Arguing With the Ghost of Eugene Debs
It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it. – Eugene Debs
In my last pre-primary post – when I re-affirmed that I was voting for John Edwards -- I wrote: "I would like to live in an America in which Kucinich is a viable candidate." I knew I would hear about that, and I did. A Kucinich supporter reminded me of all the issues where Kucinich and I agree: single-payer health care, impeachment, leaving Iraq, no torture, civil liberties. "Kucinich is viable if you vote for him," his email said. "Don’t let the media tell you who is viable. They have their own agenda."
Now that New Hampshire is quiet again, I can think more calmly and clearly: Was he right?
The Pragmatic Ladder
Looking back, framing my decision as pragmatic compromise (Edwards) versus idealism (Kucinich) is too simple. Because I had a whole ladder of choices, each of which balanced pragmatism and idealism differently.
At the one extreme is Clinton, who I will happily vote for in November if it comes to that, but would rather not see nominated. I’ve searched my masculine heart for sexism and decided I’d feel the same way if Bill could run for a third term. The Clintons are skillful at managing problems as they come up, but they don’t change the agenda. I want a new national agenda.
Next comes Obama, who (if you believe the polls and pundits) is our best chance to get a nominee other than Clinton. On Tuesday, as the returns rolled in and it was clear how close Obama came to winning, I wondered if I had made a mistake by not compromising enough. But Obama’s inclusive conciliatory campaign rhetoric seems wrong-headed to me. The Republicans don’t compromise with us because they don’t respect us. And maybe they shouldn’t: We haven’t proved that we can take a principled stand and hold it to the bitter end.
Then Edwards, whose combative stance is the one we’re eventually going to have to come to if we’re not going to surrender this country to the super-rich and the theocrats. But his positions represent a compromise: His health plan could eventually lead to a single-payer system, but he doesn’t just take a stand and explain to the voters why single-payer is the way to go. And seriously defending the rule of law means impeaching Bush and sending a bunch of people to jail. Edwards isn’t willing to go there.
Then Kucinich, for the reaons I’ve already given. (And Dodd and Gravel, for different but similar reasons).
But it’s an illusion to imagine that the ladder stops here – that Kucinich represents uncompromising idealism. Because the truly uncompromising thing would have been to write in a vote for myself.
Nobody represents my views as well as I do. Nobody agrees with me 100%. Nobody would do exactly what I would do. There’s nobody I trust as much as I trust myself. In a campaign of ideals, a campaign that takes place entirely within my own head, without reference to polls or pundits or what anybody else thinks -- I win. Me for President.
It’s only when you recognize that last option that the real issue starts to take shape. Compromise isn’t some evil that needs to be banished from our electoral process. Compromise is one of the two great virtues that democracy is based on.
Courage and Compromise
Now let’s get theoretical. In order for a democracy to work, the people need to have two virtues: courage and compromise. Courage means standing up and saying what you believe, even if it’s unpopular or if someone is trying to intimidate you. Think Nelson Mandela. Think Martin Luther King and all the people marching over the Edmund Pettus bridge. As Pete Seeger sang: "I ain’t scared of your jail."
If nobody has that kind of courage, democracy doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter what your constitution or your laws say. Our constitution says that American citizens have a right to due process of law. But when President Bush declared Jose Padilla an enemy combatant and imprisoned him indefinitely, hardly anybody stood up for him. I could have taken a protest sign and tried to see how close to Padilla’s brig I could get before they arrested me, but I didn’t. If we’d all done that, if we’d made them lock us all up, something would have happened. Maybe those words in the Constitution would have meant something again.
But if you want to see the opposite problem, look at Iraq. Iraqis have a lot of courage – some to the point that they’re willing to blow themselves up for their beliefs. In their December, 2005 elections even voting required a certain amount of courage, yet they had a turnout that puts us to shame: 80%. If courage could make a democracy, Iraq really would be the shining model Bush promised.
The problem – and this was predictable from Day 1 – is that the Iraqis can’t put together a consensus to get anything done. Even the "winners" of the Iraqi elections (with 41% and 22% of the vote) were loose coalitions of parties that had to divvy up seats in Parliament until nobody had more than a handful. Those parties themselves seethe with internal distrust, and few voters trust any of them. So nothing happens. If nothing happens for long enough, people will give up on democracy and demand either (1) a dictator like Saddam or (2) a division of the country into units that do have majority coalitions.
Choosing the right leader or putting together the right program – something we keep trying to do for them from the outside – isn’t enough. Programs and leaders don’t make majority coalitions by themselves. People have to make them by compromising wisely.
Making the Trade-off
In order for democracy to work for you, you need to have the courage to stand up for your highest concerns even if no one agrees with you, and you need to compromise enough to find your way into a majority coalition. You usually can’t do both at the same time. So when do you do which?
The rule of thumb is pretty simple, and it works in small groups, in Congress, and in the electorate as a whole: Be courageous and idealistic early in the process and shift gradually towards pragmatism and compromise as the decision approaches.
That corporate-media-with-its-own-agenda my critic was writing about tries to get us to compromise too soon, before we’ve said what we wanted at all. Anything other than what the Powers-That-Be are ready to give us is impossible, and you’d do best to keep your powder dry and not ask. That’s the way it’s always been. American independence was impossible. Abolition of slavery was impossible. Old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, college scholarships – why even talk about such things?
The destructive thing about the cult-of-the-possible is that it’s self-fulfilling. People don’t want to "waste" their energy on impossible dreams, but some things are only impossible because nobody is willing to try them. People don’t speak out because they think they’d be alone, but maybe millions of people are silently having the same ideas. You don’t really know something’s impossible until you try.
But at some point people have tried and you do know – at least for this cycle. By the time I voted, Kucinich had argued hard for his program and I knew that he had gotten no delegates in Iowa. The entrance polls there gauged his support around 1-2%, and the pre-election polls in New Hampshire were similar. He wasn’t going to be elected in 2008 whether I voted for him or not.
The polls were also running against Edwards, but an Edwards victory and ultimate nomination was within the bounds of a reasonable upset. That’s where I decided to put the small weight of my vote.
As the Process Continues
If I had a vote in South Carolina or Nevada, I’m not sure what I’d do. Maybe I’d still hold out for Edwards, but I can also see the argument that it’s time to compromise a little further on Obama. And if Clinton is nominated, it will be time to compromise further yet. Because that’s the only way I can see my concerns making it into a majority coalition.
That, by the way, is why I respect Dennis Kucinich more than Ralph Nader. Kucinich in 2004 raised the liberal agenda in the primaries, argued hard for it, and supported Kerry in November. He was idealistic early in the process and pragmatic late. I expect him to do the same this year.
Nader, on the other hand, treated compromise as a vice. Whenever someone points out that the Nader voters could have made the difference and elected Gore rather than Bush, they raise a lot of sophistic arguments about Nader’s right to run and so on. Of course Nader had a right to run for president. We all have the right to run for president and we all could vote for ourselves. But that would show an Iraqi-like lack of the compromising virtue. It would be stupid.
The Long Run
Of course, you get to decide for yourself what time frame you’re working on, whether you’re playing for 2008 or for 2020 or whenever. A lot of Debs’ radical ideas eventually did make it into a majority coalition – in the New Deal. Maybe Nader’s ideas will too.
But if they do, I don’t think it will happen by slowly growing Kucinich's totals from 1% to 5% to a majority. Or by the Greens growing into a majority party. Instead, I think watered-down progressive ideas will make it into a Democratic administration, and they’ll work. And people will want more of them. I don’t know whether a President Obama or President Clinton can achieve national health insurance at all, let alone single-payer. But I think s/he will be able to get all the children insured. And it will work and people will like it. And then it will grow.