By David Faris | (Informed Comment) | – –
Dear young progressives,
If recent polls are to be believed, younger progressive voters like you are either preparing to vote in unusually large numbers for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, or planning to stay home. If you’re going to stop reading now because tl;dr, the takeaway of this article is the following: please don’t do this. This is a very bad idea. If I had to rank-order all the bad decisions available to you in the universe it would go: 1) Any of these 3 options 2) Everything else.
You need to vote for Hillary Clinton or you may die in a fiery apocalypse that will make the plot of The Walking Dead seem like a story you tell to small children to comfort them and help them fall asleep. Voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or writing in Bernie Sanders, or staying home, will contribute materially to the Armageddon which will follow. This article will explain why.
Don’t worry though, this is not another Millennial Trend Piece, where middle-aged people shame you about how you’re not buying cars or having enough sexy time or whatever. I’ll trade car ownership rates for a whole generation that believes women are people and climate change is real. I’ll make that trade every single time.
(Side note: How did we determine that the Generation X ended in 1980? Were the doctors and nurses standing around on the morning of January 1st, 1981 saying, “Well that’s a wrap. The next baby born in this country is part of a new generation. Look at this baby right here! See? Totally different! This stupid baby clearly has the attention span of a hamster! We shall call this baby a Millennial and spend the rest of our lives prosecuting this arbitrary concept for the crime of living in the world we made for it.”) There will be no cringe-inducing Snapchat jokes in the paragraphs that follow. I will not yell at you and call you selfish or a child or any of the other unhelpful devices that commentators deploy to shame people into voting their way. And unlike most of the people that write smarmily about you, I actually adore your generation. As a college professor, I spend dozens of hours every week with you and I consider it a privilege. You’re navigating an economic world that is much more challenging than the one I grew up in, and you’re doing it with grace.
I am, however, going to dish it to you straight.
Let’s take the low-hanging fruit first. Gary Johnson is a bizarre choice for young progressives to consider. I know the Libertarians promise to get the government out of your weed stash and your marriages, which is dope. But they also believe a lot of really preposterous and regressive things that would functionally obliterate modern society. The Libertarian Party platform explicitly calls for abolishing or repealing the following things: income taxes, Social Security, public education, the Environmental Protection Agency, Obamacare as well as and I quote, “all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution.” Since the U.S. Constitution does not really call for very many federal programs at all – it being a shortish document that establishes the rules of political order rather than a draft of the federal budget for a country of 319 million people in the year Twenty-Sixteen – that pretty much covers most of them except the military. These delusional fabulists are allowed to run around blabbering about their absurd fantasy of stripping the modern state down to its pre-industrial shell because none of them will ever get within a million miles of actual power and thus will never be held accountable for any of it. That their hilarious platform now exists on the Internet – a thing that was invented by government researchers, using a method (government-funded partnerships with universities) that Libertarians would abolish—is an irony beyond their grasp. On top of that, Gary Johnson himself appears to be high as a skyscraper 24 hours a day and has the general demeanor of someone who can’t quite remember what happened yesterday but thinks maybe he left the oven on. In short: libertarians are not serious people with well-thought-out plans for how to grapple with the many challenges of modernity. You should not vote for them in general. You definitely should not vote for this one.
Jill Stein, I suppose, makes a bit more sense for you. She seems like a nice, idealistic woman, and she clearly cares and has poured her heart into her activism, some of which has been quite effective. But I would argue that this is not enough to be considered presidential material. The sum total of her experience in government is serving a term-and-a-half on a small-town council in Massachusetts, a position she quit to run for governor. She has since run a series of campaigns for higher offices and has never come close to winning any of them. This isn’t about what she has or hasn’t said about vaccines. There is a reason that you do not invite someone from the U.S. Senate to analyze your MRI or pilot your next flight, just as there are very good reasons why we should not plunge total political neophytes directly into the highest political office in the country. Government is not neuroscience but it does require some basic expertise and experience. Barack Obama’s four years in the U.S. Senate are something that should be considered a bare minimum.
An even better reason to dismiss voting for Stein and the Greens in this election is structural. That’s because “third party” is a kind of shorthand that obscures more than it illuminates. I frequently hear from many of you that you would like a third party option. The polling reflects this desire. But America isn’t just missing a third party – it’s missing a fourth, fifth and sixth too. The reason isn’t because they don’t exist – you’ll see them right there on the ballot in all kinds of elections. It’s because of the electoral system – the rules that we use in the United States to elect our national legislature. The United States uses a system known in political science as “Single Member District Plurality.” We conduct 435 separate elections for the House of Representatives, and in every district, we elect a single person according to whoever has the most votes, even if it’s less than a majority. Before you start stabbing yourself with a fork to stay awake, please stick with me for a second. Political scientists have consistently found that countries using this system have fewer major political parties than countries that use versions of “proportional representation” where parties are awarded a number of seats that corresponds roughly to their percentage of the vote. Think about it: The Green Party could run a candidate in every district, have that candidate come in third in each race with 20% of the vote, and end up with zero seats in the House. In a PR system they’d get around 20% of the seats. Here they get zero. This is why people keep yelling about wasting your vote. It’s actually true. It’s like if you had two options for dinner and you didn’t like either of them and decided to fry up something that does not exist. You could probably succeed in replacing the position of the Democratic Party with the Greens, but it would take a generation and the world would be torched in the interim.
Look, I know most of you wanted Bernie Sanders to win the nomination. This was shocking to the Olds because we mistakenly saw him as the second coming of Dennis Kucinich rather than as a plausible candidate whose ideology and rectitude inspired you. Our bad. Important to note: Bernie Sanders has also realized that he would prefer not to spend his last years on Earth watching the charred remains of everything he believes in buried in a shallow grave by a hateful charlatan with cartoon hair who runs around the country promising to ethnically cleanse 11 million Latinos and spend scarce public resources building a wall around a country that could not possibly do us any real harm. That’s why Bernie is out there stumping for Hillary Clinton, a woman he plainly does not like and would prefer to never see again, even for a beer.
Bernie also remembers the 2000 election, and what transpired in its dreadful aftermath. One of the hardest things for your elders to quite grasp is that events that were seminal in our lives are ancient history to you. The newest voters in this country were two years old for Bush v. Gore. Al Gore bringing a new personality to each of the three debates? I know! Unforgettable, right? No. Those debates might as well be Lincoln-Douglas to someone coming of age today.
It strikes me as odd that the discourse in the Democratic primary focused much more on the 90s (the crime bill! Welfare reform!) than the 2000s. So it’s worth taking something of an extended detour in here to think about the 2000 election. There were two major-party candidates for president, as there always are. One was Al Gore, the sitting Vice President, a man who came off a bit like a tranquilized Vulcan in public but had pretty standard left-liberal leanings and would later go on to become a major climate change activist. (Seriously: An Inconvenient Truth was a crucial catalyst for the discourse about climate change). The other option was George W. Bush, the “folksy” two-term governor of Texas who even on the campaign trail in 2000 displayed a shockingly limited grasp of public policy and was rather obviously pretending to be more moderate than he was. The Green Party ran the activist Ralph Nader. The Libertarians ran an economic cult leader named Harry Browne.
What was that campaign like? A measure of how much of a different planet the 2000 election took place on is that the longest-running debate between the two candidates was over what to do with all the extra scratch we had lying around. We were told America was so flush it wouldn’t have to go to the ATM for a decade. We were the big winner at poker night and we were thinking about buying a vacation house. Gore talked, in ways that seem dull even 16 years later, about setting the budget surplus aside in a “lockbox” to keep elements of the social welfare system, like Social Security, solvent. Bush spoke unapologetically about giving the extra money back to the Hamptons set so that eventually it might find its way miraculously into the hands of middle class and poor people, according to the precepts of a discredited economic theory that no one who has spent an hour studying the evidence could seriously believe.
The race was shockingly close. Gore won the popular vote. But he lost narrowly in the Electoral College after an absurdly close race in Florida was resolved by a genuinely ludicrous Supreme Court decision that had to have been written with a knowing smirk. Had even a miniscule percentage of Nader’s 97,421 Florida votes gone to Gore, George W. Bush would never have been president. Very few people who have studied the Florida vote dispute this.
So how did that work out for everyone? If you didn’t live through it as a conscious adult, you might not quite understand what a generation-wrecking disaster the presidency of George W. Bush turned out to be. He was a narrow-minded mediocrity that we are now all preposterously nostalgic about because he’s not a sociopath like the current GOP nominee and because he likes to dance inappropriately at the funerals of murdered police officers. He wasn’t necessarily a bad person but he was also easily one of our worst presidents. He left office with the approval rating of head lice. His reckless tax cuts blew a more or less permanent, Texas-sized hole in the federal budget. His inane decision to invade Iraq – a country that had not a single discernible thing at all to do with the tragedy of 9/11 – will be haunting you like the Demogorgon from Stranger Things for the rest of your lives. The total cost of the Iraq War – which may rise as high as $6 trillion –will eventually exceed the value of all the oil imported to the United States since 1980. These things happened because Bush – who never knew anything meaningful about government or public policy or economic theory, or really anything aside from baseball and executing people– immediately turned his administration over to a collection of aggressive ideologues who had been waiting patiently in their think tank offices for years to unleash their theories about taxes and power on an unwitting public. These maniacs, nearly all of whom remain completely unapologetic about everything they have done and are waiting once again for you to put them back in office, filled up the empty vessel of George W. Bush’s brain with their thoughts and convinced our erstwhile captain to steer the ship of state directly into the damn iceberg.
The predictable fiasco of his 8 years in office happened because progressives (back then we just called ourselves liberals) couldn’t tell the difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Many stayed home because the outgoing Clinton Administration did some things that turned out not to be very progressive at all, and people were super frustrated and kind of bored. Some voted for Bush. The math of who would or wouldn’t have won Florida is less important than this simple fact: Al Gore would have been a much better president than George W. Bush. Like, your lives would be improved right now, in meaningful ways. For starters, we wouldn’t be so broke that we can’t pay for higher education, or really any education at all, because Al Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. He would have done more progressive things with our surplus bling rather than cutting checks to yacht owners and appointing ageless archconservatives to the Supreme Court in between ruinous overseas adventures.
Why am I telling you this? If you live long enough, I promise you that eventually you will hear all of the arguments that are getting bandied about today again, and they will be verbatim. In 20 years they will sound like farce to you and you will want to scream. And I am hearing and seeing so much that reminds me of the 2000 election. Then as now the Democratic nominee was a stiff policy wonk who was first elected to office when many liberal ideas and policies were politically toxic and therefore was considered more conservative than he actually was. Then as now we were at the tail end of a reasonably successful two-term Democratic presidency that nevertheless disappointed the progressive left. Then as now the outgoing president was far more charming and effective on the stump than the current nominee. And then as now, the minor-party candidate threatens to throw the election to the Republicans. The other day I even heard someone refer to Clinton and Trump as “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber,” a phrase borrowed directly from the Nader campaign that remains as profoundly wrong now as it was 16 years ago. To this day I still hear people argue that the outcome of the 2000 election was Al Gore and the Democratic Party’s fault – that he wasn’t progressive enough and he took the Left for granted and he ran a crappy campaign. And: some of that is true! But good God, the punishment did not fit the crime! Why penalize the entire country for eight unbearably long and terrible years for the crimes of Al Gore’s clueless political strategists? Once again we are in danger of letting the left’s legitimate frustrations with the Democratic Party, and the nominee’s “likeability,” obscure the very simple fact that Hillary Clinton would be a much better and more progressive president than Donald Trump, even if she is not as progressive as you might like her to be.
What’s particularly horrifying is that Donald Trump would be a much worse leader than George W. Bush, a bottom 10 president who would probably be in the bottom 5 if not for the long succession of 19th century morons that plunged us into the Civil War. Whatever else you want to say about the man, I do believe that Bush meant well. That doesn’t excuse the horrors he visited on this country (and many others) but it is something. Donald Trump hits the jackpot of being both an execrable human being, and also dumber than George W. Bush by several orders of magnitude. The words that come out of his mouth about public policy – like how we should have “taken” Iraq’s oil to prevent the rise of ISIS– transcend partisan ideological differences by the sheer magnitude of their absurdity. What would we have taken the oil with? A Breitbart tote bag and some truck drivers from New Jersey? This is a man whose sentences literally do not make sense in the language they are spoken in.
The language they do make sense in is the lingua franca of reactionary racists, misogynists and bigots, people who have been dreaming their whole lives about how they can dominate and destroy anyone who isn’t like them, who resent the (incomplete, mostly half-assed and in some cases non-existent) steps we have taken as a society to treat women and minorities as equals, and who openly wish to return society to its pre-modern condition, in which straight white men could do and say whatever they wanted to anyone anywhere and if you got in the way you were enslaved or murdered or marginalized. This is why they love it when Trump says we should take Iraq’s oil. It used to be routine to invade and steal the resources of other societies. The fact that globalization has made the economic plight of some of these people somewhat worse does not mean that you should be ok turning power over to them. It is not going to make anything that currently bothers you about our politics or the Democratic Party any better. It is not going to cancel your student loans.
The reason for the headline of this article is not that Trump has spent his entire adult life aggrandizing himself at the expense of working people. Capitalism is lousy with this kind of garden-variety huckster and occasionally they slip into public office without lasting damage. It’s not his creepy children or the fact that he can’t spell or speak in complete sentences and has no idea how a bill becomes law or how treaties work or what is even in the United States Constitution and obviously detests women. These are real problems that should have prevented him from being the nominee let alone the president, but they are not Dinosaur Extinction problems. You should fear calamity because this dollar store Robespierre who has never held a single elected office in his life is truly dangerous. I have nightmares about him, and let me tell you: I didn’t have any nightmares about Mitt Romney or John McCain. I didn’t want them to be president, but in the short run we would have been just fine. True story: The President of the United States walks around all day trailed by an aide carrying a satchel with the nuclear launch codes. Donald Trump is a man with impulse control problems and no moral compass who has asked his advisors why we can’t use the nuclear weapons that we have. Do the math.
It is not difficult to imagine plausible scenarios that would bring us to the brink of nuclear obliteration. Trump has mused openly about blowing NATO apart and sports a barely contained man-crush on Russian President Vladimir Putin. If Trump succeeds in weakening NATO, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the Russians swooping in to reclaim the Baltic states, on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians. He’s done this repeatedly, in both Georgia and Ukraine, only this time it would trigger an even graver crisis because the Baltic countries are in NATO, which in addition to being a fun acronym is also a mutual defense pact. Do you really want this guy – a man who can’t even control his anger toward Rosie O’Donnell in a nationally televised debate – running the show when that happens? This is to say nothing of all of the sub-apocalyptic crises his policies will trigger, like the global financial meltdown that will ensue when he starts his trade war with China.
You’ll notice I haven’t said much about Hillary Clinton. The salient fact here is that notwithstanding her flaws, she’s a better, more progressive option than Donald Trump. I think she’ll be a terrific president but I understand if you disagree. I would just ask that for now you settle for sanity. You can resume your inspirational struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party after November 8th.
I know that it’s not fair for the stakes to be this high for your first national election. It’s like if the casualties from a 47-car pileup were directed to your hospital on your very first night as an E.R. Resident. That is, however, the situation that we find ourselves in together. I don’t want to make you nervous, but if you make the wrong choice here you’re going to spend the rest of your adult lives cleaning up the mess of a Trump presidency in the same way we just spent 8 years dealing with the fallout of the Bush Administration– the tax cuts for the wealthy and whatever dark machinations Trump has in store for Latinos and Muslims and the racist fervor that will be legitimized by his victory. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenarios run from the dismantling of our democracy all the way up to a nuclear cataclysm. A vote for Johnson or Stein is not the progressive thing to do here. It’s not the right thing. And believe me, if the worst comes to pass, you will regret it, from the radioactive ash pits that will serve as your graves.
Thank you for listening to me.
David Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. His books Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) (Here) and Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009 (Here) (with Babak Rahimi) focus on the use of digital media by social movements.
Related video added by Juan Cole: