"Margaret Thatcher believed in privatization. Tony Blair just likes rich people." — Charles Moore, quoted in Tony Judt's Reappraisals.
Over the past few days a couple of liberal writers have been going around a well-worn debate track: How do we make Democrats more progressive? Adolph Reed kicked off the conversation by suggesting that liberals have surrendered to neoliberals and conservatives. Michelle Goldberg at The Nation responded by calling him a naïve "nihilist." In his ensuing response to Goldberg at Jacobin, Reed said, "I agree with Goldberg that in any given election it's overwhelmingly likely to be true that the only realistic choice is to vote for whichever Democrat is running."
We've reached this cul-de-sac before. This got me wondering, though: When would it be okay for a sensible progressive to vote against the Democrat?
Freddie deBoer outlines some of the history of this debate here. Remembering the successful primary campaign by Ned Lamont against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Senate race in 2006, he details how the result was met with enraged countermobilization from establishment Democratic hacks:
[D]id the establishment Democrats praise us for "electing better Democrats"? Did they rally around Lamont, and use his campaign as a way to move the national party further to the left, in a way that suggest they're open to in the abstract? No. No, of course not. On the national level and the state level, Democrats and media liberals excoriated Connecticut Democrats for having the gall to reject a made man like Lieberman... Meanwhile, the national Democrats, having pledged to respect the primary process, reneged on that deal once their guy lost, and Democrats like Chuck Schumer stumped vociferously for Lieberman. The usual establishment Connecticut Democrats banded together with Connecticut's sizable plutocrat faction and elected Lieberman on a third party ticket. [Fredrik deBoer]
What the Lamont story demonstrates — and what Goldberg and the Obamabot legions typically fail to acknowledge — is that there is an inherent tension between progressive goals and the Democratic Party writ large. Many have remarked on the fact that while the Republican establishment lives in chronic fear of its base, the Democrats despise theirs. This can be partially explained by the fact that there are a lot more committed conservatives than liberals in the nation. But a more important factor, especially in an overwhelmingly liberal state like Connecticut, is that on the one hand you have a political ideology centered around changing the distribution of resources to favor the bottom half of the income ladder and on the other a hierarchical political machine that is heavily dependent on the money of the very rich.
What plutocrats want is to schmooze and lobby and donate their way to a political system that has no meaningful options for either expropriating the rich or increasing the power of the lower classes. To buy off both parties, to put it crudely, at which they've largely succeeded. That and the inherent conservatism of powerful people explain, I think, why Democrats will abandon their famous cowardice to viciously stomp a liberal challenger to the establishment, even at some political risk to themselves.
So as a political tactic, when does it make sense for a liberal to refuse one's vote for the Democrat? I don't have an overarching theory, but I do have a ready example of someone who's crossed the line: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. This is a guy who signed off on Republican-gerrymandered state districts. And when the GOP lost the election anyway, he did nothing to prevent two Democratic state senators from switching sides, so that the same Blair-ite coalition of plutocrat-friendly "centrists" could continue to control everything.
And as Alex Pareene at Salon points out, he has been a close ally with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on some seriously shady deals:
Multiple former Port Authority officials tell the [Newark Star-Ledger] that Christie and Cuomo were in on a scheme to avoid political responsibility for bridge and tunnel toll hikes and PATH train fare increases. The Port Authority first announced massive, shocking toll and fare hikes. The governors acted shocked. They then sat down with the Port Authority and got them to agree to much more reasonable toll and fare increases. Obviously, the first, announced increases were for show, to allow the governors to look like they won the more modest increases that had been agreed to in advance.
This plan was thought up, the officials claim, by Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, Christie's Port Authority goons. One former Port Authority official also tells the paper that the New Jersey assemblyman investigating Christie's Port Authority could find emails implicating Cuomo with a subpoena. "[He'll] find the emails between Baroni, Wildstein, and the governor's office. And he'll also find emails between Baroni and Cuomo's office." Another truly heartwarming display of bipartisanship from Governor Cuomo. [Salon]
One of the most convincing tactical reasons for voting against the Democrat is to show the Democrats that they could lose by being too conservative, and to force them take the Left more seriously. It's a long-term strategy: by eating a direct loss now, you make room for a more substantive win later.
It's a pretty risky strategy, and could be overdone in what is, after all, a not terribly progressive country. And attempting to directly take over the Democratic Party from within is also a strategy worth pursuing. But in Cuomo-esque circumstances — in which an ostensible Democrat is actively working to undermine the progressive agenda to the point of acquiescing in a Republican takeover of the legislature, and working hand in glove with the opposition's most prominent leaders — withholding one's vote is objectively reasonable. Indeed, "to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running," as Goldberg advocates, is a straight road to plutocratic capture of the democratic process.
Cuomo is running for re-election this year. Don't vote for him.