In Defense of Stay at Home Progressives

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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.

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Bob Lord
Bob is a tax and business lawyer who had given up on politics until deciding to run for Congress in 2008 (CD3), when he tried to unseat John Shadegg. He since has returned to his law practice and golf addiction. Bob has been writing for Blog For Arizona since late 2011, concentrating mostly on federal issues, with an occasional foray into Arizona state politics.

6 COMMENTS

  1. You make a good point about principled candidates who clearly state their opinions and have reason behind their stances– versus wishy, washy politicians who vote based upon polling or what may get them re-elected. (In addition to Sinema, I would add Republican State Rep. Ethan Orr to the opportunist list. As for Barber, I think he really is that conservative. She’s a sellout.)

    Although neither of these men are progressive, I believe that both Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik (who infamously switched from Republican to Democrat) and former Surgeon General and former US Senate candidate Richard Carmona have earned respect because they are good examples of ethical politicians who stick to their principles. Nice post.

  2. 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.

    What, cycles like 2010? You know, the one that put Republican in power in dozens of states and congressional districts by lettig them gerrymander at will? Or erhaos you would like to revisit ‘not a lick of difference between Gore and Bush’…

    The way to win elections is…wait for it…win elections. Losing elections to monsters like Sam Brownback does not materially improve the lives of the people you want voting for you. Throwing DINOS out of office does not help when Republicans win the office.

    As always, I must point to the definitive TBogg treatment of the issue.

    Voting for the lesser evil gets you the LESSER evil. What happens when the next Republican president gets to add two more Scalias or Roberts’ to the Supreme court. Your ‘stay at home’ progressive will have helped accomplish the exact opposite of what they want.

  3. There is something very insular about the leadership of our local Dem party. Does anyone really thaink that Barber has his job because he campaigned in a primary and convinced more Dem voters that he best represented their views ?
    Because I remember an almost non-primary where Barber was, essntially, appointed by party leadership. I voted for Matt Heinz, who would have made a much better Congressman, but he never had a chance considering the local party leadership.

    In any case, I contributed my limited funds and efforts to some local Dems and to Grijalva, and if somehow Barber should lose and we have a real primary next time I will support a real Dem.

    If the Dem party, and Barber, actually wanted the support of people like me they know how to get it, and they keep telling me they don’t. So be it.

  4. Sorry but I think it is much simpler than you ramble on about (boy do you ramble). The best example I have is that Latinos don’t vote their numbers. If they did we would turn Texas blue and Az blue and affect many other states. That in turn would have made for a Dem. House and we would have had an immigration bill, a jobs program for vets, a jobs bill for all, an extension of unemployment benefits and MUCH MORE…even fixes to the ACA (as all major bills need). This is a logical extension of your supposed conundrum. They all aren’t Elizabeth Warner but please…..we live in the real world!!

    • Perhaps I ramble, but at least I don’t entirely lack an appreciation for nuance and relevancy. The term “stay at home” is technically not accurate, because it’s referrring to progressives who simply abstain in one or more races based on principle, but otherwise vote. Your comment conflates them with eligible voters who simply don’t vote at all for reasons having nothing to do with the candidates. And there is a difference between a candidate who is “not an Elizabeth Warren” because of an honest disagreement in principle, and one who exalts her re-election prospects above every other consideration when casting a vote.
      If what you say about Latinos not voting their numbers were true, and it may be true, it would be so regardless of whether the reps who are in office voted cynically or actually stood for something. So, in explaining why I was wrong in believing it wasn’t so simple, you pointed to something that was entirely irrelevant.

      • Not irrelevant but rather making a point. We can’t always get the best or sometimes even the second best. So you make the best of a weak lot and try to use the primaries to help get progressives in. One assumption made by more than a few, is to let the Dems lose big for a few cycles and then come back with real Dems. That fails to realize that more Federalist judges would be appointed to courts and even the SCOTUS and the things progressives want will never be attainable again. Right wing laws would be passed and codified and the plutocracy would be forever entrenched, unlike the 1880s when change was ultimately possible.

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