In my last post on the US presidential elections I had advocated for electoral abstention (Liu 2016). I have received some feedback since publishing this post. The liberal left says that abstention is tantamount to silence your own voice, and it would be better to support Jill Stein from the Green Party instead. The moderate left tells me that Clinton is a much better candidate than Trump, and even the most hardcore Bernie supporters have to rally behind Clinton to prevent Trump. And then there is the Republican base and a group of largely disenfranchised working-class whites, who enthusiastically back Trump, as they had when Trump easily defeated the other Republican “establishment” challengers (a very bad label to have in this presidential year). Who is right?
I argue that all of them are right. I will make a case that any choice in this election is defensible. This is a weakening of my original position toward abstention. But I don’t exclude abstention as an acceptable choice of action.
I still make a case that given that both major parties have appointed unappetizing choices, one way to show discontent is to abstain and look for more promising congressional races this year or the presidential elections in 2020. Let us carefully consider again the choices facing the American people:
Trump is an obnoxious, opportunistic celebrity billionaire, who is riding on a wave of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and xenophobic hate. His foreign policy is toward retrenchment and weakening US military presence abroad, which is quite acceptable. But he supports cuts to Social Security and other important social programs, and his tax policies are regressive to the benefit of his own billionaire class. Under Trump, there is little doubt that the little guy gets a little spectacle in the form of anti-immigrant and anti-trade agreement policy (which does not solve the economic insecurity at the root of the insurgency), while the billionaires get the actual economic goodies.
Clinton is a power-hungry and self-absorbed leader, who takes the most opportunistic position based on what might sound popular. Her style is way more constrained by the spin doctors than Trump, which makes her more of a traditional “establishment” politician. In domestic policy, she would keep the Obama course steady, which basically means that current economic and social policies and their distributional consequences (bailout for banks cum austerity for the masses resulting in more income and wealth inequality) are frozen into place. To be fair, Sanders was able to wring out a few concessions from Clinton, such as the free college pledge for families earning less than 125,000 dollars. But I have the inkling that Clinton is banking on the short-term memory of the public. She appointed Tim Kaine from Virginia as her running mate, who is considered to be a moderate Democrat in the Senate (Govtrack.us). After the magic of the DNC in Philadelphia has passed, she will switch back to “moderate” (i.e. don’t rock the boat) policy positions, and continue distracting from her own unpopular policy positions by pointing to her opponent. “Donald, is even worse than me!” I accept the label that Clinton is probably (though not definitely) the lesser evil.
Vote for Trump
I personally do not recommend anyone to vote for Trump, because it would be similar to the cataclysmically stupid Brexit decision of the British electorate. But let us not forget why Brexit happened. I don’t think people were aware of the economic fallout, but that Brexit was about the anti-establishment vote mixed with a sense of xenophobia. The Leave side campaigned on the promise to restrict EU migration to prevent social benefit transfers to them. This claim is not factually sustainable, because EU migrants tend to be young and healthy and contribute more taxes than they get in benefits. But base emotions of the frightened English electorate swayed the vote in favor of Brexit. But it was not the EU alone, which caused economic suffering (which they surely did with their anti-deficit mantra), but the Tory government, which substantially slashed social programs and local council funding. Voting for Brexit was a way of getting back at Tory government.
Back to Trump: we have the same xenophobic sentiment, which my elite-university educated friends (from UPenn, Oxford and Princeton) decry as being foolish and short-sighted. I largely concur with this view, but we must not talk down on the little guy, who has not seen his income rise. In fact, his income has decreased. And these people are maniacally afraid of anyone, who can take their jobs and benefits. Trump offers no real solution to the little guy, but he is speaking to the little guy, because he offers to do “something”. He appeals to the little guy by being “self-funded” and not having to rely on billionaires to run the election. Indeed, his campaign was rather cheap, and he took advantage of free media coverage by making one outrageous statement after another.
But what does he offer? Rage, rage, rage. He has not promised to reform campaign finance (as Bernie Sanders did). Now, it turns out that for the general election, he wants to take money from Republican-backing rich people, largely to defray general election campaign costs, which he does not want to bear. Remember when he declared bankruptcy four times, so he could let others pay for his businesses gone bad? Now he does not want to pay the full cost of his campaign, inviting his fellow billionaires in the game. The fact that his tax and economic policies undoubtedly will benefit the 1% fits into the picture.
But at the end, it doesn’t matter to his loyal voters, consisting of the disenfranchised white working class, and even some from the colored working class. I know people in my neighborhood, whose economic prospects are everything but bright, gloating about Donald Trump. Yeah, he is a strongman who will fix it for us. They don’t know what to say when you press them on how he will fix things. “He will get rid of immigrants and Muslim terrorists.” Yeah, right.
There is only one rational reason to vote for Trump: he is an anti-establishment figure and establishment politics has been disastrous for the working class. Hillary Clinton will cozy up with the powerful from Day 1, and so much the little guy understands about her.
Vote for Clinton
Voting for Clinton is probably a choice of the lesser evil. This cannot be emphasized enough. She will continue Obama’s domestic policy agenda, which is to make incremental changes to the health care or education system. She won’t mind inheriting a largely Republican Congress and will talk up compromise. Whether she gets anything done is not as important as the fact that she will be able to return to the White House once more. If Hillary makes it for two terms in the White House, the Clintons will have occupied the presidency longer than any other couple had. Clinton is the establishment, there is no way around it. Her domestic social policy agenda, however, could be compromised, and she might be ready to cut Social Security as a “grand bargain” (but for what?). She will be willing to let health insurance companies get richer coming at the heels of her own failed health care revamp in 1993. She might not advocate strongly for a rise in the minimum wage. There are a lot of things that are quite awful about the status quo, which she will be unenthusiastic to challenge
The one thing that would concern me the most about a Clinton presidency is that she is much more willing to use military force around the world to maintain US global dominance and pursue her “humanitarian” agenda of “regime change”. That was in full display during her stint as secretary of state in the first Obama term. She argued forcefully for the no-fly zone in Libya, which Obama granted and now regrets looking back at it. She argued for another no-fly zone and potentially ground force invasion of Syria, which Obama wisely declined on grounds of lack of congressional approval. The US, nonetheless, engages in airstrikes in Syria, which inflames the conflict and proliferates the refugee wave to Europe (and some of the recent strings of terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Munich). If Clinton was commander-in-chief back then, more parents of active-duty US soldiers would have to carry their sons and daughters home in caskets. I am ironically more afraid of Clinton having access to the nuclear codes than Trump, who is unenthusiastic about foreign wars.
The only rational reason to vote for Clinton is the same as she said in her speeches: “Donald is worse than me.”
Vote for Jill Stein
Stein is the Green Party candidate. Without having read the entire Green Party agenda, we can simplify and say that she supports virtually all of Bernie Sanders positions: infrastructure jobs, energy efficiency and sustainability, military spending cuts, free college tuition (cancel student debt, going farther than Bernie), Medicare-for-all health care etc. Supporting her makes absolute sense from a policy standpoint. But the politics of supporting her is difficult. She is not part of the two-party system. She is not invited in presidential debates. She has a very small budget. She has virtually no name recognition outside the educated left (academics, civil servants, college students), and even those from the educated left might be wary of “wasting” their vote on her. Her chances of victory are virtually zero, which is also why Sanders has refused to entertain running on the Green Party ticket (as does his brother Larry in the UK). He also thinks that supporting a third party would split the left vote and hand the victory to Trump.
The rationale for supporting Stein, however, is more basic: her policy positions are the only one among running candidates that make sense.
I have given you four choices, and I think they are all legitimate choices: abstain, vote for Trump, Clinton or Stein. I refuse to give more weight to one choice than the other, because we have a disappointing selection of candidates with realistic chances to win the general election. The American people deserve better.