In the pages of Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson attempts a synthesis of the recent debate between Briahna Joy Gray and Virgil Texas, and Noam Chomsky regarding the wisdom of leftist electoral engagement and specifically voting for Biden. I think Robinson’s take is largely correct: it is a mistake to make voting such a crucial part of one’s identity and wear either doing it or not as a mark of virtue. What I want to take up here is something that Robinson only touches on briefly, but which has been a staple of many leftist arguments about whether one should or should not (mostly the latter) vote for Democrats.
The argument goes something like this: if leftists vote for Democrats and those votes are guaranteed because Republicans are so much worse, this removes any incentive for the party to move left, since it knows that those votes are already in the bag. Therefore, the left should withhold its votes from Democrats in order to extract concessions. If Democrats see that they cannot win without the left, they will be forced to placate it if they want to win elections.
This argument is very common in leftist circles, especially on Twitter, but I think it’s very wrong. In fact, the situation for the left is much more dire than I think people really understand, so I want to unpack the dynamics of this proposed strategy and its interaction with the broader Democratic mainstream.
To begin with, the basic problem with this proposal is that there is no coherent leftist voting bloc. There are certainly people on Twitter who may be inclined to go along with this plan, but they are not organized in any way that would allow them to act with a unified voice. To see this, let’s just take the numbers from the Jill Stein column from the 2016 election: she got just under 1.5 million votes, sprinkled across the country, which translates to just over 1% of the total number of votes cast; for comparison, she is dwarfed even by the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who received about 4.5 million votes (3.28%). It’s probably safe to say that this is about the right order of magnitude for the size of the left vote that would break ranks with the Democrats, and it is entirely without meaningful organization. It would be one thing if a united left movement could point to, say, 10 million votes that it could reliably withhold nationwide; that would be a genuine lever in a presidential race. But those numbers simply don’t exist, and treating voting strategy as if they did is just fantasizing. Even if one thinks this strategy, abstractly speaking, makes sense, the left is in no position to actually carry it out.
But even if the left had some numbers that it could use as leverage, I don’t think it would work. To see why, let’s start by assuming that whatever the size of the left bloc, it’s much smaller than the size of the “mainstream” Democratic bloc; if this were not true, then the left could just elect its candidates outright and be in the position of setting the agenda. So, the left is small and the liberal center is big. The left has two options available to it, which, using the nomenclature of the famous prisoner’s dilemma game, I will call cooperate and defect: to cooperate means to “vote blue no matter who” and to defect means to withhold the vote. There are two possible outcomes: either the Democrat wins or loses. The question that needs to be answered is which combination of factors would result in Democrats moving left. Let’s examine all the scenarios:
Scenario 1: cooperate and win
In this scenario the left votes for the Democratic candidate in the general and the candidate wins. Will the left receive any concessions from this? The track record says that it will not; whether it’s a presidental election like 2008 and 2012 or any number of gubernatorial elections in blue and purple states, this will be read as a victory for the center and the left will be mostly written out of whatever coalition or administration forms as a result. Here the leftist skeptics are vindicated: the Democrats will take the left vote for granted or just assume that they can get by without it, and ignore any demands from that flank.
Scenario 2: cooperate and lose
We’ve seen this one before as well, in 2016. Even though the vast majority of people who voted for Sanders in the primary went on to vote for Clinton (myself included), Clinton’s loss was read in the controlling circles of the party as the fault of the left. Either Sanders “weakened” Clinton somehow or else his contingent was insufficiently loyal, or a small segment of Twitter posted pigpoopballs.gif too many times; suffice to say that even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the left cooperated, mainstream Democrats will simply invent a betrayal narrative to explain their loss. There is no possibility here that they will make any leftward concessions, and indeed, the subsequent four years shows this to be true. Any victories won by the left have been won by organizing and winning actual elections, not by extracting any concessions from the party leadership.
Scenario 3: defect and win
If the left defects but the Democrat wins, this will be a surefire signal that mainstream Democrats do not need the left at all and can safely ignore them. This is not a likely scenario nationally in the current climate because there are still too many Republicans and the margins are therefore too small for this to really happen, but you can imagine some sort of realignment in which Democrats absorb the business Republicans into their center while the Republican party becomes a rump. A preview of what this looks like is California, where the Republican party is moribund and a large mass of Democrats occupies the center. If we can expect to see this scenario play out anywhere, it would be there, but this would be disastrous for the left and lock us out of power.
Scenario 4: defect and lose
Here, the centrist read would be of a straightforward betrayal. The left would be branded hostage-takers and there would be a unified coalescence around the center with no leftward compromise at all. The key element to evaluating this scenario is to understand that the leaders of the Democratic party adhere fervently to the iron law of institutions: they would much rather retain power inside a broken organization than share that power with someone who might want to fix it. There’s absolutely no way that, following a loss, they would willingly share power with the left. It is much more plausible that a Democratic party that loses without the left simply shifts rightward, since its leadership is ideologically and temperamentally more sympathetic to the center-right than the left. Whether that would work in the age of polarization the way it worked for Clinton is unclear, but I think that is a far more probably outcome than a power-sharing agreement with the left.
If you’re reading all this and you get to this point and you say to yourself: hey, wait a minute, all of these outcomes are terrible! then, congratulations, you have achieved enlightenment.
The problem with this scheme is that it is oriented around getting the desired reaction from the Democratic mainstream, specifically its leaders. But there’s no scenario in which those leaders would share power with the left; instead, what we have seen is that irrespective of what the left does, centrists will either ignore it or fight it outright if it can’t be ignored. The center will never view the left as a legitimate partner, even a junior one.
This might feel like despair, but I actually think that the left should find it rather liberating. If we can’t strike a bargain with centrist Democrats, then there’s no point in trying, and all our agonizing about whether our vote “sustains the two-party duopoly” is pointless. If we were big and strong enough to actually break it, we already would have, but we’re not, nor can we influence the behavior of the Democratic leadership by our voting patterns. We should simply vote the way we think is right and drop the pretense of strategic considerations, which we can’t even coordinate and would not yield the desired results if we could.