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Saturday, April 30, 2016


Let me now respond to Chris’s comment, keyed to a passage in my little book In Defense of Anarchism.  Since it has been a while, I will start by reproducing the comment:

“Professor Wolff,
In In Defense of Anarchism, you provide a great argument against representative democracy infringing on autonomy when you point out that if a set of candidates were running on just 4 issues (an impossibly small world!), our two party system would be painfully inadequate to accommodate real representation:

"Simplifying the real world considerably, we can suppose that there are three alternative courses of action seriously being considered on the first issue, four on the second, two on the third, and three on the last. There are then 3 X 4 X 2 X 3 = 72 possible stands which a man might take on these four issues." -RPW

So in just a 4 issue world, we need 72 possible candidates, in order for each voter to at least have the possibility of voting for her preferred candidate. We have two “strictly consider these people” presidential candidates.

It seems to me the error being made when people say "you really must vote Democratic candidate X [cause it never matters who X is for the past 60 years], over Republican Y [in this case real names are used, e.g., Trump]", is that you assume somewhere on the hypothetically limited spectrum of 72 possible choices, the Democrat is 'closer' to our position.

Again, keeping the world simple, let's say that of all 72 possible candidates, Trump really is 72nd, i.e., in last place in terms of my hypothetically preferred representatives (not sure this is actually true). That is, he takes the maximally possibly wrong stance on every issue. But if Hillary Clinton is 71st, or 70th, hell 69th or 68th, and not something like 35th or 10th, does "vote for the Dem" really make sense?

It seems to me the error being made in vote Dem X judgment, is the presumption that the Dem is substantially closer to ideal candidate 1, than the republican. But when the distance is oceanic, covered with barbed-wire, and patrolled by ogres, at what point does this argument break down, If ever? At what point are you asking people to compromise on SERIOUS and autonomously decided moral principles, just to get their 71st choice?

Just as we wouldn't ask a serious pacifist to kill in the name of less killing, at what point are we commanding of people a serious moral albatross, to the point that the Dem vote is unwarranted?
Maybe I’m a literally crazy person, but the distance between Trump and Clinton is extremely minute compared to the distance between my conscience and either of them. And it can’t just be presumed a priori that the Dem fits well enough into my preferred choices.

And on an entirely pragmatic note, if all the independents (which I am registered as) really do commit Bernie or Bust, and that’s registered by party strategist, you better believe that could go some way toward restructuring the democratic party to be more progressive in 4-8 years. I sincerely DOUBT that will happen when we all just hop in line and vote Hillary without a fight.”

The first thing to recall is that my example concerns voting for someone who will represent you in the legislature that enacts laws.  The logic of the argument is this:  The de jure legitimacy of democracy derives, supposedly, from the fact that those who are bound to obey the laws make the laws, and hence are autonomous [literally “giving laws to oneself” or being self-legislating.]  In a representative democracy, the person I choose, by voting, to represent me may not win, but at least I had a chance to be represented by someone who, in the legislature, is pledged to act as my agent and work my will.  But if I am not even presented on the ballot with such a person, then I have no chance to be truly represented in the legislature, and hence I am not by any stretch of reason obligated to obey the law.  But if there are even as few as three or four issues of importance before the nation, and two or three logically independent possible positions on each issue, then the ballot would have to list as many as 72 candidates, each holding a different combination of possible positions, in order for it to be guaranteed that that I am at least offered a suitable representative of my will.  And nothing like this ever happens.

But in the American political system, a president is not a representative in the legislature.  He or she is an executive.  So my little argument is not really apposite.  Given the conclusion to which I come in that book, I begin with the assumption that no American government is de jure legitimate.  My problem is to decide, in a situation of total governmental illegitimacy, what it is best for me to do.  And that requires me to make uncertain estimates of the probable future behavior of whatever candidates for the presidency are offered to me on the ballot, along with estimates, equally uncertain, of the legislative and other consequences of one person or the other occupying the office of president.

Let me sketch my reasons for thinking Clinton is to be preferred to Trump by myself or someone holding roughly my political beliefs.  I hope it may go without saying that my judgments, involving as they do very uncertain predictions, are hardly offered as incontrovertible.

I think it is very clear what sort of President Clinton would be.  She has been a public figure for decades, and there is really very little mystery about her beliefs, her administrative style, or her character.  The same cannot be said about Trump.  I believe him to be deeply psychologically unstable, as I have indicated.  [Robert Shore calls that “a cheap shot,” which strikes me as a truly bizarre comment, but I shall let that pass.]  He is working hard to arouse, intensify, and legitimate ugly, fascist tendencies in the population of which I am genuinely frightened.  Perhaps I am too powerfully influenced by the world’s experiences in the 20th century, but I am not at all confident that America is safe from those dangerous political passions.  Might Trump be a pacifist sheep in wolf’s clothing?  Perhaps, but I doubt it, and I am loathe to take that risk.  Might he prove to be a champion of the interests of the dispossessed and down-trodden?  Perhaps, though that really does seem to me to be a stretch.  Collecting up and examining his assorted public statements is pointless, in my judgment, because they are contradictory, episodic, and manifestly not thought through.

Some things are more certain.  First, if he is elected, then in all likelihood he will have a Republican Senate as well as a Republican House.  That will mean a reactionary Supreme Court for the next thirty years, in which case voting suppression, the repeal of LGBT rights, gerrymandering, and the complete triumph of corporate capitalism in the courts will be a certainty.  Under those circumstances, a progressive movement will be strangled in the cradle.

Will Trump actually be less hawkish than Clinton?  It is impossible to say.  He is so utterly ignorant of everything having to do with foreign policy that he will be completely at the mercy of his advisors, and from the little evidence we have, those advisors do not inspire me with hope.

What of Clinton?  She will pursue an aggressive foreign and military policy, and she will do little, if anything, to rein in the power and freedom of the financial sector.  She will pursue a Center-Left economic policy, with emphasis on reproductive rights, economic rights for women, some incremental strengthening of the Affordable care Act, and a continuation of the Obama Administration’s solid work addressing climate change.

Under a Clinton Administration, there will be a chance, just a chance, of a progressive movement in America, if Bernie chooses to lead the charge and establishes an ongoing organization to fight in local, state, and federal contests for the election of truly progressive office holders.  That, in my judgment, is our best hope, our only hope, for real change in this country.  Will Clinton support such a movement?  Of course not.  Will she undercut it?  I do not think so, since she will need its support for her re-election.

Is it worth taking a chance on Trump for the possibility of a surprisingly progressive presidency?  I do not think so, and my reason is that I remain genuinely frightened of the emergence of real home-grown American style fascism.

Now, all of this is unavoidably speculative, although I am pretty confident of my expectations concerning a Clinton presidency, if not for a Trump presidency.  So Chris may disagree with me, after looking at all of the same facts.  But I would urge all of us to think about this coldly and calculatedly.  We are a long way from a situation in which we can feel joy about our alternatives.


s. wallerstein said...

I don't live in the U.S. but for those who do, a couple of questions.

Do you really want your country to be represented by Donald Trump in all those international meetings, with people like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau, who are far from perfect, but at least have a bit of class? Raul Castro has more class than Trump as does Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Do you want the world to laugh at your country?

Do you really want to have to listen to and see Trump every time you turn on the TV?
I agree that Hillary is boring, lacks charisma and does not inspire trust, but at least she's normally boring, like your high school principal probably was, full of hypocrisy and stock cliché phrases, not the bluster of a fascist demagogue.

Do you really want a president who the rest of the world will see, at best, as the American Silvio Berlusconi and at worst, as the American Le Pen?

David said...

No, no, no, and no. So the question is, as Professor Wolff (and Lenin) asked, "What is to be done?" I know that I don't have the time and energy to agonize over the prospect of voting for Clinton. I understand that she's execrable. However, I have too much else in my life that is agonizing to agonize over that. Bernie isn't going to get elected as a Democrat, and I disagree with the efforts of the Socialist Alternative to petition him to run as an independent. I've made my decision: I'm going to support the campaign of a down-ballot candidate endorsed by Bernie Sanders. I met the candidate (Pramila Jayapal) at a house party today, and I'm convinced she would make an excellent member of Congress.

Jerry Fresia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerry Fresia said...

I don't think the 72 shades-of-gray-calculations get us anywhere. Our legislative reps don't represent non-property types and the system is, from the viewpoint of democracy, not legitimate. However, given the institutions that we have inherited (namely the electoral college, single-member districts, and plurality elections), and given that our economy is a plutocracy, the lesser-of-two-evils motivation is quite rational. In other words, we are left to fight over the crumbs - or a triangulation windfall - that are up for grabs in an $18 trillion economy - that is, unless, a bottom-up social movement makes the costs to plutocrats greater than the costs of structural reform. Thus, I think it would be more fruitful to consider what the Professor calls "our best hope."

"Under a Clinton Administration, there will be a chance, just a chance, of a progressive movement in America, if Bernie chooses to lead the charge and establishes an ongoing organization to fight in local, state, and federal contests for the election of truly progressive office holders. That, in my judgment, is our best hope, our only hope, for real change in this country."

The question, in my mind then, is what is the best strategy to keep the Bernie movement going beyond November so that it might then corral the disparate social movements now existing. I am not saying that such a movement depends on a single individual or even electoral campaigns. I am saying that this electoral campaign has the potential of having as great an impact as winning office as a broader organizing vehicle.

David Palmeter said...

In reading and listening to the many debates that are going on over this topic these days, my mind repeatedly goes back to 1968—when the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey and not Eugene McCarthy. Many were outraged. Many argued that there was no meaningful difference between Humphrey and Richard Nixon, and either did not vote or voted for Nixon or a third party candidate. Nixon won a surprisingly close election.

One of the things Nixon did in 1972 was nominate William Rehnquist for the Supreme Court. In the ‘80s, Reagan nominated him for Chief Justice. In 1992, Rehnquist was one of the five in the Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore.

But of course, it was said, there was no real difference between Gore, the DLC Democrat, and Bush, the “compassionate conservative,” so the Court’s decision made no difference.

Wrong. It made a huge difference. For example: Samuel Alito and John Roberts on the Court. It is inconceivable that Gore would have named anyone like them. It is depressing to think of the harm they will do in the many years left to them on the bench. Clinton, in sharp contrast, named Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is every reason to believe that Gore’ nominees would have been similar.

And then, of course, there is the Iraq war, a military adventure Gore would never have undertaken. Because of that war, thousands of people are dead who would otherwise be alive today. And the thread of that decision—and, in my book part of the responsibility for it—goes back to those 1968 voters who saw Hubert Humphrey as another Richard Nixon and acted accordingly.

Elections, as they say, have consequences. Indeed they do.

Richard Lewis said...

I disagree with the calculations that would cause a person on the left to reluctantly pull the lever for Clinton. I would argue that there is a factor which trumps the others; existential threat to civilization via global nuclear war. I would argue, based on the candidates' explicit statements, foreign policy advisors' backgrounds, and personal inclinations, that under Clinton the chances of a nuclear confrontation with Russia might be around 1%; under Trump about 0%. I would argue that even this small difference in odds dwarfs any progressive pragmatic inclination to go for Clinton over Trump.

I'm also not sure I see Clinton quite the way Prof Wolff does - as a 'known' quantity - dull, center-right, cautious, etc. On the contrary I fear she may be as much or more of a loose canon than Trump. The only two instances where she has had real decision making power - the 1990's health reform debacle and the Libya air strike debacle (in depth reporting on both these is available, and disturbing) don't bode well for her basic mental stability and ability to listen to advisors and make rational decisions based on that advice. In short, she scares me more than Trump.

Anonymous said...

If the feminist imperative demands a woman president whose hawkish proclivities provoke global thermonuclear war, it will nevertheless be worth it.