Strategic voting and how it helps the capitalists win

This is the second in an ongoing series on the question of voting. You can read last week’s piece here.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard pundits and Liberals loudly claim that I’d be “throwing my vote away” by voting for a “fringe” party, like the Greens or the Marijuana Party or even the NDP. My vote would amount to little more than a meaningless gesture, they say, and a counterproductive one at that, as it would make it more likely that some nasty backwards-thinking poor-bashing homo-hating war-mongering arch-conservative demon would split the left vote and squeak into power. (The implications of the fact that the Conservative Party has a seemingly limitless supply of these baddies is a topic I’ll get into in more detail below)

And so, in election after election, people who would much rather be voting for a party and platform they could wholeheartedly endorse (assuming they can find one!) find themselves reluctantly voting Liberal. We saw it as recently as last fall here in Ontario, when the cretinous (and possibly creationist) Tim Hudak scared the socialist shit out of enough Dippers to give Kathleen Wynne a completely undeserved majority.

So there must be some gleeful schadenfreude in the NDP these days, as they find that the traditional roles have suddenly and completely flipped, and now it is Liberal voters who are being exhorted by the anybody-but-Harper crowd that they must fall in line and vote Orange.

There’s something small and sordid about a strategic vote. It reminds me of a statement made under duress, in the absence of lawyers and the presence of several burly well-armed cops. It’s the vote nobody wants to make but so many people wind up making anyway. Hell, even I’ve done it, and I was regretting it before I was even finished. It feels more than a little bit dirty, more than a little bit unsatisfying.

But if casting a strategic vote is painfully pathetic, consider what it takes to be the party which draws in the strategic votes. In order to be the standard around which everybody can rally, you have to be free of all but the loosest principles.

The party of last resort for those who would stop a greater evil must offer something to everybody – at least during campaign season. Wynne made a strong case that she was the best available progressive alternative to Hudak, and talked enough of a good game on social issues that some NDP voters felt comfortable voting for her party, while at the same time making enough reassuring noises to her Bay Street backers that they knew the fix was in. Now we’re facing an unnecessary sell-off of our public hydro utility, a continuation of damaging austerity policies, crackdowns on striking teachers’ unions – in short, exactly the type of stuff we might have expected from a PC win.

But hey, we got a more progressive sex-ed curriculum than we would have otherwise, so it could have been worse!

Which is the great animating lie of strategic voting apologists everywhere. It could have been worse, sure – but it also could have been better. If we accept the proposition that unsatisfying middle-of-the-road-ism and broken promises is the best we can get, the best we’re entitled to, merely because one likely alternative would have been worse, we’ve pretty much admitted that we’ve given up on the notion that government can do us any good.

This is precisely the dynamic I’m expecting from Thomas Mulcair and the NDP in the coming election. In an effort to preserve the lead he now holds in the polls, Mulcair will promote policies which hold the broadest possible appeal to potential Liberal voters – and really, consider who typical Liberal voters are. Those self-defined “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” types want to both have and eat their cake, simultaneous-like, despite the fact that their political “philosophy” is so riddled with inconsistency as to be completely untenable:

You can’t separate fiscal issues from social issues. They’re deeply intertwined. They affect each other. Economic issues often are social issues. And conservative fiscal policies do enormous social harm. That’s true even for the mildest, most generous version of “fiscal conservatism” — low taxes, small government, reduced regulation, a free market. These policies perpetuate human rights abuses. They make life harder for people who already have hard lives. Even if the people supporting these policies don’t intend this, the policies are racist, sexist, classist (obviously), ableist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise socially retrograde. In many ways, they do more harm than so-called “social policies” that are supposedly separate from economic ones.

(The whole article is an epic takedown of this unfortunately common position and is well worth a read.)

These are the people that Mulcair et. al. are going to be trying to draw into their Big Orange Tent – all while holding onto the base they’ve been repeatedly kicking since their unexpected surge into Opposition four years back. That would be the base composed of unions, socialists, and social democrats, who now have to subject themselves to the sight of the NDP’s leader cozying up to Bay Street financiers and uttering trite banalities about supporting the “middle class“.

In order to be the Politician for all People, Mulcair is taking on some popular positions, to be sure. His strong posturing on Bill C-51 is welcome, although I assume it’s designed more to draw in disaffected Liberals confused with Justin Trudeau’s “I’m against it so I voted for it” stance than it is a strongly principled decision.

But the same dynamic has also forced the NDP to commit to popular but wrong-headed policies, such as supporting and advocating for balanced budgets in almost all circumstances (see a good rebuttal here), continued tar sands extraction (so as to win votes out West – victory at all costs, including the environment!), and so deeply buying into the “small-business” mania that has gripped parties everywhere that they would actually wind up giving the rich tax cuts. (Apparently the phrase “supports small business” tests extremely well in focus groups across party affiliation.)

This is a far cry from the NDP of decades gone by, when they polled so far out of first place that they could afford to be principled.

This is what a “left-wing” party has to do in order to win elections in a nation dominated by concentrated capital and business interests – run so far to the centre that its claims of being socially democratic become hollow.

Strategic voting is ultimately a self-defeating process. The contortions a party must go through in order to be the recipient of strategic votes will inevitably leave that party without firm principles or positions. Such a party, once in power, is free to govern with impunity, and pursue the path marked by capital as the path of least resistance, as it has a ready-made excuse for any of its detractors – it could have been worse!

And indeed, it could be worse than the NDP. We could still wind up with another Harper government – another Harper majority, even. And while I fully expect an NDP government to fully sell out its base and buy into the neoliberal consensus which is de rigeur among Western “democracies” at the moment, I’m reasonably certain they wouldn’t be quite as bad on civil liberties, indigenous rights, or social policy as Harper has been and would continue to be.

Is this sufficient reason to vote for them? (Or, if the nation experiences another seismic shift in the polls, for Trudeau and the Liberals?)

After all, Stephen Harper has been a historically disastrous Prime Minister, second only to the nakedly genocidal John A. MacDonald in my books. The empowering of secret police in Bill C-51, the disastrously aimless and illegal war in Iraq and Syria in which he’s entangled us, the tar sands cheerleading and massive environmental deregulation, the censoring and suppressing of science and scientists, the sale of weapons to the hideously repressive Saudi regime, the use of omnibus bills to slip hundreds of pages of ill-considered laws and amendments through Parliament – the past four years have been one disaster after another, have weakened what passed for democracy in this country, and have left all of us less secure. And that list is an extremely partial one – a full indictment of the Harper regime’s crimes would run to hundreds of pages. Surely stopping such a leader is worth any cost?

This brings me back to a point I alluded to in my opening paragraph – Stephen Harper is hardly unique. He’s a particularly intelligent and cold-blooded specimen, to be sure, but he’s only the latest in a long line of Conservative boogeymen. He’s this decade’s answer to Mike Harris, or Ralph Klein, or Brian Mulroney – politicians who all, not coincidentally, were extremely well-connected to this nation’s financial and business apparatus.

The socially regressive and environmentally destructive policies these politicians favour are not accidents – they are the desired policies of very wealthy and powerful people. Harper, like Harris and Klein and Mulroney before him, is carrying out the will of capital.

And if we get rid of him, they’ll do their best to sink their claws into his replacement, as they did with the Chretien-Martin Liberals in the post-Mulroney years. Paul Martin’s years as Finance Minister helped establish punishing austerity as a bipartisan consensus in Ottawa, and Chretien backtracked on promises to renegotiate NAFTA (click through for some on-point analysis from the mid-90s!) – but hey, it could have been worse, right? At least we got rid of Mulroney!

Or consider the McGuinty government which replaced the hated Mike Harris/Ernie Eves regime. Rounding up McGuinty’s three terms in power in 2012, NOW magazine noted, in a sweeping indictment of the premier’s neoliberalism, that “The poverty and hunger situation is worse than it was under Mike Harris; employment equity for immigrants is no better; home care is a mess; there’s been no significant reform of the health care system; no global warming plan, no worthwhile sustainable job creation.” But hey, it could have been worse! Probably!

As the bogeyman-du-jour changes, memories fade, and the conviction that this time is different takes hold again. Yes, the pro-capital monsters that conservative parties elevate to their leaderships are terrible – but when all of our efforts are expended on electing the least-bad alternative, then capital still wins. It wins by keeping the terms of debate narrow, it wins by putting forth “moderate” “compromise” positions which are “better than nothing” and which maintain or increase their profits, it wins by co-opting parties and governments, it wins by being belligerently disruptive to any government which challenges it (“After the new finance minister’s very first meeting with the banking community , a bank vice-president told him, in the presence of an aide: “Nice speech, Mr. Minister, but we’re going to kill you.” And they did.”), it wins by keeping everybody focussed on the problem of selecting the lesser of all evils while it goes about its wretched unceasing Business.

So for the love of humanity, don’t vote strategically! Voting is itself a pretty suspect business to being with, but a strategic vote is a vote for capital and the status quo, no matter how bad the bogeyman you’re voting against is.

Of course, the big question I’ve avoided here is – what about electoral reform? Wouldn’t the system work better if we had proportional representation, or some other more democratic electoral system? I’m going to tackle that subject head-on next Sunday.

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