialist Democratic Workers Party platform in 1932. (Don’t believe me? Check it out.) At what point does compromise morph into collaboration? At what point does choosing the lesser of evils forestall inevitable conflict and genuine resistance?

Which brings us back to violence. Say I vote for Ms. Stein in November. Or perhaps I simply sit this one out. Mr Trump is elected by a margin less than the total vote for Ms Stein in key battleground states: Florida, California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. A Republican Party energized by Trump’s election and by increasing its margins in both the House and Senate feels authorized to enact the full 1932 agenda: walls between the U.S. and Mexico, Joseph Arpaio-style sweeps of immigrant communities of both Muslims and Mexican Americans, expansion of internment camps, swift action on a new Supreme Court Justice with no pretense of respect for the U.S. Constitution, the rolling back of Rowe v Wade, of GLBTQ rights, of labor protections (what few remain).

Predictably, the left-center empties out into the streets Occupy-style, but with similar results. Police violence — now widely condoned and even praised by a Trump White House — quickly chases the managerial professional class back into their homes, giving the police and authorized vigilante groups sweeping powers to mop up the remaining refuse. The already highly developed private prison industry swells with new detainees, deemed “anti-American” under a strengthened Patriot Act. Under these circumstances, I can think of no scenario that prevents 2016 from quickly devolving into 1938.

The argument is that 1938 was where we were headed all along. The question is how slowly or quickly we will get there, get through the crisis and emerge on the other side better equipped to rebuild a just society. Violence is on the horizon. The only question is how quickly or slowly we meet and master our destiny. And if we lose? It has all been for a good cause. Better the end of the world as we know it than life under current conditions.

But let us suppose that Bernie Sanders’ supporters determine that the conditions are not “ripe.” Let us suppose that they appreciate why 2016 is not 1920 and therefore why they need to do a lot more organizing before the time is “ripe.” Their votes for Ms. Clinton push her over the top. At the very least, we get a Supreme Court justice who enjoys some familiarity with and passion for the U.S. Constitution. At the very least, we will not build a wall separating Mexico and the U.S. Joseph Arpaio is prosecuted, not emulated. Muslim Americans are accorded the same rights and protections as all Americans. Rowe v Wade is strengthened. Citizens United is overturned. And trigger-happy racists, instead of receiving departmental commendations, are put behind bars. To be sure, just as we expected, Ms. Clinton adopts a hawkish military stance around the world. And just as we expected the professional managerial class is rewarded with a regulatory regime that helps pad their bank accounts and continues to deprive working families of a living wage. Armageddon still hovers just beyond the horizon, but the center-left has won some breathing room, valuable time to organize and regroup for the next battle.

Think this through carefully. This is not a test. Bernie Sanders’ supporters need to focus more of their attention on precisely what it means for conditions to be “ripe.” Ripe conditions are not simply when one is “fed up,” or “tired,” or feeling “principled,” or feeling “bullied.” “Ripe” conditions are not conditions that happen to you, the product of history, or the dialectic, or frayed nerves, too much coffee, too little sleep. “Ripe” conditions are created out of painstaking organizing sustained across several election cycles, coalition-building, and electoral politics that begin with school boards, city councils, state legislatures and state houses. “Ripe” conditions are built in living rooms and in church, mosque, and temple basements, in board rooms, shop floors, and union halls. And, at the end of all of this organizing, maybe, like the SPD in 1920, just maybe you can claim thirty-nine per cent of the electorate; not a majority, which means, once again, you will have to make concessions to some other portion of the electorate with whose principles you do not agree.

If you want to hasten history to the final battle, I can think of no better way to do this than casting a ballot for Jill Stein this November. If you are not gay, African American, Hispanic, Muslim, or a woman, or if you are not willing to sacrifice your African American, Hispanic, Muslim, GLBTQ or women friends for the cause — I would strongly advise you to think this through again. You won’t get a do-over. It is a judgment call.

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