Socialists have to tolerate people who won't vote for capitalists

Regard with suspicion anyone who can't.

The moral and strategic calculus is much more complicated and ambiguous than most people are willing to admit. For one thing you are making predictions, not just about immediate outcomes, but about very long term consequences over the span of decades. Even very educated and intelligent people who spend their careers trying to do this are generally pretty bad at it. What effect will the outcome of this election have on future elections? What counter-intuitive or second, third, and fourth-order effects will it have? We have lucky guesses sometimes, or vague horoscopic guesses that are inevitably vindicated, but we do not actually have political fortune-tellers in our midst. If we did, this would all be a lot easier.

A second problem is that weighing harms and benefits is also much more difficult than we often concede. Consider my hobbyhorse, international climate finance. Is eight years of Biden sending two or three billion to the UN really better than four years of Trump sending nothing, and then a better president sending a few hundred billion, as Sanders promised? Depends on a lot of things: whether you think Biden really will only serve four years; whether you think he’ll realistically invest much more than planned; whether you think we can get a better president in office in 2024; and how you think these different funding levels and timelines would effect the climate. Add to that similar calculations on things like healthcare and war, and the harm-reduction ledger becomes extremely complicated.

A third problem has to do with one’s theory of change. Entryism, dirty-break, or clean-break? Do you see lesser-evil voting as a norm that can and must be challenged? Do you see any existing third-parties as a plausible vehicle for socialists?

A fourth problem is simply moral. For many people, the utilitarian logic of harm reduction is the only sensible way to think about voting. But deontological principles are very difficult to argue against, philosophically — either you accept them or you don’t — and they can easily come into conflict with logics like harm reduction. If for example you are a strict pacifist, you will have a perfectly logical and defensible objection to voting for any capitalist, even one whose election would clearly cause less harm.

Finally, there are personal considerations that reasonable people would also take into account. Poor people often don’t vote simply because getting to the booth is too onerous and because they (quite reasonably) do not expect their lives to get much better even if they do. An old friend of mine from Iraq who lost friends and family during the war voted for Obama in 2008 because he promised to end the war — but then when he failed to and she lost another family member, she quite understandably refused to vote for him again in 2012. People who live in safe states are of course in a very different strategic situation than people who live in swing states. One could go on.

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All of this places us in a situation that should be utterly familiar to any socialist: faced with serious strategic disagreements with stakes that are potentially quite high.

Compounding all of this, meanwhile, is a power dynamic that no socialist can reasonably deny. A major function of capitalism’s ideological state apparatus in the US is to maintain loyalty to its two major parties for reasons that are directly at odds with the noble aspirations of socialist activists. It does not simply dictate the ideology of our two capitalist parties; it also works to ensure that popular politics remains framed and defined by this narrow structure. The form of our government, the operation of our economy and the career paths it opens and denies, the media, the culture — all of it works together to maintain party discipline.

Some socialists believe that despite all of this, there are still strategically and morally sound reasons to vote for one of the capitalist parties once again. If they want to argue their case to the rest of us, fine; I get that people are going to vote for who they like based on reasoning that, as noted, is often extremely complicated and subjective.

But here, I simply want to make three few points for socialists:

  1. Socialists who vote for capitalists need to show a baseline of intellectual humility and strategic tolerance about voting, recognizing the basic uncertainties and subjectivities in play, and acknowledging that solidarity does not necessarily mean identical action — it often means accepting a diversity of tactics.

  2. Socialists who vote for capitalists need to acknowledge the important role that third parties and other contenders have historically played in advancing the socialist agenda — from woman’s suffrage to the Green New Deal. Nothing good can be accomplished in denying this fact, and efforts to shift credit to one of the capitalist parties and their allied organizations only distort our understanding of politics.

  3. Socialists who vote for capitalists absolutely should not try to leverage the forces of party loyalism that capitalism has baked into our politics against other socialists. They should not ally themselves with capitalists in an effort to discredit or attack other socialists; they should not leverage party or party-adjacent corporate platforms to shout down other socialists; they should not opportunistically adopt anti-socialist arguments and rhetoric in order to get their way.

These seems like obvious terms of engagement to me, but it also seems like they have to be restated every few years. Socialists should hold each other to them, and should have serious concerns about the politics of anyone who can’t stick to them.