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Caught Between the Scylla and Charybdis: The Existential Dilemma of a Liberal

scylla and charybdis

After my my inaugural post here at MyFDL, explaining my deep disappointment with what I consider to be President Obama’s abominable betrayal of virtually every principle for which he claimed to stand during his 2008 campaign, as well as most of the promises he made during said campaign, there appeared an instantaneous proliferation of responses whose general theme could most aptly be described as… “The only answer is to vote third party during the general election!”

That assertion, while absolutely understandable in an age when the Democratic Party has moved so far to the right as to have virtually transformed into the Republican Party of half a century ago, is one with which I simply will never, ever agree while the political system we have remains in place. Until the U.S. implements runoff voting (or some other system that allows us to cast third party votes without the two main political parties’ strangleholds reducing those votes to rubble), I will never vote third party in anything but a primary election.

So, I decided it would only be logical to post an essay explaining exactly why I believe third party voting in general elections is… well, let’s be polite and call it counter-intuitive. (And please, PLEASE, let this be clear — heh — in case someone chooses to skim this and start immediately commenting without actually finding out the position of the person they’re trying to debate: I do believe in third party voting; but at the primary level, when it can actually be effective. But in general elections? No. No, no, a thousand times, NO.)

I’ve been around the blogosphere for a long time, now, and I’ve had  — let’s call it the “Nader Debate” — too many times to count. It’s exhausting, and frankly, I haven’t anything new to say about it. No one on the other side of the debate has, either. Right now, they don’t even have a candidate, and they’re still arguing in favour of voting third party in a general election. I’m sorry, that’s just… Again, I’m doing my best not to resort to an impolitic language. (Back when I was a more frequent contributor to the political online dialogue, said language of mine was beloved of many, loathed by just as many: the latter might have referred to it as “potty mouthed.” I’m going to try to avoid it, out of respect for this forum.)

Nevertheless, the idea that voting third party in the 2012 general election, when there is no third party candidate in sight, is as rational as tilting at windmills without benefit of horse, lance or windmill. And I’ve decided to post, with edits, something I wrote a while back about this kind of thinking, since there simply isn’t anything new to be said about it, in my estimation:

“I have shamelessly co-opted the following post, written by a former member of my blog ( in the discussion of an essay posted there by Armando (A Spine is Not Enough):

It’s not us that should fit into any tent, but the likes of Ben Nelson and Max Baucus who should get their asses kicked out.So, yeah, fuck the Democrats. But don’t abandon them. To Dem or not to Dem is not the question. The reality is we have a one and a half party system. We’re a skip, hop and jump away from the USSA.
There is no real place for leftists in the political spectrum because Capitalism is sacrosanct. And a real leftist is a socialist at heart. I believe Energy and Transportation should be nationalized for a start.
Is there anyplace in the Democratic Party for my point of view? Fuck no. But that doesn’t mean I don’t support the Democratic Party. Because the alternative is to not participate. So yeah, we’re fucked because the left represents the most dangerous threat to the status quo. That’s why we’re first to be blamed for anything that goes wrong by the capitulating cowards and criminal co-conspirators of mainstream democratory

He nails it. There is no Liberal Party. There is no “Party of the Left.” In this godforsaken boondoggle of a two party system with which we’re hobbled, the Democrats are all I’ve got.

“I didn’t abandon the Democrats – they abandoned me.” How many times have you heard that? And, tempted though one might be to claim they were never with me to begin with, that’d be ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst. Of COURSE they were “with” me – hell, the New Deal proves that. The split with the Strom Thurmond wing of the Democratic Party proves that.

I have buried the lede.

But of course, that isn’t the Democratic Party we have today. Certainly, anyone with leftist, liberal or, god forbid, socialist leanings will almost always vote for the Democrat – those with any sense of the pragmatic, at any rate. Because it’s a rigged goddamned game, ain’t it? Many his faults may be, but dumb and dishonest ain’t one of ‘em; Ralph Nader told the truth about this political system back in 2000. What’s more, before his candidacy contributed to the catastrophic results of that Presidential “Election” (and it did — and if you feel the need to re-argue that, then there simply isn’t any hope for us in a dialogue, you might as well write me off right now)… most of us were quick to acknowledge the basic facts he presented. EXCEPT: it turned out, there sure as hell WAS a dime’s worth of difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Anyone want to argue THAT one? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

And – and we’ve been here before, folks, we have – the choice came down to pragmatism and idealism. Living in the world that IS, rather than the one that OUGHT to be. (Realpolitik is a bitter pill to swallow. But it is one we have to swallow, unless we want to dismiss reality and pretend Utopia is a possibility. And sweetheart, it just ain’t. I want it to be, just a much as anyone — but it ain’t.) In the world that IS… at the level of American national politics, the existing system, you’ve two alternatives: the Evil and the Lesser Evil (and that goes for anyone, regardless of ideology. You can bet there are some right wing radicals out there who simply FUME at the mealy-mouthed capitulation of the Republican Party, as they are sure to see it).

Pragmatism Versus Idealism. Pragmatically, there is no real choice, just one of two alternatives. No, not three — not voting is, in my estimation, tantamount to voting for an incumbent. If you don’t feel strongly enough about the way things are enough to get your ass to a voting booth, them obviously you’re WILLING to accept the status quo – if only so you can continue to bitch about it.

I’d explain the idealist’s rationale for voting third party in a general election, but it will have to be done by someone else, for I cannot fathom it — beyond “sending a message,” which, believe me, is laughable to the very people for whom the message is meant. Because in the REAL WORLD, remember, the World as it IS… voting for a third party candidate in a general election is almost EXACTLY the same, in the end, as not voting at all. A nonvoter’s “vote” goes to the incumbent (or, if there is no incumbent, to the person whose ideology is furthest from your own); and the vote of the “protest voter” – at least, nationally speaking – goes to the incumbent, as well. If there is no incumbent? Voting third party is exactly like not voting at all. Except, as someone who is informed, with an actual ideology, you have the onus of knowing that ONE of the candidates is closer to your ideology than the other; and if you vote third party, that IS one vote that MIGHT have gone to that candidate, and didn’t. So it’s one less vote for that candidate. Oh, christ — I’m getting pissed off just trying to lay this out for people who ought to know this by now.

The dilemma of the Idealistic Pragmatist becomes thus: THEY know we have to vote for them, these Democrats with virtually no affinity for the LIBERAL, LEFT point of view. We are… trapped. (I’m speaking STRICTLY of the left wing, the liberalest of liberal – NOT the centrists of the Democratic party.)

What to do, what to do? Trapped like rats, we are.We want to affect change, far more change than the Democratic Party as it now exists is willing to accept. We are… on the fringe, it would seem. So do we take our medicine, meekly accept whatever crumbs these people are willing to toss us from the Grown-Up Table? Is it even possible for someone with deep, powerful leanings toward the socialist end of the political spectrum, to EVER reconcile herself to placid acceptance of The Way It Is?

It’s a rhetorical question; of COURSE it’s not possible. Not placid acceptance. Not even disgusted acceptance. In fact, I think “acceptance” is off the table, regardless of the philosophers’ admonition that acceptance is the only way to serenity, that it is possible to do battle AND be in a state of acceptance.

Of course, if it’s serenity you’re after, political activism and awareness are the wrong milieu. Best check out entirely, then, get along with you. BUT… therein lies MY dilemma, anyway: I cannot rest, or reach serenity, knowing how many people in the world suffer needlessly due to circumstances against which I have it in my power to at least make an EFFORT to change. I’ve tried turning off the world and living in my bubble; even blind drunk of every waking moment, I couldn’t turn it off.

I digress, as is my wont.

It seems, after constant infighting amongst Democrats and liberals and the whole schemer on the left, that what we all of us, across the entire political spectrum, really face is intense growing pain. The only true solution to any of this is a multiparty political system. A viable one that is – and of course, the only way to get there is to reform the way elections are run in this country. Instant Runoff Voting is a seemingly simple solution, though many have their arguments with that particular system; regardless of the vagaries of different methods, the fact is that no third, fourth, fifth party in this country will EVER be more than a marginal spoiler at the national level until the way we vote changes.

(And I’m not even giving more than this brief mention to the innate corruption at every level of our existing political system– I’m just talking about the way it works, now.)

The only people truly well-served by the current two party system are those already firmly entrenched in that system – the ones with the power and the money and the voices. There is simply NO reason THEY should wish to change the system, therefore – not unless they are altruistic and actual servants of the people they CLAIM to serve. And there are damned few of them, unfortunately. And of that few, even fewer are willing to torpedo their own seats of power in service of the greater good, if only because they GENUINELY believe that they can do more good in power than out — and being out of power is one of the pitfalls of standing up for principle. Losing an election because you stood for your principles seems counterproductive to them; and they have a point.

So where do we stand, those of us who believe the Democratic Party is not only broken, but DESIGNED, ultimately, to be a party that furthers an agenda we on the leftier side of the left find tepid and incomplete at best? (Actually, there is another tried-and-true solution: get truly, actively involved in the Democratic Party… and take it over. You see people talking about it all the time; but the only ones who actually DO anything like it are the corporatist centrists and those who are greedy for power. I’ve witnessed a few of them talking about and taking steps on their ultimately unsuccessful way to “crashing the gate,” myself. Not pretty. They did end up with personal wealth, fame and a modicum of power — but the Democratic Party? Still a mess. Pity, really… It’s a good idea, but only if your true goal is to reform the party for the good of the country, for the principles and ideals in which you believe. Not for power and prestige — that’s why the Democrats ended up where they are, just pitiful, spineless, Republicans-lite. Nevertheless, it is one solution that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Think what we could do, if we actually could “take our party back.”)

Having no other system within which to work, we choose, again and again, to support Democrats and vote for Democrats –sending the grudging message that yes, we feel ill-served by the Democrats, but are not so blindly ideological as to be willing to bring about a political, economic and social Armageddon so we can be around to pick up the pieces and rebuild the world in the image of our Utopia. Hell, we know what happened with the Communists in Germany. Well, some of us know. Or think we know. We can argue about that later. Only — here’s the thing. More and more, I hear people advocating exactly that: a willingness to bring about political, social and economic Armageddon so they can be around to pick up the pieces and rebuild the world in the image of their own Utopia. It goes something like this: ”

“Perhaps not voting for Dem’s (sic) isn’t enough. Maybe voting Republican will hasten the arrival of a truly intolerable situation. A time when rhetoric and lies will no longer placate American citizens. You cannot eat hope, and you would think that the record setting annual foreclosure numbers, and permanent 17%+ unemployment rates would have done it. But most appear to be very slow learners, particularly our newly politically active brethren the Tea Partiers.

Our democracy has been dead at least since 1999. Only a super-majority mass uprising will suffice to even begin to repair the damage done since 1980. So the question to be answered is how do we bring about that point in time before it is too late.”

This country has never had and will never have a “super majority uprising.You’re talking about 350 million people, in a country where the vast majority of them don’t even vote. And honestly, there is something repugnant about wishing the arrival of a “truly intolerable situation” on your fellow human beings because you don’t agree with the way they vote. That already happened, by the way. Last time. George W. Bush: Katrina happened. Didn’t change a damned thing.

“If Obama goes down in 2012 then just maybe the Democrats will get the message and change the next time around…”

–Since when have people EVER learned that lesson from a Democratic loss? SEE: Hubert Humphrey/George McGovern/Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale/Michael Dukakis/Al Gore/John Kerry. So… just how many Democratic losses DO you think it’s going to take?

Fact is, it’s a damned good thing most liberal leftists are so goddamned intelligent, because it’s going to take a two-pronged approach over the long term to affect the change we want. We’re going to have to be able to simultaneously work to elect liberal Democrats (because the only other alternative is so noxious as to be anathema to anyone with a liberal leaning) — AND we’re going to HAVE to commit ourselves to finding a way to reform the damned political system under which we trudge, Sisyphus to the teeth.

And we’re going to have to stop it with the Hatfield and McCoy routine, eventually. If the “centrists” and the “leftists” of the Democratic Party are EVER to achieve anything like harmonious coexistence, they’re going to have to agree on BOTH prongs of this movement: elect Democrats while we have no other tolerable options, AND work to make this system accommodate at least three different political parties: left, right AND centre.


Incidentally, doesn’t it strike anyone as one of the Democratic Party’s MAJOR failings that it is, ostensibly, the Big Tent Party – holding not only ALL of the left but much of the centre… and yet it languishes, virtually ineffectual and powerless, in obeisance to the right wing? It strikes me as that, oftentimes… but then I remember that, of course, people with right wing leanings will naturally outnumber people with centrist and left wing leanings because, at bottom, the right wing people of the world are the Lowest Common fucking Denominator.”

(Awe, jeez – and I was doing so WELL avoiding the potty mouth.)

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Maryscott O'Connor

Maryscott O'Connor