Looking back, we young idealists and activists were not so much wrong in our assessments of Humphrey as we were totally wrong in our assessment of whether it matters if a corporate center liberal is elected over an insecure, unstable, right-wing candidate who does not respect the Constitution.
Our failure was not in our assessment of Humphrey but in our failure to understand Nixon and what was at stake. We could have turned the close election in favor of Humphrey. We could not have moved the election results by 5 points, but we certainly could have moved the needed one.
Our refusal to participate started a process of making our movement profoundly irrelevant. We allowed Richard Nixon to come to power. We allowed a right-wing counter-reformation to hold power and warp American politics for most of the next four decades. Within our movement, we allowed militancy to replace strategy.
We would continue to march. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of us would continue to protest the war. We shut down campuses. We helped organize returning veterans to join the fight against the war. Many long-term, positive, and enduring movements and changes in the country have their roots at least partially in our efforts. However, none of that changes the mistake made in 1968.
The one irreducible fact of this bizarre election is this: The only way Donald Trump does not become president of the United States is if Hillary Clinton does. In any closely contested state, staying home or voting for a third-party candidate is, in its impact, a vote for Trump. It does not take a great leap of moral or political imagination to envision the damage a Trump presidency will bring to our nation and to the world.
–Michael Ansara, The lousy reason I didn’t vote in 1968 — and why Sanders supporters shouldn’t fall for it
Notice the framing in this essay. Because Ansara writes to Bernie Sanders supporters, a non-Clinton vote = a Trump vote. Of course, Republican apologists are making the inverse argument to the #NeverTrumpers: a non-Trump vote = a Clinton vote. What both arguments have in common — and these arguments have been trotted out like clockwork for every election in my lifetime as well as, I’m sure, for every election in the lifetimes of my parents and grandparents — is that they treat this election as the most historically decisive election ever. This election, Ansara promises, is a paradigm shift. He should know, right? After all, he was there in 1968, man!
“We have a failure of political imagination. We have a failure of moral imagination,” Ansara alleges elsewhere. I’d add that we also have a failure of historical imagination. Only in a culture so blinded by presentism could we so easily forget the apocalyptic rhetoric that thunders down upon us in Every. Single. Election. Cycle.
If the republic falls during the (terrifyingly possible, however improbable) Trump presidency, it will be easy to blame the people who refused to vote for Trump. (Me? I’d prefer to blame the people who actually vote for him, but whatever.) That would be a failure of historical imagination. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Even before this particular election cycle, the forces were at work that prepared the conditions for his dominance in the conservative/Republican electorate — just as those same (or perhaps slightly different) forces prepared the conditions for Hillary Clinton’s dominance in the liberal/Democrat electorate. In direct contradition to Ansara, I would argue that one of the things that made Clinton and Trump possible is the fact that our political institutions have for generations worked to conserve political power within a two-party system.
A key part of that system’s strategy is to denigrate, consistently and vociferously, the notion that people ought to vote their consciences. (And don’t you doubt that it pains me to echo Ted Cruz.) Do you want to know why Trump and Sanders did so well in the primaries? Sure, racism helped Trump and chimerical economic theory helped Sanders. A big part of it, though, was the widespread (and accurate) feeling that the entire institutional apparatus shared by the Republicans and Democrats was designed to deny real choices to the American electorate. Both Trump and Sanders represent significant deviations from their parties’ respective orthodoxies. The grassroots turned to iconoclasm within the two parties because they felt they had no constructive alternatives outside of those parties.
Let me put it another way. The two-headed leviathan has succeeded for 200-odd years in squelching the rise of alternative political parties; in large part, it has done so by absorbing the radicals and agitators into its coils and domesticating them. The risk the leviathan has always run with this strategy is that a candidate or movement can come along and essentially break a party from the inside if he or she gathers enough constituent support from the heterodox radicals within the rank-and-file.
To wit, the Democrats’ cultivation of a radically progressive base, with its own ideological rigidity, nearly backfied as spectacularly as the Republicans’ own cultivation of radicalism. There’s been a lot of talk about Bernie pulling the Democrats left, but the party still nominated a conventional lifelong politico who portrays herself as quintessentially conservative in temperament. With all her problems, the Democrat Party ended up backing a candidate who will not smash its liberal, coalitional approach to governance all to pieces. It came pretty close to doing so, though. And Clinton’s nomination might mean that Democrats lose the votes of would-be revolutionaries. Considering that the best intellectual case the conservative movement can muster for Trump is a Flight 93 analogy, the Democrats ought to be a little more sanguine about the fact that their primary did not spur them to seal an ideological suicide pact. The Republicans are reaping that whirlwind right now, and the most unlikeable candidate the Democrats have ever nominated will benefit as a result.
In a healthy, diverse political ecosystem, we’d have more viable parties, which comes with a higher likelihood that any one party would have to share power with a rival in order to govern effectively. In the political ecosystem we have, the two behemoths treat elections as zero-sum games.
Zero-sum politics is great for authoritarians. Who wants to share power anyway? Who wants to treat a diverse body politic as a melting pot of opinions and viewpoints? We should shut up and be grateful that we have any choice at all. I imagine a protection racketeer asking a luckless shopowner if he prefers a fist to the head or the stomach. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that maybe we don’t need to get worked over at all, and that there is something seriously diseased about the relationship we, the American people, have cultivated with the institutions which are the self-appointed gatekeepers of our elected offices. We reinforce this diseased relationship every time we pleadingly mumble, “Not the face!” and pull the lever for the lesser of two evils.
The only people who benefit from defining the voter’s franchise so negatively are those who treat elections as zero-sum games.
That is to say: the only people who treat elections as zero-sum games are authoritarians. Right now, that describes both Republicans and Democrats.
Ansara admits that he didn’t vote in 1968. He’s right to acknowledge that as a moral and political failure of imagination. It would have remained a failure of moral and political imagination had he voted for Humphrey, despite his disdain for the man. The fact that the citizens of the United States, decade after decade, refuse to consider other parties is not pragmatism. It’s complacence. If Bernie Sanders supporters recognize Clinton for the ethical train wreck wreck she is and decide to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or anybody else who isn’t named Donald Trump, that’s not a failure of moral and political imagination. It’s having the courage of one’s convictions.
If you don’t vote for Clinton, you’re not strengthening Trump; you’re strengthening the party of whomever you do vote for. Ansara, by refusing to vote at all, simply weakened the institutional viability of all the potential alternatives to the Republican and Democrat candidates (not to mention those candidates themselves). He weakened those alternatives in 1968 by not voting at all; he’ll weaken them again by voting Clinton in 2016.
None of this is to say that I don’t see Trump as a direct threat to our constitutional republic. I do. I think Hillary Clinton represents a far less severe threat than Trump does. My sentiment that Clinton is not nearly as bad as Trump does not, in itself, obligate me to vote for her. I’m obligated to vote for a candidate that would discharge his or her duties in a way befitting my conception of what the American president ought to do for the next four years. That obligation is both moral and political. And because I possess (dare I say) a historical imagination, I can assert with some confidence that this election is unique but not special.
Despite the apocalyptic tenor of even the most mundane election conversation (including much of that found on this blog, I admit), the stakes of this election are not so absolute that I must abandon all principle and vote on the basis of He Whom I Most Fear. The awfulness of Trump does not mean Clinton is entitled to my vote by default. A vote for Clinton should mean I actually am with her, not merely against him.
Political parties have always sought more power than they had, but they haven’t always behaved as though total dominance of the entire governmental apparatus was the only way to get good things done. Authoritarianism is now the norm in the political discourse of both major parties, and I refuse to bow to its abusive logic. If Trump wins, America will be worse off than it would be under Clinton. If I uphold the myth of the binary choice, then all I do is enable the two parties’ zero-sum political authoritarianism for another four years.