Voting Strategies

As a California resident I feel the necessity of discussing voting strategies. Clearly many of my fellow Californians have no good idea of what to do in this situation. A surprising number of them, surprising even given the lack of any public education facitilities in this state that used to be the envy of the world, believed that by voting for a campaign managed by Pete Wilson, who caused two-thirds of the current budget deficit, they could, in their words, “shake up” Sacramento. I never heard a single one of them explain what that meant. Every woman disclaimed any attraction to Arnold, and claimed they were only voting for a stupid fascist because they figured a Pete Wilson mouthpiece would change things. And of course men were bigger Arnold fans than women. Some of these people were sufficiently aware of California politics to have heard of Pete Wilson, the former governor, but not one could say anything coherent about government, Wilson, Schwarzenegger, or movies. Not surprisingly. There's nothing you can say to such people; they're not smart enough to vote. Which is why they're Republicans.

Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh. Name-calling has never really worked as an instrument of policy. And I've known intelligent, principled Republicans, who were naturally and majorly galled by what the party they call home was doing. I still think it's fair to claim that any intelligent Republican has to be nearly as depressed as is an intelligent Democrat—assuming this breed hasn't died out any more than its opposite number. But it's also fair to say that intelligent Republicans have about as much say in their party as intelligent Democrats have in theirs, so you can't really blame them for what the party does, only for continuing to support the party when it does those things.

So let's take a step back and do the intelligence bit (“rules that change themselves, directly or indirectly, are at the core of intelligence”, according to Douglas Hofstadter). Clearly we need to approach this thing on a long-term basis. Many of the most important and praiseworthy things people have ever done were done without the expectation of immediate reward. Among the most impressive stories about the Roman republic are those that describe sword-fights to the death between long-time friends, the prize being assignment to a suicide mission whose success would save the city. I would claim that it was the lack of any expectation of a life after this one that caused people to try to make the biggest mark they could before leaving this world. In any case, the soldiers fighting for such an assignment did not expect to receive any reward other than their own opinions of themselves, but they would willingly give their lives for that reward.

Chomsky often points out how much people are willing to go through in the Third World to overcome the barriers connected to our (that is, the US) government. They have death squads. They torture the people who organize, or who vote the wrong way. Here, you can't fire me because I vote for Kucinich, or Nader, or Ron Daniels.

So why don't more people do it? In many cases, I think, it's because they've somehow convinced themselves that voting for what they don't want is more honorable than voting for what they want. That voting for the best candidate is equivalent to dumping the vote in the garbage can, whereas voting for the second-worst is smart politics. I have to admit, I'm a believer in Eugene Debs's edict “I'd rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don't want and get it.” I have to admit that I believe that sentence to be the best and most cogent advice I've ever heard about voting. If everyone did that, as your teachers used to say, what would the US political scene be like?

Well, clearly it would not change immediately. Voting that way once, and evaluating the strategy based on who was elected and what propositions passed that time, is not a strategy that works. A strategy that works, in my opinion, is to vote the right way, and keep voting the right way, and evaluate over a lifetime whether this is a strategy you want to pass on. You cannot change the world with a vote; as the anarchists say, if voting changed anything it would be illegal. They're right about that in the long term. That leaves us a handle in the short term, a handle that has ultimate legitimacy.

Suppose we all went out in 2004 and voted for someone we really believed would be a good President. Given the breakdown of intelligence, education, and ideas of morality, and ignoring who's likely to vote because we're assuming for the moment that we all do, what would happen? My guess is that our next President would be from Vermont. But it's possible that Bush would be narrowly elected—I do not say re-elected for obvious reasons. What would be your reaction to that, dear reader? Would you throw up your hands, declaim against the idiocy of the plurality (it would not be a majority), say, with Homer Simpson, “When are people going to learn? Democracy doesn't work!”?

I would say, it doesn't matter with respect to the voting strategy. Sure, more Iraqis would die. More Americans would die too, from pollution, war, corporate irresponsibility (“…it is irresponsibility developed into a system.”—Emil Brunner). That doesn't mean the strategy's wrong. It means this ship doesn't turn quickly.

But realistically, not ideologically, can anyone doubt that the American political landscape would be changed? If we all began to vote for what we wanted, regardless of whether we thought we would get it any time soon, we would soon begin to get some of it. The first election, we would put the fear of God, the Deity being in this case the electorate, into the politicians. By the second election the parties would be in full realignment mode, trying to figure out how to look like they cared what we thought, without of course changing the system in any important ways.

So what about the third election? If we did this three times in a row, we would own the system the way the right wing of the Republican party owns it now, and we'd be more likely to hold it because there are more of us. The Populists tried this route in the late nineteenth century and nearly succeeded, but they couldn't maintain the push quite long enough, or put another way, the opposition succeeded in blunting the attack slightly before the attack became irresistable. What's the difference now? In human terms, the main difference is clearer recognition based on one more century's experience. In other terms, we have better tools. How are you reading this? How quickly could you pass it on if you chose to?

As the manager says in Bull Durham, “It's a simple game.” Suppose two things: most of us vote, and most of us vote for what we want. We would see clear changes in four to five years, and significant ones in eight to nine. The world's problems would not be fixed. There would continue to be only one form of government, as Ramsey Clark and probably many others said years ago: plutocracy, rule by the rich. But in the past, there have been times when people occupying the bottom two-thirds of the economic ladder realized their common self-interest, organized themselves, and changed things for the better. True, many of those positive steps have been eviscerated by the corporations, but this doesn't mean it's hopeless, it means we have to evolve as they evolve. Or we could choose to give up. Is the game worth the candle?

Look at the union organizers in eastern Kentucky coal country, which I heard a lot about growing up there. They were either reviled or considered saints, depending on which side you talked to. There are folk songs seriously suggesting that coal miners should be on their knees praising John L. Lewis, a sentiment you can only appreciate if you understand how bad their lives were without unions. Today, Lewis is a symbol for both sides of labor negotiations: the union looks back on lost glory days, and the corporations try to roll back the changes they agreed to then. So has corporate motivation changed? No, but corporations were forced to alter their behavior for many decades. That by itself is a victory.

Sure, we're still fighting the same fight, but it's for a glorious cause, and we've won before. Eternal vigilance is the price of each gain in liberty and democracy (to paraphrase, not Jefferson as I thought, but Wendell Phillips). Those who most closely resemble Adam Smith's “masters of mankind” have convinced a large part of the public that even if they somehow got organized enough to elect a President who somehow turned out to be both an effective politician and a decent person, an assassination would solve the problem. So there's nothing, really nothing, to be done.

This proposition is only true if we let it be.

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