Rebuttal To Sam Seder’s Insistence That Voting Third Party Would Setback the Progressive Cause

by on Friday, November 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm in Election 2012, Politics

Sam Seder recently invited veteran activist and Naked Capitalism Contributing Editor Matt Stoller onto his radio show to discuss his recent piece on Salon, entitled “The progressive case against Obama.” The discussion turned a bit testy as they battled around the logic behind voting for a third party Presidential candidate. You can listen to their debate HERE (begins around the 12th minute).

As a follow up to that debate, Seder posed the following question to Stoller, Chris Hedges, and everyone else who believes that the best way forward for progressives is to support third party candidates:

How does voting for Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson speed up the building of a movement that is a counterweight to corporate power?

Seder contends that progressives became more conscious of the struggle between the people and corporate powers under a Democratic President (Obama) than they had under a Republican one (Bush). That these 99% vs 1% lines were essentially drawn BECAUSE we had a Democratic President, and that another term for Obama would only help to grow this populist movement. He adds that if Romney were to become President the “economic injustice” movement would just transform into an “anti-Republican” one.

I disagree with Seder’s arguments. I would contend that the party of the sitting President was irrelevant to the occupy movement. Rather, the timing of the movement was driven entirely by the economic pain, as it spread across the entire industrialized world.

It makes perfect sense that the movement formulated during Obama’s term, because the financial meltdown occurred in the final months of the Bush Administration. During those last few months, Hank Paulson terrified Congress into signing TARP, and the monthly unemployment numbers skyrocketed in a way not seen since the Great Depression. And as State tax revenues began to dry up shortly thereafter, severe austerity measures were imposed at the local level — resulting in laid off school teachers and other government workers. I.e. It took a couple years for the economic pain to spread and manifest into that progressive populist movement.

Though this movement against economic injustice would have happened regardless of which party occupied the White House, if there had been a Republican President, the crowd numbers would likely have been even twice as large. Why? Because THERE ARE many Democratic partisans whose entire socioeconomic POV fits nicely and neatly within the Democratic-Republican paradigm. These types would protest for any liberal cause — just as long as a Republican President or Governor could be linked to the blame. Many of these Democrats belittled occupy’s efforts BECAUSE they couldn’t co-opt the movement for Obama. This would have been a mute point if a Republican were in power.

For proof, one must look no further than the hundred thousand protesters who stormed the Wisconsin State Capitol under Republican Governor Scott Walker in protest of that Republican-dominated state legislature’s assault on collective bargaining.

As far as Seder’s central question: “How does voting 3rd party speed up the building of a movement that is counterweight to corporate power?” — what he refuses to acknowledge is that the populist ‘movement’ he speaks of has NO political representation in Washington. NONE. ZERO.

In fact, many in support of the movement he cites actually helped to usher Obama into the White House in 2008, and are now fully cognizant of the fact that Obama has been 100% complicit in the destructive policies that have rewarded moneyed interests off the backs of the American people.

The important question — the one that Seder does not want to ask — is how does a movement go about making a non-representative government more representative? Especially, when the party traditionally allied to that movement’s ideology — the Democrats — now operate with the understanding that there are no voter repercussions for anything they do — an understanding spawned by Seder’s very own “lessor of two evils” mindset.

Take Obama’s entire first term. He broke promise after promise — selling out to corporate interests, degrading our civil liberties, declaring war on whistleblowers, etc — BECAUSE of the calculations he made with regards to progressives having nowhere else to go. So, if voters reward Obama for having made this insidious calculation against them, how would that actually work to change his or future Democratic Presidents’ behavior?

It wouldn’t.

It would achieve the very opposite by reinforcing the idea that Obama’s strategy in deceit is not only a winning one, but actually minimizes political risks. Why? Because unlike voters, the entrenched corporations — with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal — do have somewhere else to go. Republican, Democrat, … makes no difference to them.

The message an Obama victory would send to all future Democratic Presidential Candidates is: run and win on a popular progressive platform, and then, like Obama, pull a ‘bait and switch’ — with the goal of building up your campaign war chest in corporate money, and with impunity since progressives have nowhere else to go.

So my question to Seder would be: How successful can any peaceful populist movement be if it remains completely loyal to a political party that feels free to cavalierly ignore their wishes, while reaping tens of millions of dollars in political donations for having done so? 

Politicians must be conditioned to understand that there is a political price to be paid for selling out the voters’ best interests. This underlying principle is the essential cornerstone for all representative democracies. If the voters are too timid to punish the politicians for betraying their interests — as Sam Seder argues they should be — then politicians will naturally continue to betray their interests.

Seder’s strategy of voting Democratic, no matter what, trades away all long-term progressive opportunities for little more than a slight reduction in speed of this nation’s rightward acceleration. Like a CEO forever focused on meeting next quarter’s earnings estimates, while paying no attention to the overall degrading health of the organization he runs.

Voting third party is a strategy that works to re-align the interests of elected officials with the interests of the people, by making them understand that progressives do in fact have somewhere else to go. Governments which believe themselves to be unaccountable to the people they govern are not democracies. And that is the crisis we face.



  • Nov 2nd, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    The problem with your argument is this:

    If the voters are too timid to punish the politicians for betraying their interests

    Because A. we saw what happened when Al Gore was punished for being tweedle dee- 8 years of death and destruction (significantly more than 2x that of Obama’s four years)and zero growth of any outside peaceful populist movement & the choice between two corporatist dems for a presidential nomination.

    B. Your “punishment” of Obama will leave him nothing but richer and better rested. However, thousands if not millions will suffer greater deprivation, including the stripping of additional fundamental rights, via this “punishment” of Obama.

    C. My interests are better served by Barack Obama than Mitt Romney. If I knowingly vote for someone who has no chance of winning (Hedges and Stoller acknowledge that in this election 3rd party candidates have no chance)instead of Barack Obama, my vote increases the chances of Mitt Romney becoming President and I am voting against my interests.

    • | 1139#
      Nov 2nd, 2012 at 11:59 pm

      Good points, Sam. Here are some things to consider for each of those points:

      A. 8 Years of death & destruction: This is probably your strongest point — the Republican tendency to create needless wars. I would, however, add that the nation was shell-shocked by 9-11, and Bush & Co capitalized on those attacks in a way that helped to silence opposition. And yet there were still huge anti-war protests — the networks however barely covered them.

      To add, there was also zero growth in jobs and income under Bush’s 8 years, but that was like the economic equivalent of boiling frogs in terms of stirring a visible public reaction (movement).

      The economic meltdown of 2008 was a uniquely explosive crisis, and the Left, sensing a ‘Disaster Capitalism Social-Democratic’ opportunity saw Obama’s election as a turning point for real progressive change (based on the platform he ran on). He was an absolute fraud.

      And the progressive understanding that the guy they elected (based on his platform) ‘tricked them’ at this most significantly opportune moment for remaking America actually helped create the occupy movement. The public realized it was a fixed game, and they could not depend on the voting booth. They therefore took to the streets.

      B. I used the term “punish” — but I didn’t mean for it to be interpreted as a personal or emotional knee-jerk reaction to Obama. I used it only to convey a strategy of conditioning politicians to fear their voters in a way that would strengthen democracy. Because it is clear they feel there is no political price to be paid for betraying the public interest.

      Democrats would became unsettled if a significant number of Americans voted Green & they would conclude that there now has to be some level of accountability to their constituency, or they risk defeat. (i.e. their constituency does have somewhere to go, and is prepared to risk the greater of two evils).

      C. But if Barack Obama is governing to the right of Reagan BECAUSE he has calculated you have nowhere to go — due to the “lessor of two evils” mindset, then you are conditioning him to ignore you and everything you want (everything he promised you).

      How does your strategy in any way provide incentive for the Democratic Party to govern in ways that put the peoples’ interests above corporate interests? Your strategy has actually given Democrats all the incentive they need to transform into the Republican Party — which has only driven the Republican Party into freakshow territory. This rightward shift continues unabated …

  • Nov 3rd, 2012 at 12:45 am

    In B. You haven’t addressed why this “conditioning” failed in 2000- Fla. 2000 is not a perfect example of how this conditioning theory would work (aside from the fact that it didn’t work)but it’s seems as close as we’ve ever come to a real world test of this theory.

    As far as B & C…. Stoller has been quite clear that anyone who was duped into believing Obama was anything but a neo liberal was fooling themselves or uneducated as to who Obama was.

    Specific to C. my strategy in voting for Obama is not to provide him incentive to do what I want- it’s to keep ROmney from being in a position to do what he and his electoral base want, which I perceive to be worse than what Obama would do. Your strategy is the very definition of overplaying ones hand. I don’t know what constitutes a “significant” number of Americans to you but aside from an ability in a place like Ohio for several thousand to throw the race to Obama, there’s absolutely no reason 4 days out from this election to assume that the green party will get anywhere close to 3% of the vote.

    I’d add that I think any meaningful positive change in our politics can only come as a result of action from citizens,but, as may be obvious from my position, I think change for the worse will come from empowering right wing extremists.

    • | 1141#
      Nov 3rd, 2012 at 1:56 am

      B. 2000 was a year when Dems had a deeply flawed (weak) candidate. For instance, had Gore won his own home state of TN, he would have had the electoral votes needed to win the election. Clinton was conversely very popular at the time, …

      Clinton/Gore ran as and governed as centrist (new) Democrats. And the fact that Clinton remained popular, despite Gore’s loss, probably led the Dem establishment to believe that the policy platform they represented was not what lost the election — the candidate himself was.

      Thus, I am not sure 2000 was a good year for the Dem establishment to take away the message progressives at that time might have hoped to send.

      2012, however, finds a great campaigner with high-likability ratings in Obama. He ran as a progressive, governed as a Neoliberal, and progressives have taken to the streets due to the economic disparity Bush’s and his policies have wrought. Frank Luntz has even advised Republicans to never use the word ‘Capitalism’ in their talking points.

      Green Party gains in this climate would leave a very different impression upon the Democratic establishment. I believe it would absolutely “condition” them to factor progressives’ demands into their strategic calculations.

      I disagree w/ Stoller’s sentiments that:

      “anyone who was duped into believing Obama was anything but a neo liberal was fooling themselves or uneducated as to who Obama was.”

      It is not as if Obama was vague on the platform he ran on, which might lead some to project their own ideological beliefs onto him. Obama ran on a very SPECIFIC platform (specific on Trade Deals, Health Care, transparency, regulations, civil liberties, …).

      Anyone who says they somehow knew in advance that the entire platform Obama ran on was a complete lie must be a psychic. They are definitely smarter and more intuitive than I am, or ever could be.

      I.e. Obama ran on a public option and against a mandate and for using government leverage to negotiate pharm prices down & allowing drug reimportation from Canada — promising C-Span transparency in hashing out the specifics. Instead he crafted a Heritage Foundation HC plan in secret back-room deals.

      How could anyone have know he would be THAT duplicitous?

      C. In a democracy, a peaceful citizenry can only engineer change by electing politicians that actually represent and promote their interests. If ALL the incentives within that political system ensure they do the opposite, then you can kiss representative democracy goodbye. That is where I believe this country finds itself.

      Third parties allow people to vote for the policies they prefer, and their votes cannot be misconstrued by the mainstream press, nor the party establishment, as representing anything other than what they are: A vote for real progressive change, not the mirage Democrats are selling.