The Nation looks at the Green Question

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In 1999, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website called “The Nader Question.” It would have asked whether Ralph Nader ought to run as an independent candidate in the 2000 US presidential election, and have featured short statements pro and con by various commentators, as well as giving readers the opportunity to post their own replies. If it were a hit, after the election this site would morph into “The Green Question,” a forum set up along similar lines devoted to presenting contrasting views on whether US nationals who find the Democratic Party consistently too cozy with the Power Elite to merit their support ought to coalesce behind a new party under a “Green” label.

“The Nader Question” would have been in many parts. For example, should the Democrats have moved left, and if so was such a run a logical step in an effort to push them left?  The first question could have been answered negatively by someone wanting the Democrats to move further to the right, to continue on their Clinton-era course, or to go out of business altogether.  The second could have been answered negatively by someone regarding campaigns by candidates outside the two major parties as pointless, by someone regarding them as so unpredictable in their consequences that such a run would be as likely to make the problem worse as to make it better, or by someone supporting the idea of a campaign but deeming Mr Nader an unsuitable candidate. It should be easy to see that many such questions would be open to just as wide a variety of answers.

The state of blogging platforms at the end of the twentieth century, combined with my lack of entrepreneurial spirit, scanty computer expertise, even scantier connections to political and media figures whose writing might draw the public to such a site, and nearly non-existent financial resources combined to discourage me so that “The Nader Question” never got off the ground. I hadn’t thought about “The Nader Question” in many years, not until looking at the latest issue of The Nation magazine. It examines Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign from several angles, much as “The Nader Question” would have examined Mr Nader’s candidacy.

Columnist Katha Pollitt and Nation Institute fellow Joshua Holland argue that Dr Stein is unlikely to make an impression on the race, and that voters who cast one of over 100,000,000 ballots for one of the major party candidates will somehow be more likely to influence subsequent national policy. Difficult as it might be to imagine circumstances in which this would happen, it is even more difficult to restrain laughter when Mr Holland claims that the United States opposed the military coup in Honduras in 2009. That coup was led by officers of the Honduran Air Force, a service all of whose aircraft are supplied by the US defense firms.  These aircraft cannot fly without spare parts and other materials provided at regular intervals by these companies. No officer of any air force is going to join an enterprise which, if successful, will ground his or her aircraft.  The idea that the leaders of the coup did not act with firm assurances from the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that if successful they would continue their dealings with their aerospace contractors in the USA, is simply a joke.

Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant argues that there is a perverse relationship between the Democratic Party and the right wing, that the Democrats regularly provide cover for policies that the public would not accept if proposed by the Republicans and that this relationship has been a necessary a condition for the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the financial elite in recent decades.  A vote for Dr Stein, and continued support for parties to the left of the Democrats, is an indispensable step towards breaking this link.

Other pieces that do not bear directly on the question of whether voters should support Dr Stein shed light on it indirectly. Four pieces deal with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet: a 1976 essay by Orlando Letelier; Naomi Klein’s recommendation of the essay; a memorial by Susan George of Letelier‘s work in exile against the Pinochet regime; and Peter Kornbluh’s call for the US government to release the documents it still keeps secret which cover the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC in 1976 by agents of the Chilean secret service and the collaboration between US administrations under presidents from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton to keep the particulars of the assassination from the public and to continue security cooperation between the US and Chile.  The active roles the Carter and Clinton administrations took in this cover-up, along with the refusal of the Democrats who held the majority in the in the US Senate for 8 of those 14 year and in the US House of Representatives for the entire period to do anything to stop it, and finally the Obama administration’s continued embargo of these documents, show that Ms Sawant is not entirely wrong when she says that the American right could not perpetrate its worst misdeeds without the assistance of the Democratic Party.

Bryce Covert argues that the welfare reform act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 has been a disaster for low-income Americans and that we must hope President Hillary Rodham Clinton will undo its worst provisions. This does seem rather like trying to escape bankruptcy by hoping that the thief who impoverished you will refund your stolen goods. It’s true that HRC’s opponent, Don John of Astoria, has shown no inclination to make a change for the better in the welfare system or much of anything else, but neither is HRC likely to do so unless the political reward of doing good outweighs the political cost. If welfare recipients and those who are directly interested in their well-being either do not vote or vote for the Democrats no matter what they do, then they have no political incentive to do anything for them. They won’t act without such an incentive, not because they are evil, but because there are so many other things they could be doing that might perhaps be good and would certainly bring strong political rewards that they will not find the time to do unprofitable good deeds. Only a left of center movement capable of seriously inconveniencing Democratic politicians, a movement partly working inside the party to reward it for moving left and partly working outside the party to impose a costs on it for moving right, can make it rational for the Democratic Party to pay real attention to issues like welfare. That’s how the welfare state was created in the first place, in a time when the labor movement not only gave the Democrats the backbone of their party’s organization but also included major unions that regularly considered endorsing candidates to the Democrats’ left.

The cover story is an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course urges those who backed him in the primary to throw their allegiance to HRC in the general election. I had assumed that the Sanders campaign would end up like the Bill Bradley 2000 campaign, gaining some publicity and intriguing poll numbers in the early going, only to collapse when people started voting. Mr Bradley did not win a single statewide contest, losing every primary, every caucus, and every state convention to the Tennessee Turd, then-US Vice President Albert Arnold “Al” Gore, Junior. I was glad when Mr Sanders won enough votes to show that a very large percentage of the Democratic voter base was so desperate for a change from the Clinton approach that they would vote for a 74 year old Jewish Socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent and only tenuous ties to the Democratic Party.

A candidate in Mr Bradley’s mold, a party regular with a substantial record in high office, a celebrity background as a professional athlete, and no habit of donning labels that large segments of American society regard as equivalent to treason, could well have taken the Democratic Party this year away from the Finance First approach that the Clintons fastened on it almost a quarter-century ago.  I backed Paul Tsongas in 1992, because I thought the time had come for a Finance First approach; I preferred him to Governor Bill Clinton, because Tsongas tried to combine Finance First with as much of the New Frontier/ Great Society liberal agenda as he could. Had Tsongas won, I suspect that the party would have been more flexible in later years, using Finance First in the early 1990s when it made sense, but turning to other priorities as the country’s circumstances changed. A powerful force outside the party would still have been needed to actuate those turns, but at least the party’s leaders would have remembered where the intersections were.

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Wasted votes

In a couple of weeks, voters in the USA will go to the polls to fill a number of offices, including the electors who will either return Barack Obama to the White House for another four years as the country’s president or replace him with former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney.  To be more precise, that is when the last voters will cast their ballots; millions of of Americans, Mrs Acilius and I among them, have already cast absentee ballots.

The missus and I did not, as it happens, vote for either Mr O or his leading opponent.  We had planned to vote for Ross “Rocky” Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, whose independent bid focuses, first, on opposition to the wars the USA is currently waging or underwriting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, Mauretania, and heaven knows how many other countries; second, on opposition to “anti-terrorism” policies that have compromised the rule of law so drastically that Mr O openly boasts of murders he has ordered and plans to order in the future;  third, on support for investigation and prosecution of any and all war crimes that recent US presidents have sponsored.  But Mr Anderson did not gain sufficient support to be certified as a candidate in our state.  So we voted instead for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.  Dr Stein agrees with Mr Anderson on all of those points, but focuses her campaign on environmental policy and poverty issues.

Many people like to say that, because Mr O and Mr Romney are the only candidates with any chance of winning next month’s election, votes for any other candidate are “wasted.”  On its face, this expression is nonsensical.  It isn’t as if the polling places were casinos where the machines pay out if voters cast a ballot for a winner.  I have often asked people what they meant they say that votes for candidates unlikely to win are “wasted,” and have read many internet comment threads where people have been asked to explain what they mean by it.  The response is invariably a repetition of the claim that some candidate or other is unlikely to win, usually accompanied by a lot of bluster asserting that it is a sign of some moral deficiency to vote for anyone other than a likely winner.

Incoherent as these responses are, they seem to reflect a distinction that political scientists make between two kinds of voting behavior.  They talk about “instrumental voting” and “expressive voting.”  Instrumental voting, in its most basic form, represents a voter’s hope that s/he will cast the decisive ballot; expressive voting represents the voter’s attempt to make his or her policy preferences clear.

Political scientists sometimes go to great lengths to defend the rationality of instrumental voting.  Yet a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that in any election where the electorate is more than 600 or 700 people, the likelihood that there will be a single decisive ballot is quite small.  In a race like that for US president, where over one hundred million ballots will be cast and the electoral process is indirect, the probability that the outcome will be decided by a single ballot is effectively nil.  Meanwhile, if it is generally expected that the same electorate will vote again in the future and that such voting will be comparable in importance to the present election, political actors will analyze the results of the election as they formulate their plans for governing and campaigning.  The more votes a losing candidate receives, the more likely the policies associated with that candidate are to receive serious consideration in the interval before the next election.  Nowadays, the methods of analysis that parties, advocacy groups, candidates, and other political actors apply to election returns are so sensitive that even tiny numbers of votes can provide elected officials with information that they may profitably use in forming their approach to governing and campaigning.  Therefore, it is not too much to say that expressive voting is in fact the only rational form of voting behavior wherever the electorate is larger than a few hundred people.

What brought all this to my mind were three pieces I recently read dealing with the 2012 campaign.  Two of them were from lefties exasperated with Democrats telling them that any vote not cast for Mr O is effectively an endorsement of Mr Romney’s worst proposals; these were from Ted Rall and M. G. Piety of Counterpunch.  Another was from a right-wingers exasperated with Republicans telling him that any vote not cast for Mr Romney is effectively an endorsement of the misdeeds of the Obama administration; this was from Mark P. Shea.  In particular, Mr Rall’s arguments, and even his presentation of them as a series of replies to Frequently-Asked-Questions, are remarkably similar to Mr Shea’s.  Of course, the two are poles apart on most issues, but do unite in opposition to the idea of voting for either Mr O or his Republican counterpart.