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What Elections Are For
A preemptive reply to some arguments I expect to hear in 2024
This essay is a preemptive subtweet.
The 2024 election is a year away. It is going to be a long year, and a stressful year. The election is going to be far-too-close, and the institution of U.S. electoral democracy itself hangs in the balance.
It is also going to be a year when a lot of well-meaning people declare that the Democratic party simply has not done enough to earn a second term. (“If this is what it’s like with Democrats in control, then why bother working to keep them in control?”)
I am old enough to have heard that line of thinking before. I am old enough to have sat with it, reasoned with it, wrestled with it, and watched its consequences unfold. We would be better off today if more people had ultimately dismissed it in 2000.
So today I want to share a memory from 2000. This is not a story about politics today. But it’s a story that I suspect will become increasingly relevant to political debates on the left as they unfold over the next year.
In the fall of 2000, I was the coordinator of the Oberlin-for-Gore campaign. Oberlin College is in Ohio, and Ohio was a key swing state in 2000. Then, as now, Oberlin didn’t have a ton of campus Republicans. But it has a proud radical left tradition, and an active OhioPIRG chapter (PIRG — Public Interest Research Group — was founded by Ralph Nader in the 70s). So there was a lot of campus enthusiasm for Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy.
Campus electoral campaigns are structurally pretty simple, and mostly identical. There are always three stages: Stage 1 - voter registration, stage 2 - voter education, stage 3 - Get Out the Vote.
The campus Nader campaign refused to help with voter registration. (Four of them approached me frantically on the last day of voter registration and asked if there was still time for them to register. Ell oh ell.) But they were excited to collaborate on a Nader-Gore debate, where a couple of us would stand on a stage and offer our best arguments for why Oberlin progressives should support four-more-years of Clintonism or take a stand against the two-party system.
In our campus debate, the Naderites insisted that theirs was a path to power. The two-party system would be rattled by a strong Green Party showing. The Democrats would finally learn to stop taking progressives for granted. (It wasn’t rattled. They didn’t learn.)
I had just come back from a year off, serving as National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition. To me it came down to a simple question: as an activist, how do I want to spend the next 4-8 years? Do I want to push an administration to make things better, or do I want to stop an administration from making things worse?
I had no misconception that a Gore Presidency would solve all our problems. Gore was better than Clinton on climate issues, but he represented the centrist DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) wing of the party. These were people you had to push hard in order to get anything worthwhile accomplished.
A Gore Presidency meant I would spend at least the next four years running campaigns where victory would alter the status quo in ways that meaningfully improve people’s lives.
A Bush Presidency, by comparison, would leave me spending the next 4-8 years running campaigns to preserve the status quo, preventing the government from enacting policies that would meaningfully degrade people’s lives and make the world worse off.
What I told my classmates that night was that I would rather spend the next four years playing offense instead of defense. Politics doesn’t end on election night. It’s a constant struggle. But there are periods when you fight to articulate and pass new proposals the make the world better, and periods when you fight like hell just to keep the world from getting worse. A vote for Nader, in a swing state like Ohio, made it more likely that we would be stuck defending the broken status quo. It would be a symbolic, self-defeating act.
We of course can never know what a Gore Presidency would have been like. (It wouldn’t have been a utopia, I know that much. It never is.) But I suspect it would have been better in ways that materially mattered.
Gore, I suspect, still would have led us into war in Afghanistan after 9/11. But he wouldn’t have used it as a pretext to launch a second war against Iraq — a country that played no role in the attacks.
And if Gore had still been in office during Hurricane Katrina, I suspect the aftermath would’ve been a catalyzing event around the climate crisis. The policy progress that would have followed surely would not have been enough. But it would have been a start. All of the challenges we are facing today are exacerbated because we are getting started so very late.
Politics extends beyond elections. If you put your faith in a President — any President — to fix the world for you, then you are bound to be disappointed. But elections are constituitive, shaping moments. They determine broadly whether you will operate under the politics of opposition or the politics of articulation.
Periods of opposition are good for movement-building and solidarity. But they don’t result in a lot of wins. Periods of articulation are where the wins happen, but also where we are reminded that political systems are complicated and exceptionally hard to move.
I think Joe Biden has been a good President. Not a perfect President. Not a transformative President. But he has certainly good. Better than I expected he would be.
He’s also old. And that appears to make a lot of voters nervous. It makes me a little nervous too, actuarially-speaking. But he is running unopposed, and there are good reasons to think the Democratic Party’s chances of beating Trump are stronger with an unopposed incumbent Biden than they would be with a fractious open primary.
I don’t fault people for worrying about the lack of candidate options right now. We’re still a year away, and if you truly believe that some other candidate has a reasonable path to victory, then argue away.
That will change in a few months. As we get midway through 2024, either Biden is going to be the candidate or something extremely unexpected will have happened and he won’t be. At that point, the choice will be clear, and it’ll be time to quit grousing.
Some will feel that Biden has not been nearly good enough. And they will bristle at the suggestion that the only choice is between Biden and Trump, as though their support is guaranteed and can be taken for granted.
All I can say to them (calmly now, and with increased urgency as the year progresses) is that politics is a constant struggle, and elections are inflection points. The choice is not between the lesser of two evils. The choice is whether you would rather spend the next four years fighting to improve the status quo, or spend them fighting to preserve it.
The choice was clear to me in 2000. It has only become clearer since.