Memo to all those Democratic “pragmatists” who reflexively dismiss the attitudes of progressives who either (a) will reluctantly vote for a Blue Dog but otherwise do nothing to help or (b) will not participate at all, including on election day:
It’s not that simple.
The point of this post is not to be dismissive in return, but to invite you to consider the possibility that what you consider to be a logical slam dunk is something a bit more gray, and that the “stay at home progressives” are not irrational dreamers.
I’ve heard the arguments. “You have an obligation to vote.” “Not voting is the equivalent of voting for Martha McSally” (Actually, it’s not. Consider the differing impacts of not voting at all versus voting for McSally if the election were otherwise tied or Barber had a one vote lead.) “You may not like Barber’s votes, but he’s not as bad as McSally would be.” “Barber is in a ‘tough district,’ so he has to vote that way.” And one I saw in a comment the other day: “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” (Where anything short of terrible apparently qualifies as “good”)
With respect to those progressives who will reluctantly vote for a Ron Barber or Kyrsten Sinema, but won’t otherwise help, they actually are being pragmatic and your dismissing them for not being pragmatic, as opposed to simply disagreeing with them, is hard to justify. They have limited resources, which they can allocate nationwide. If they have to choose between helping a progressive candidate from another state win versus helping a local Blue Dog win, the pragmatic calculus weighs in favor of the out-of-state progressive, as the result will be better both in terms of votes cast on proposed legislation and work done to further the progressive agenda. Yes, there are local concerns like bringing federal dollars back to the district, but on that front the pragmatic choice would be to help the candidate whose party is in the majority, so it’s a neutral consideration here.
What about those progressives who won’t even vote? There’s an old quote, ordinarily attributed to Ben Franklin, which goes something like “those who would give up liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Could that concept apply here as well, with the thought being that “those who will excuse craven cynicism and support for economic injustice in their representative in order to temporarily impede increased social injustice deserve neither economic justice, nor social justice, nor principled representation”?
It really is a slippery slope on this front. When you reward a craven Democrat who votes against his or her own principles based on a cynical political calculation, you encourage more of that behavior. It’s the precise opposite of what JFK wrote so eloquently in Profiles in Courage. So, yes, there’s a rationality to demanding more from your representative, even if that means a temporary setback in an election.
The danger associated with the cynical Blue Dog strategy is how it impacts the votes of those truly in the political middle and ultimately the views of those in the political middle. That hypothetical voter whose views are halfway in between the political left and the political right will lean towards the more principled of two candidates. So, faced with the choice between a conservative whose view is based on principles, albeit ill-conceived principles, and a shape-shifting Democrat who votes in the same general direction as the conservative for reasons that appear to be purely political, that voter in the middle will choose the conservative.
But it’s worse than that. Not only will the voter choose the conservative, his own ideology will move to the right. As that happens, the political spectrum will slide rightward along the ideological spectrum. Soon enough, what once was considered “center-right” will be considered centrist; what once was considered far right will be considered center-right; what once was considered extreme right will be considered far right, and what used to be considered unthinkable will enter the political spectrum.
I’ve said before that the problem progressives face is that the Democratic Party is unwilling to lose a few election cycles in order to lay the groundwork for the advancement of progressive principles. In that regard, compare the differing strategies of Clinton and Goldwater. When Clinton and the DLC wing of the Democratic Party took control in the early ’90s, the temporary result was improved performance of Democrats, at least at the Presidential level. But the country basically continued its rightward slide. This may not have been entirely cynical, as groups such as Third Way perhaps truly believe in a large portion of the conservative platform, particularly neoliberal economic policy. But the effect was the same. We were electing Democrats, while enacting trade policy that was helping to gut the middle class.
Contrast that to Goldwater. He campaigned on principles in which he believed. He suffered a drubbing in the 1964 election, but is often credited with laying the groundwork for the so-called Reagan revolution.
So, if your goal is to move the political spectrum leftward, as opposed to just slowing its movement rightward, do you favor the Clinton approach or the Goldwater approach? And if you favor the Goldwater approach, how do you promote leadership of a like mind? Do you tolerate the cynical rep who sells out his or her own principles for political gain, or do you let that rep fail so that a principled progressive can rise to a leadership position?
The bottom line: There really is a logic supporting the conduct of the stay at home progressives. They’re not irrational, and continuing to view them as such will be detrimental in the long run.