On The Privileged Act of Voting

Is voting for a third party a privileged act? Yes but not for the reason liberal ideologists say. In this country, voting in general is an indication of one’s relative privilege. The majority of poor and working class people don’t vote. Faced with this fact, liberal ideologists (and more than a few of them wear socialist or radical colors) sometimes do a trick where they ventriloquize people who can’t or don’t vote and say we owe it to them to vote for the Democrats. Sometimes anecdotal evidence is offered to support this position, but one can just as easily come up with anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Incidentally, one can come up with anecdotal evidence to support any position. Both voting Democrat and voting left third party are privileged acts. But does this tell us anything useful?

As practiced, people tend to use privilege analysis anemically. XYZ attitude or behavior is indicative of such and such’s privileged position. It’s true that bougie white guys can carry themselves like they own the world, because they’ve been told that and because to a large extent it’s true. The problem is more often than not privilege analysis doesn’t go much beyond this. It’s adequate to condemn the actor as privileged. That’s like doing a Marxist class analysis and stopping at that the bourgeoisie owns everything and the proletariat doesn’t own anything. This is true but stopping there doesn’t get us to the desirability of socialism, the people who don’t own anything being the best hope for building a constituency for socialism or to Lenin’s update of Marx’s famous slogan: “workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!”

Using privilege analysis as a cudgel against left third party voters is a misapplication of privilege analysis because it doesn’t successfully analyze what behaviors are privileged or not. It’s true that when poor and working class people, especially women and people who aren’t racialized as whites, show up that they do tend to break Democrat (and this remains true even for whites, even in the time of Trump, even in the ‘redneck’ parts of America). But, as we’ve said, most poor and working class people don’t vote or aren’t allowed to. So the relatively privileged act is voting at all. Which by itself doesn’t let us know how to proceed.

This is a hunch rather than a scientific observation but it seems likely that this ‘party of non-voters,’ the majority party in my neck of the woods, doesn’t vote because they’re either discouraged, the barriers to voting are insurmountable, they’ve done a rational actor analysis of the time that could go into voting and what else they could be doing and decided not to, or they don’t follow politics for cultural and/or rational actor reasons. Anecdotally, I know from my friends who didn’t make it out to the polls this year that they were in fact discouraged and made an analysis of their time and resources and decided to not put in the effort. My friends were generally bummed out that they didn’t vote but didn’t choose to make it happen. If you have a different point of view from me, I suspect you can come up with anecdotal evidence to support your position. But my best guess is that what motivates non-voters is not so different from what motivates left-wing Dem-refusing voters. 

Getting out of anecdote land for a minute, we know that the social science indicates that third party runs tend to expand the electorate and draw in people who would be unlikely to vote otherwise. To some extent we’re competing around the edges with the Democrats for votes. But only around 35% of Stein voters said they would otherwise have voted for Hillary, with around 55% breaking toward otherwise staying home. If Stein had withdrawn from the race, to have saved the election for Hillary something like 100% of Green voters in three major swing states would have had to have broken for Hillary. For the most part we left third party voters aren’t really a significant factor in drawing away middle strata votes that would have otherwise been won by the Dems. So the relatively privileged few who vote for left third parties are an insignificant factor in American political life.  And where left electoral parties or coalitions are taking on the Democrats in earnest, it’s in places like Seattle where the liberal Democrats are the main evil rather than the ‘lesser evil.’ 

If this is true, why do liberal ideologists go so hard in the paint about this? Well, probably most of them don’t know that third party candidates are, for the most part, not earnestly competing with their favs for votes in elections where a GOP victory is likely. But even if they do know that, the myth that Ralph Nader is somehow responsible for Al Gore losing the 2000 elections has done a lot of damage to people’s ability to think clearly about this topic. One should say myth because anyone who was paying attention then knows that the GOP deep state in Florida and the GOP Supreme Court stole the election, not Ralph Nader who engaged in no such chicanery. Nor was Ralph Nader responsible for Al Gore’s decision not to keep fighting. There’s a reason old school socialists called bourgeois political parties like the Democrats and Republicans ‘the parties of order.’ It’s a bad insult. It means that they value order above all else, even when their intra-class rivals are running roughshod over the political system that both parties allegedly hold sacrosanct. Why do the liberal ideologists ventriloquize the poor or the people of Iraq when going after Nader, but not Gore?   

There’s also a fallacy that’s common among political actors of all stripes to place responsibility on others for their inability to accomplish their goals. To the extent that one’s strategy relies on persuasion, dealing with the inability of one’s trend to convince others to go along with it is the responsibility of the trend putting forward a strategy. The same is true when a trend’s strategy identifies an enemy that it has to defeat to accomplish its goals. It may be true that one’s enemies are to blame for one’s defeats, but a trend still has a responsibility to figure out how to defeat its enemies if its strategy requires this. 

The tendency to lay responsibility on others for one’s failures is comforting because it keeps one from having to self-assess and challenge groupthink. Figuratively and literally, one can just block people one disagrees with and continue the virtuous pursuit of one’s strategies. And it’s not just liberals who do this. The topic of this polemic requires us to beat up on the liberals right now, but socialists and other radicals can fall into this fallacy just as badly and when we do this we deserve to be beat up for it too.

The other piece of it is that the higher up echelons of American liberalism are genuinely opposed to the goals of the Left, despite hemming and hawing to the contrary come election time. That’s why it was cynical when Hillary Clinton said she was a pragmatic progressive as though in her heart of heart’s she wanted the same agenda as Bernie Sanders but thought her agenda was more likely to win. She likely genuinely believes that her agenda is more of a winning one than Bernie’s. But the fact that there’s a common myth that Bernie and his primary voters somehow cost Hillary the election, despite Bernie’s efforts for Hillary in the general, indicates that third party-bashing is just a subset of left-punching generally. 

Nancy Pelosi’s famous line that “We’re capitalists. That’s just the way it is,” is a lot more honest and telling response to rising socialism in the Democratic party coalition than trying to locate political differences in degrees of pragmatism. They don’t like us when we’re in their party being ‘responsible’ lefties either.

To recap: it is privileged act to vote third party. But it’s also a privileged act to vote for the Democrats (or the Republicans for that matter). The fact that voting is a privileged act doesn’t tell us whether it’s any good or not. And the opposition to third parties is a subset of opposition to the Left. Ideology demands lines of argument to defend itself and so the ideologists come up with truthy sounding things (Black people can’t afford to vote third party) or anecdotal evidence (I talked to a poor person who was a loyal Democrat) but ultimately their opposition is more ideological than evidence-based. 

Rather than trying to decipher what kind of voting is the most privileged and therefore the most sinful, we’re better off assessing whether the tactic of voting and the sometimes-elevated-to-the-level-of-strategy tactic of running in elections fit into a coherent socialist strategy that has a potential to win.

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