Wise words from the Senator, wise decisions by Democracy Spring

Think hard about a protest vote, the Senator says. And he’s completely right. Let’s think about it.

Here’s one way: Think about mirror-image mistakes. A complains about B doing X, but then B points out how A is doing X precisely.

This protest vote is a perfect example.

Greens are usually pretty good at getting people to think about how their behavior affects others. “I want to drive a Hummer,” the oblivious climate-destroyer says. “But think about how it affects the carbon level,” a Green rightly replies. “I want to own an automatic machine gun.” “But think about how it makes other people insecure, or unsafe.” Etc.

With each example, in the face of resistance, the liberty-insisting sort will invoke his “rights.” “It’s my right to X.” But a Green is usually pretty good at deconstructing that move. We live together, the Green rightly insists. Where your behavior affects others, you need to think responsibly about that behavior. Think about the great Green — Ralph Nader — insisting car companies be responsible for how the design of their cars affects others. Brilliant move, always.

Yet when it comes to the vote, suddenly, this insight disappears. “I’m tired of voting for the lesser of two evils,” the protest voter insists. “I’m voting a protest vote.”

But here’s where we need to apply a Green insight to the protest voter. Your behavior, protest voter, has obvious consequences. The tragedy of Florida in 2000 gave us George Bush (and yes, I know the arguments. Do you?). Bush gave us the worst war in American history, the worst inequality-driven deficit in American history, war crimes that stain America, and another decade of delay in addressing climate change (at least). The cost in lives — Arab mainly, but non-Arab as well — has been catastrophic. The cost in treasure is insane. And for 50 years, there will be generation after generation born in that region believing we are the death star, and death stars should be destroyed.

So yes, I get why it feels good to vote in a “principled” way. But this is a democracy. You can’t act like you’re the only person there is. You need to think about how what you do affects others — your behavior, including your vote. And if there is a reasonable chance your protest vote will have profoundly negative consequences, that’s on you. You bear responsibility for that, just like the hummer driver, or the automatic weapons owner.

So what does that mean in practical terms?

If you’re a Green in a safe state, protest away. Vote for Jill, or Gary, or whomever you want.

If you’re in a swing state, for god’s sake, then think like a Green. Trade your vote for a safe state vote. Or better still, vote for Clinton. For however bad George Bush was, Trump is a million times worse. This is a man fantasizing about using nuclear weapons. He has a pathological ego, and fantastically thin skin. His policies are Bush-squared-to-the-worse. He has precisely the wrong temperament to be the most powerful man in the world. And yet, if things continue as they are, there is a real chance he could be elected.

You’re free to do as you wish, of course. But freedom does not erase responsibility — isn’t that the Green slogan? And if you recognize the great harm that would come from Trump being elected, then the right thing to do is to do everything you can to avoid it.

That’s not a popular view. I get it. The simplistic libertarian view is always nobler — in an Ayn Rand, Howard Roark sort of way. But if you’re tempted by that simple view in your desire to protest Clinton, recognize the hypocrisy when you criticize it on the Right. Recognize it, and avoid it.

These thoughts make me proud of the courage the Democracy Spring people have shown. Among reform movements, none is more hard core. Thousands have been arrested at their urging, demanding real reform. Hundreds have marched hundreds of miles to demonstrate for real reform. They made the case at the convention. They have pushed in a principled and powerful way throughout this election season to get Democrats to embrace fundamental reform.

Anyone who knows me knows I believe their work is the most important work we can be doing right now. They know I believe that we won’t make any real progress on any important issue until we have the reform they are pushing for. And while I’m a bit more optimistic that we might be seeing movement from the Clinton folks, I agree, they’ve not yet made the commitment they need to make to satisfy those of us who have made reform so central.

But for god’s sake: Just because we’re right, just because our reform is the right reform, just because it is the essential step to make democracy possible again, we should not be risking a truly cataclysmic event. There’s not a dimes worth of difference between these two candidates. True. There’s the difference of night and day.

I believe there is hope with Clinton. But even I’m wrong, Democracy Spring’s decision would be just as right. Hopeless is better than catastrophic. Trump would be catastrophic.

And thus my pride: Democracy Spring could have done the easy thing. They could have played it cool, denounced the Democrats, rallied the protest voters, feigned the moral high-ground.

But they didn’t. They looked reality in the face, and saw terror staring back. And so they acted. It will cost them, no doubt. But not acting will cost America much more.

Written by

law professor, activist.

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