UP FOR DEBATE: The Lesser Evil
In These Times is dedicated to providing an accessible forum for strategic debate on the Left. In this Up for Debate series, we host a range of views on what has become a divisive question: how to approach voting in the November presidential election.
September 26, 2016
Up for Debate: The Lesser Evil. "We can’t ignore the ways that having a Democrat in the White House matters."
May I pile on the reasons why even the most bitter Sanders supporter should vote for Clinton? Forget the Supreme Court—it’s too obvious. Here are three others:
1. It’s not about Clinton herself. Your vote puts not just Clinton in power but literally thousands of appointees. It may be the deputy administrator in an EPA regional office, or the new director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or the new policy and strategy chief at U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services—or a new member of the National Labor Relations Board, or even chief number cruncher at the Census Bureau.
Many of Clinton’s appointees—and her appointees’ appointees—will be young and idealistic. How do I know? In the time of Jimmy Carter, I used to be a lowly "Schedule C" appointee, among the several thousand below the level of Cabinet or deputy secretaries. I saw with my own eyes that my fellow Schedule C’s, even the higher-ups who bossed me, were nothing but kids. As to the money I was making, it was OK but barely competitive with what I was making at the United Mine Workers defending the rank and file.
And it hasn’t changed much. I was just down at the U.S. Department of Labor, and there are staffers in their 30s, an older group than in the Carter days, but one that still seems young to me.
Demographically, because of age and willingness to forgo a private-sector salary, it’s likely that many of these appointees will be Bernie voters. Over the next four years, these thousands of people will perform a million little acts of mercy—for you, me, for all of us. As a lawyer who represents the poor, the middle class, the post-middle class and maybe members of your family, I can swear under oath that many of these appointees will do, off-handedly, the most saintly acts in the world. They will do things that transform so many individual lives, like an NLRB official who gets a 20-year-old black kid back into a Painters Union job. Appointees in the embassies and consulates can sneak in 10-year-olds from Honduras. By your vote—or decision not to vote—you will decide the fates of all of those who could be saved by these little acts of mercy.
These mid-level appointees—many of them, by the way, intoxicated with the causes of the Left—will in turn bring in decent, public-spirited young Berniecrats to fill the lower spots. Since I think of myself as an outsider on the left,often been a shock to find that so many people inside a federal agency are to the left of me politically. And even when they aren’t, they are way to my “left” in simply extending themselves day to day to help other people. It takes a village to run a federal government, and under any Democrats, we get villagers who case by case are going to show mercy. Welcome the stranger. Feed the hungry. Are you really so hard-hearted that you don’t give a damn?
And while there’s been enough banging on about that one vacancy in the Supreme Court, think about the lower courts, especially the trial courts. Think of the wage theft or Title VII cases that will be settled—and will keep, say, a pregnant plaintiff out of a homeless shelter. Here’s just a passing news item to tell you what these lower courts do: The other day, three federal appellate judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a North Carolina voting law that with "almost surgical precision," to quote the opinion, was intended to keep black Americans from voting. Who were the judges? Three appointed by either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. If you don’t stop restrictive voting laws, how is a Sanders movement ever going to come back? And that gets to my next point:
2. If Hillary is out, the Left is out. Not just through 2020, but in four, eight, 12, 16 years from now. Fight for $15 is over. The fight against wage theft is over. If she is out, there is no center-left to push.
Sure. You think after four years of Trump there will be another Bernie or Bernie-like movement. There won’t. Even assuming Trump doesn’t, in a Putin-like fit, cancel the 2020 elections, by then the country, or what’s left of it, will be beyond your reach. The other side—the real Other Side—has four years to lock down policy with a lock that is bigger than the one on Fort Knox: requirements for balanced budgets, rules on redistricting, changes to the Voting Rights Act, federal voter ID laws, and on and on.
The odd thing is, if you want the Left to come back, you have to put the center-left in power. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s true: Give people a little taste of equality and they will want even more. The women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the huge egalitarian transformations of the 1960s came about in large part because of the much more egalitarian and prosperous country created by the New Deal and yes, the Great Society itself.
Let any Republican get in and it will always go the other way.
I know: I saw what happened in 1968, when many on the Left sat it out and Nixon just squeaked past Hubert Humphrey. There was a lot of anger against the Democrats back then, too, over Vietnam. At the time, that election—which would start us down the path to our present inequality—seemed like such a little blip, and it seemed no harm to dump the Hump. And the Left had even better reason then. Vietnam was awful, a far worse evil than anything Obama or Clinton represent.
But in fact, despite his flaws, Humphrey would have been more likely than Nixon to get us out of it faster. And most of us knew it even then. But people were too mad! They said, "I’m mad and I’m not going to take it," and it didn’t matter if Nixon got in.
Oh they all had good reason to think four years of Nixon would not matter that much—surely, with the country being basically Democratic, the Left, the real Left, would get back in power. But it never did. When the Democrats did get back in, eight years later, it was a much more conservative "Third Way" party —because thanks to Nixon, and then Ford, the whole debate had moved to the right.
Even so, at least in the Clinton and Obama administrations— though checked more or less completely by both the filibuster or outright GOP control of Congress—the country did move further left. In 1992, the Democrats—and the Left—were supposed to be out of the White House forever. At the end of Clinton’s eight-year presidency, most of the country voted with Gore or Nader. Progressives had won the electorate, although they lost the election.
But for Bush’s win, this country would now be much further to the left. Yes, in 2008, Obama got in, but it took eight years—really lost years—just to make up for some of the damage of a financial crisis and a stupid war brought on by the Republicans. Even so, paralyzed by the damn filibuster and a gerrymandered House, having Obama in the White House did help incubate a bolder left. By 2016, we had an outright and unashamed socialist movement. That new kind of new left would not have happened had not the center-left been—well, not in full power, but in a position to check more damage from the Right.
Furthermore, there is a broader point: When the center-left really is in power, and I mean full power, with true and not just nominal control of Congress, it usually is the heyday of the party’s real left. Look at the two great periods when the Democrats were in control: 1935-37, and 1965-66. Social Security, the Wagner Act, in the first, and Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act in the second, transformed this country. FDR exasperated the Left of his day, and even compared to Hillary Clinton, Lyndon Johnson was no progressive. Yet the lasting legacy of the real Left came in these two fleeting periods when a largely center-left Democratic party had—for once—unchecked control. Why give up any chance to have that happen again? As it is, we’re still living with the legacy of Nixon and our shrugging and letting him in the belief that we could always come back. In many ways, the Left in this country never really came back. Nixon led to Ford who led to Carter who led to Reagan, and to the medieval-like inequality in this country today. And you—who have a real chance to push the country to the left if we can keep the executive branch in the hands of the center-left—will not come back either. The same logic of history is going to apply to you. Not voting for Clinton will just put real change in this country even farther out of reach.
3. Consider the irony of a protest vote for the Green Party—a party of the global Left, not a national one—when the future of the globe itself is what’s at risk. Should such a Green vote indirectly put the GOP in power, it is the end of the Paris Accords on Global Warming. It’s not just that the United States would drop out—with the U.S. gone, other countries would, too. What would be the point of any other country complying? This would be devastating to the global—not to mention the planet.
I love the Green Party: If I were a German, I’d probably be a Green. But in Germany, there is a system of proportional representation—if Greens win, they make alliances with other parties of the Left and center-left. Here it’s different. So can we stop thinking about our own little U.S. Left, which doesn’t count for everything in this great big world? The Greens in Europe—and Green-type movements all over the world, including poorer countries who are liable to be the hardest hit—worked for those Accords. Don’t you owe it to other left groups, perhaps even further left than you, to keep those Accords in place?
But back to the U.S.: Remember, it takes a village to staff a government. Your own compatriots will be among those 6,000 villagers. And the defeat of the center-left will imperil your cause as well. Yes, I get the point: Not to vote for her is a matter of conscience. But we may lose our way. And by closing your eyes to the loss of a million little acts of mercy,, are you not taking a morally dubious means to an even more politically dubious end?
Thomas Geoghegan is a Chicago-based labor lawyer. He is the author of several books, including Which Side Are You On?, The Secret Lives of Citizens, The Law in Shambles, Only One Thing Can Save Us, and Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?