What is the Question?
The question has been raised (obviously elsewhere, but particularly in this forum) about who should should get the vote of undecided voters in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. What I believe to be the Implicit underlying question is whether to vote for a 3rd-party candidate whose policies are more aligned with popular opinion, such as Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney. The question should be somewhat more nuanced – not “Who should undecided voters vote for?”, but “Where should voters cast their ballot for a 3rd-party?”. (For those who are having difficulty deciding between Obama or McCain, this response will likely not be helpful.)
Fellow contributor Uri Strauss continues to make the pitch to vote for Ralph Nader, based on the popularity of his platform and the agreement on “virtually everything” of the Democrat and Republican presidential platforms. There is no question for him, and for many others, as to who to vote for – the two major parties offer few, if any, differences in policy, and therefore we should choose a 3rd-party candidate.
There is a critical assertion made in this argument which should be repudiated because, once repudiated, it would lead to more effective strategies for enacting popular policies in the country, and the world (by virtue of U.S. power). That assertion is that the U.S. government is a constitutional democracy. This assertion is false, both in theory and in practice, and left unrecognized, popular movements will face little, if any, electoral success.
Not Exactly a Democracy
The United States, institutionally, is a democratic representative government – not a democracy. The difference is stark: a democracy is one in which the population decides policy. A representative government is one in which (in theory) the population selects representatives to decide policy. The historical necessities or difficulties of either form of government can be debated, but that there is a significant difference cannot, as it is a matter of fact.
The United States, in practice, is an undemocratic form of government, with representatives of the population beholden to the business/ownership class of the country on all significant policy issues. This is almost indisputable to a majority of the population, as reflected in disapproval ratings of 75% for Congress, and a 27% approval rating for the President. Overall trust in government is tied with the lowest point, measured in 1973, with only 26% of the population answering the question “are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed” in the affirmative. Yet another Gallup poll has the satisfaction with the current course of the country at 17%. These are not new (as the source graphs will show) and in a true democracy, would not be tolerated, and certainly not for such a long time.
Our Elections are Rigged
Additionally and unsurprisingly, elections for representatives are not free and democratic. The Supreme Court has ruled that not only are wealthier citizens entitled to more “free speech”, but that corporations, the largest concentrations of wealth in the country, are allowed to use that wealth to influence elections. That wealth is perhaps the most dominant factor in elections has been true for some time, however these decisions codified that truth. Other non-legal forms of exclusion of potentially popular candidates compound the difficulty of being a valid candidate. Because democracy depends on the exchange of information, and because the ability to convey information (via mail, radio, television) costs vast sums of money, it is self-evident that only candidates with money are able to viably compete in elections. These facts are so uncontroversial that this year’s record projected costs of $1.2 billion for the presidential campaigns and $1.16 billion for congressional races merely underscore the point.
Elections for political offices in the U.S. are not about who is the best candidate – it is about avoiding the lesser of two evils. Large legal and class forces push elections in that direction, as does the actual voting mechanism: 1 vote for 1 candidate. The latter could easily be addressed with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which is in use in parts of the U.S. and around the world, but for obvious reasons faces great difficulty for adoption in higher political office elections.
So the situation that we are in is one in which tremendous legal and institutional forces, in combination with large concentrations of wealth, shape for us an election in which there are only two viable candidates. The question then arises: are there significant differences between the two?
Are There Significant Differences?
I’ll leave the discussion as to differences in past elections (Gore vs. Bush, Kerry vs. Bush), but for the current election, I certainly agree that Barack Obama and John McCain are almost on par with the destruction they will wreak in foreign policy, environmental policy, criminal justice policy, drug policy, and many more issues in which they truly are in agreement on “virtually everything”. However, there are at least three issues which they have nearly oppositional policies which are of great significance to many, if not all, people in this country (and elsewhere). While this is not a comprehensive description of their differences, those differences are:
- Employee Free Choice Act: Obama is a co-sponsor of this legislation, which would make unionization orders of magnitude easier than current labor law. With the EFCA, up to 57 million working Americans could form unions, which has historically shown to be tremendous engines of democracy in society. John McCain opposes this legislation, and would almost certainly veto it.
- Supreme Court and federal courts: The federal courthouses of the U.S. have been filled with extraordinarily right-wing judicial appointments by the Bush administration, as have two seats on the Supreme Court. The next president will likely nominate between one and three Supreme Court Justices with the three most liberal justices being replace. Obama has stated that he would replace these judges with ones like them, whereas McCain has stated he would nominate judges similar to the most reactionary Justices on the court now (and in recent history). These are the highest courts in the land, and no one can reasonably argue that an Obama administration’s choices would be more humane and less rabidly ideological than a McCain administration.
- “Roe v. Wade” and other reproductive rights: Implicit in the decisions each respective candidate would make regarding the Supreme Court is whether Roe v. Wade will stand another challenge. In addition, the policies of Obama and McCain regarding other reproductive rights are oppositional on virtually every issue – McCain even continues to support the scientifically-proven fallacy of “abstinence-only education”. A McCain administration presents a clear danger to women’s civil rights and the basic sexual health of every citizen.
If we are to be rational voters with an interest in doing the least harm to the country, then we must recognize the inconvenient truth that who is elected President will at least have this significant impact on the country. And if we care about that impact, then we have to do what we reasonably can to get the better candidate elected (Obama, in this case).
This does not apply, of course, if there is a viable 3rd-party candidate. But, for the reasons given above, and several more, there is not. Even Ralph Nader does not dispute that he will not win this election. So we have to consider either Obama or McCain.
Therefore, in states where the election is going to be close (and there’s many this election cycle), “progressives” and everyone else should vote for Obama, and encourage others to do so. However, in states – such as Massachusetts, with a 55-39% Obama lead – where the vote will likely not be close, folks with an interest in supporting 3rd-party candidates getting a little more even playing field (through access to public funds if they receive 5% of the popular vote) should vote for the Nader/Gonzalez ticket (McKinney/Clemente is not polling anywhere near 5%).
What Really Matters
The real issue at hand is not a single presidential election – it’s what happens in between elections, and far from Washington D.C., that is important. Real change, rather than silly electoral campaign slogans, come from engaging and changing the hearts and minds of the population. The U.S. is a fertile ground for grassroots organizing and massive, truly democratic movements. We should be spending our time and resources (and far less posts debating Obama v. McCain) focusing on coordinating our friends and neighbors to address the issues that face us and the world. Howard Zinn recently wrote, more eloquently than I, that:
Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.
But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.
…None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.
So we need to free ourselves from the election madness engulfing the entire society, including the left.
Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This post was written by Jeff Napolitano on October 7, 2008