Oregon ballot from the 2008 Election (Flickr Photo by jugbo)

During the 2008 election, the late great people’s historian Howard Zinn wrote about “election madness.” He said every four years it “seizes the country” because “we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose on of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” It deeply bothered him that all were so “vulnerable,” whether they were liberals or radicals, to spending so much time discussing presidential elections.

“Even in the so-called left periodicals, we must admit there is an exorbitant amount of attention given to minutely examining the major candidates,” he added. “An occasional bone is thrown to the minor candidates, though everyone knows our marvelous democratic political system won’t allow them in.”

Though these “minor candidates” may not be able to win, they are people like Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who get on enough state ballots necessary to win enough electoral votes to assume the presidency. They overcome strict ballot access laws that more well established political parties—the Democratic and Republican Parties—never have to bother with during elections. And the left-leaning press is, for the most part, either completely repulsed or indifferent toward their inclusion in the election and spend an excessive amount of time going over state polls, which cause them to go into a frenzy over the closeness of the election.

Wasting Your Vote

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell covered third party candidates in this election last week after they held a debate in Chicago moderated by former CNN show host Larry King. O’Donnell endorsed a “safe state” strategy. He said to people thinking of voting third party, “You will be told you`re wasting your vote if you vote for a third party candidate, because the third party candidate is not going to win the presidency. Well, I guess that means everyone who voted for John McCain for president or John Kerry for president wasted their votes, too.”

O’Donnell recounted for viewers:

…Having spent my lifetime in states irrelevant to the Electoral College, I have mostly, in fact, voted for third party candidates for president. And I was always told I was wasting my vote. When I voted for Democrats for president who lost, I was never told I was wasting my vote. I have actually voted for the winner of the presidency exactly once.

So please don`t try to tell me that voting for a candidate who loses is wasting a vote in a democracy. If you live in a battleground state, voting for a third-party candidate can be a lot dicier. Just ask the people who voted for Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000. If you`re lucky enough to live in a state that the presidential candidates care about, then your vote really does count in the way most people want it to. Then you really should think about who you want to see take the Oath of Office when you cast your vote, because your vote matters much, much more than mine [emphasis added]

It is a bit difficult to tell if he was blaming Nader voters for the outcome or if he is saying that they are remembered as a factor because the election outcome was uncomfortably close and this should be how it is in all states. But, let’s recognize that people in swing states do have power. Those who live in swing states, who are upset with the status quo and the current two-party system that keeps so many issues off the table in the elections, can be a factor. Yet, there are progressive leaders who are doing the work of Obama for America volunteer teams by seeking to dissuade those in swing states from voting, who they really may want to vote for in the election.

“Safe States” Strategies 

Put forward by Daniel Ellsberg, Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, Barbara Ehrenreich, Marjorie Cohn, Jim Hightower, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, these known progressives have called for Mitt Romney to be defeated “without illusions” about President Barack Obama. They say they have “consistently challenged Obama policies (on civil liberties, war and bloated military spending, environment, potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare, to name a few)” but “know that the policies of a Romney/Ryan administration would be worse on many issues and better on none.”

“Consider Romney’s recent vow to ‘change course’ toward even more warmongering in the Middle East. Or their profound differences on abortion rights and Supreme Court picks,” they write. And, they add, “We also know that whether Obama or Romney wins on November 6th will be decided in a dozen states known as ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states because they’re so close they could go either way. Those states now include Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.”

This is not a novel idea. Medea Benjamin, Peter Coyote, John Eder, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden, Norman Solomon and others put out a similar letter that called on progressives to “strategically” vote in the 2004 Election. It said a “few percentage points separate” George W. Bush and John Kerry. Activists in “swing states” were encouraged to “mobilize voters behind Kerry.” They encouraged people to vote for Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb in “safe states,” where it was certain Kerry would win. And they also urged advocacy for instant runoff voting and other reforms so in “future elections” voters could “support the candidate they most believe in without risk of electing the candidate they most oppose.” (Note: Eight years later, none of these people who signed this 2004 letter could be said to have had any more than a minimal impact when it comes to advancing the cause of electoral reform.)

“Safe states” strategies reinforce the fear people have for actually voting as citizens and not managers of democracy. Here’s an adObama for America released called “537.” It implicitly raises the specter of Ralph Nader costing Al Gore the election. When it was covered on MSNBC on October 24, host and devout Obama supporter Chris Matthews said, “You play games voting for the third-party candidate,” after the ad was shown, indicating the ad’s purpose was not necessarily for those who would stay at home and not vote but also for jolting those who would vote for someone like Jill Stein.

Helping to Prevent a Challenge to the Democratic Party from Forming

It may seem like this kind of open letter to progressives in support of a “safe states” strategy would help the Green Party or an alternative force to corporate Democratic politics grow, but what it does is discourage citizens from going too far outside the confines of the Democratic Party. And, so long as Democratic candidates for president like Obama can be sure of the progressive vote, they do not care what progressives do in between elections or how fierce they are in their advocacy between elections. As the Obama administration has proven on a vast array of issues, they can easily tune the “Professional Left” out and go about business as usual.

Lance Selfa, author of Democrats: A Critical History, writes in his book the candidacy of Cobb was a result of liberal or progressive forces working with people within the Green Party to ensure there was no meaningful challenge to the “militaristic hyper-cautious Kerry campaign.” Nader ran as an independent and received more votes than Cobb, despite the fact that his campaign was understaffed and underfunded and liberal forces were viciously attacking him. And the result of Cobb’s “safe states” campaign was that it lost “ballot status” or recognition as a political party in at least seven states.

If third party candidacies are to create space for the impossible by putting pressure on the candidates from the Republican and Democratic parties, then a “safe states” strategy or any kind of strategic voting must be regarded as something that reinforces the status quo. The progressive leaders prescribing this strategy recognize the electoral process is corrupt and deficient yet they are timid and unwilling to wage an organized action that might have an outcome that outraged a mass of people and forced political leaders into a situation where significant electoral reforms were necessary.

Howie Hawkins, a Green Party activist, has said, “Popular Front, fusion, inside-outside and safe states are all of the same genus of lesser evilism. By relying on the liberal wing of the corporate power structure to defend us from its right wing, the left surrenders its own voice and very identity as an alternative to corporate domination. And history shows, when push comes to shove, that the corporate liberals ally with their conservative counterparts against the people. “

Moreover, one should not consider it settled that Mitt Romney would, if president, outlaw abortion or bomb Iran. In 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, it was filled with conservative appointees. Richard Nixon opposed choice for women and was president. Yet, thousands of women and men demonstrated for a women’s rights in the years preceding the decision and created a climate where the Supreme Court decided they should issue a decision that would essentially legalize abortion. Nixon ended the Vietnam War because of the strength of the antiwar movement.

The Future of This Democratic Republic

The details of Obama’s policy positions, his actions and what he said he would do but did not do in his first term can be gone over with a fine-toothed comb. One can make a pretty solid hypothetical and empirical case that he would be just as toxic to progressive causes as Romney would be in his second term and Romney would have to struggle as president to outdo Obama on some very key issues. However, too much emphasis on their identities and what one predicts they will or will not do obscures the future focus, which people should have.

From a left perspective, there should be a concern about what investments of time, energy and resources do to the left. It is unclear what progressive leaders or progressive media organizations gain from telling their readers they endorse a vote for Obama without illusions when they editorially oppose a majority of what he has done or failed to do. It is not like those counting votes can see in the tally the number of people who voted with illusions and no illusions and make a differentiation. The votes still amount to a vote for Obama and the tacit endorsement diminishes the power leaders or organizations would have had if they had been silent and not made some collective announcement.

Moreover, these elections where people make decisions about whether they’ve reached a point where they can break with the two-party system or not are bigger than building a left. Opposing unbridled militarism, unchecked executive power or the further transformation of the federal government into an oligarchy or plutocracy is not left wing. There is broad support for this opposition from the grassroots across the political spectrum. That is because militarism, executive power and plutocratic policies come from what the late Sen. George McGovern called the “empty decaying void” of the “establishment center.”

Those who support candidates outside the two-party system show the utmost concern for the health of America as a democratic republic. They truly demonstrate a commitment to a future where elections are more democratized, where the people have more of a voice. Their votes help to create the space for any movement to reform the electoral process by instituting instant run-off voting, ranked-choice voting, abolishing the Electoral College, getting money out of politics, abandoning the Commission on Presidential Debates, reforming draconian ballot access laws or imposing term limits on members of Congress, etc. After all, it is tough to imagine any movement for meaningful electoral reform having any power if that power is not a factor in elections somehow.

Zinn recognized, “Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.” Voting, to Zinn, was “easy and marginally useful.” But it is not how he would ever expect the people to stop a president from committing any heinous or appalling act, like making it illegal for women to get abortions or starting another bloody and endless war.

Progressives should take this seriously. Movements are fairly weak in this country and, to the extent that they become powerful, they almost always trade their power away too quickly once the Democratic Party leadership recognizes they pose a threat to the current order. Were there healthy and sustainable movements in this country that had the power to affect and/or effect change, the hysteria about some fellow citizen’s third party vote going to elect Romney over Obama would be even more nonsense. One would be confident those movements would be present after Election Day to force whomever was in office to do whatever the fierce urgency of now required.