Vote for Harm Reduction, Not Purity

Vote for Harm Reduction, Not Purity April 6, 2016

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North Carolina’s appalling HB2, which I wrote about on Monday, is just one bill in a parade of awfulness from state legislatures. In the last few weeks alone, Indiana has outlawed abortion if the fetus has a defect or disability, and Utah requires women getting abortion to receive unnecessary anesthesia against their will. A South Carolina bill would make anyone who sponsors a refugee criminally liable if that refugee commits a crime. Mississippi wants to grant shoot-to-kill authority to churches’ volunteer security guards. Tennessee wants to strip college diversity offices of funding and use the money to buy “In God We Trust” bumper stickers.

Bills like this show that it matters who controls the levers of power in this country. It matters when right-wing legislatures want to outlaw climate change or ban civil disobedience from history class. It matters when TRAP laws make legal, safe abortion practically impossible to access. It matters when government, rather than upholding equal justice under the law, protects the right to discriminate. It matters when governors strip-mine their own states for more futile tax cuts.

This is why I have no sympathy for liberals who piously declare that they’re through voting for “the lesser of two evils”, or who announce that they’re going to withhold their vote in protest if their preferred candidate doesn’t win the primary or if their preferred party doesn’t cater sufficiently to their wishes. We’ve always had these dead-enders: the Naderites in 2000, the PUMAs in 2008, and again with “Bernie-or-bust” in this cycle.*

The truth is that, contrary to fashionable political cynicism, the differences between the parties are real and significant. Of course, Barack Obama hasn’t been a progressive’s dream president: he’s been frustratingly naive** in dealing with Republican obstruction; he’s perpetuated our brutal, indiscriminate drone war and the cancerous secrecy state; he’s failed to keep his promises to close Guantanamo or pardon more federal prisoners. But those failures have to be weighed against the achievements of his presidency, which, as I said in a comment, are huge:

Seventeen million people gaining health insurance through Obamacare. Tax hikes on the wealthy. The Paris climate agreement and the EPA Clean Power Plan. Two women on the Supreme Court. $800 billion in stimulus spending for infrastructure and clean energy. The revival of the American auto industry. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The longest continuous period of private-sector job growth on record. Reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Iran nuclear agreement. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Nationwide same-sex marriage equality. The death of Osama bin Laden.

Those who scorn Obama as a compromiser and a sellout who did nothing meaningful are merely offering a commentary on their own hugely unrealistic expectations. The fact is that no one is incorruptible or flawless (we’re not Ayn Rand characters, after all). No candidate is going to be perfect out of the box, and no president will give you everything you want, no matter what they promise. Democracy inherently means you have to share power with people who don’t think like you do, and that means living in a democracy means learning to accept compromise and, on occasion, disappointment.

Democracy also means that real progress comes about incrementally, through the slow building of consensus. Some people fondly dream of a revolution that will sweep the bad people out and usher in a new, utopian order. Personally, I don’t trust revolutions: they have a nasty way of making things worse, rather than better. In all but the worst cases, it’s better to keep the institutions we have and work to make them better, rather than seeking to scrap it all and start over.

The other option, besides demanding a revolution, is the path of personal purity: declaring that you won’t participate in a corrupt or imperfect system. But this, too, is an illusion. Refusing to cast a ballot, or casting a protest vote for a candidate who can’t win, doesn’t keep you above the fray. It doesn’t make you any less a part of our democratic society and the laws it enacts in our collective name. All it is, is an assertion that your own righteous refusal to compromise is more important than working to make a difference where you can, even if that means casting a vote for a less-than-perfect candidate. And this, as Erik Loomis points out, is an act of immense personal privilege.

This doesn’t mean you can’t send a message with your vote! But the time to vote your conscience is in the primary*** – not the general election, where it matters immensely who ends up in control and what policies they pass. Holding out for perfection or nothing very often means… getting nothing.

An unsurpassable example of this is that in 1969, Richard Nixon proposed, and threw his weight behind, a national health-insurance plan that was very like Obamacare. We could have had universal coverage, except that Ted Kennedy scuttled the deal because he wanted to hold out for single-payer. As a result, nothing was passed, Americans would continue to suffer and die needlessly for the next fifty years. Kennedy called this the worst mistake he ever made. I for one am glad that Democrats didn’t make that same mistake again under President Obama.

Personally, I’m a utilitarian. I believe in harm reduction; I take it as a moral principle that less suffering is better than more, even if that sometimes means making distasteful compromises.

If you want to see what the opposite of harm-reduction voting looks like, just consider people like Susan Sarandon. She said that if Bernie Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, she might prefer Trump instead, on the grounds that he might make things so bad that people would finally be motivated to rise up in revolution. This is shockingly, callously irresponsible – essentially, it’s saying, “If people don’t vote how I want, I hope they suffer until they see things my way.” People like Sarandon, of course, will be fine no matter who wins – it’s minorities, the working poor and others already living on the edge who would pay the cost of her purity politics.

* To his credit, Sanders himself has disavowed this idea.

** Or rather, I don’t think he’s so naive as to not understand what they’re doing – he’s not unintelligent – but rather, he’s made the political calculation that it’s better to act like the bigger person in the room. I think it’s the wrong strategy, regardless.

*** And Sanders voters have! I guarantee that every Democrat who’s thinking of running for national office is looking enviously at Bernie Sanders’ following and trying to figure out how they can tap that immense energy. The candidate who can successfully combine Sanders’ firebrand populism with Hillary Clinton’s durable appeal to people of color will win in a landslide.


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