It’s been obvious from the start of the 2016 presidential race that just about the entire Democratic Party establishment is in the tank for Hillary Clinton. The head of the Democratic National Committee is one of her 2008 campaign co-chairs, and the DNC has refused to allow more than six debates, deliberately scheduled them at comically bad times to prevent Clinton challengers from getting much attention, and most recently briefly cut off Bernie Sanders’ campaign from its own data.
The DNC’s obvious bias is bad. It’s also utterly predictable. Clinton has deep ties to party elites thanks to her husband being a former president and her serving as secretary of state for the current president. It’s something less than shocking that the party’s elites are putting their thumbs on the scales against an avowed socialist primary competitor (though the DNC’s cynical rat cunning is arguably harming Clinton in the long run).
This has all led to a lot of frustration from Sanders’ supporters, a few of whom have toyed with withholding their general-election votes from Clinton, or wondered if Sanders might be justified running on a third-party ticket.
This is an understandable reaction to a party establishment that is openly disrespecting the preferences of many Democrats. But whether the movement that Sanders is building has any staying power will depend on what happens after he all but assuredly loses the primary to Clinton. That’s when the real work begins. Sanders’ fans would be doing themselves an enormous disservice if they give up after the primaries are over.
The Democratic Party elite is deeply implicated in many of the parade of horribles over the last generation — financial deregulation, the destruction of welfare, the war on drugs and crime, the Iraq War, and on and on. Democratic bigwigs loathe avowed leftists as much or more than they do conservatives. Sanders himself certainly understands this. It’s probably a big part of the reason he has, until this campaign, identified as an independent.
The basic political problem for leftists is how the mediocre American political system interacts with galloping Republican extremism. Sanders’ supporters make up roughly 10 to 15 percent of the overall population. Under proportional representation, leftists would simply form their own political party and try to win as many votes as possible. But under the two-party system, options are far more limited: In essence, you can try to tilt the existing center-left party your way through primaries and organizing, or run third-party candidacies. Both options are difficult and expensive to execute.
This task is made harder by the fact that an only slightly larger bloc of right-wing extremists have actually taken control of the Republican Party. Democratic Party hacks respond to any left-wing challenge as contributing to Republican victory; that party’s descent into strap-chewing madness lends a lot of credence to this argument.
The problem, of course, is that “better than Republicans” is an extremely low bar, and most extant Democratic politicians have conclusively ruled out even the mildest leftist objectives (witness Hillary Clinton’s “no new taxes on the middle class” pledge). Reflexively voting Democratic 100 percent of the time will never, ever fix inequality or poverty. Pointing to Republican lunacy is also not terribly inspiring, as evidenced by how Democratic turnout wilts like old lettuce when there isn’t a famous party leader at the top of the ticket.
Nevertheless, the question of tactical voting is an important one and deserves to be taken seriously. If you’re one of the relative few who live in a swing state, the case for voting for whatever Democrat wins the presidential primary is very strong. But that is not the end of the political system — there are midterm and off-year elections, and the zillions of local and state-level offices. It’s more important to vote during these elections, when lower turnout typically means the electorate is more conservative and that one’s vote counts for relatively more.
However, as Daniel Davies writes, that is very different from arguing that voting Democratic is always the right move. Some Democrats, such as Andrew Cuomo or Rahm Emanuel, are so vile and corrupt that it would even be worth eating a temporary Republican victory just to get them out of office. And tactical considerations are pointless for the effectively disenfranchised people who don’t live in a swing state, at least at the presidential level. Go hog wild, it doesn’t matter.
Therefore, for Sanders’ supporters, I suggest that the overriding electoral priority ought to be to continuing to participate in the political system. Demonstrate that there is a bloc of votes out there for social democracy; tactics come second. Vote for the left-most candidate in the primaries, vote for the Working Families Party, vote for some single-issue candidate, or even try and get yourself elected to something. If you feel like voting for a doomed protest candidate, or writing in Eugene Debs, or some other form of “throwing your vote away,” go ahead, and don’t listen to any party hacks who try and bully you out of it.
But always vote.