The following story is co-published with Freddie deBoer’s Substack.

The podcast Pod Save America, a name which makes me want to commit arson, is a useful metonym for a brand of politics that fails and fails and fails and yet never finds itself far from power. It’s the approach of a type of scolding liberal realist who delights in ladling out condescension for the rest of us. The podcast and its associated media empire are led by former Obama administration apparatchiks, and the organization carries Barack Obama’s torch in the 2020s – it’s stentorian, bloodless, endlessly superior, averse to unbridled political passion, addicted to triangulation, and unrelentingly attached to the idea that there is a Right Way to do politics, which is supposed to result in both substantive and political success. (Recent history notwithstanding.) It’s appropriate that the abbreviation for the podcast would be PSA, as they embody a kind of patronizing liberal messaging that treats everyone else as a child who needs to be patiently informed about How Things Work, and always, always told to slow down in the pursuit of progress.

They embrace a kind of vague liberal social politics that catches on to the latest thing when it is safe to do so, kind of like how their former boss waited until it was absolutely safe before supporting gay marriage. They’re born organization kids, happiest and most secure within the structures of institutions and traditions that dramatically narrow the boundaries of the possible, freeing them from the moral duty to choose what’s right over what’s politically expedient. They hate Trump, naturally, seemingly unable to understand that the deracinated technocracy and adult-in-the-room incrementalism of the Obama administration directly contributed to Trump’s victory. (With a Democratic party addicted to driving the car of state in the exact middle of the road and a policy agenda that could not possibly fix the country’s anemic post-financial crisis economy, the conditions were perfect for a populist right demagogue like Trump to rise.) They’re firmly in favor of progress, provided that progress is defined in vague and unthreatening terms. And I’m sure they’re all good guys, just like most middle aged dads who donate to the NOW and are active in the PTA. The trouble is that, as Obama showed time and again, being a good guy is not enough.

I have two questions for them.

  1. If leftists voting third party amounts to support for Trump on consequentialist grounds, doesn’t voting and advocating for Hillary Clinton also amount to support for Trump on the exact same grounds?

I made this point recently regarding Jon Chait and got a surprising amount of pushback. Surprising, that is, because the logic is unassailable. A leftist voter decides to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary in 2016; after Bernie’s defeat, he decides to vote for Jill Stein. This supposedly subtracts a vote from Hillary. I have never understood this logic – a leftist is not a liberal nor necessarily a Democrat, and they no more owe the Democratic candidate a vote than a moderate conservative who also chooses to stay at home. But let’s accept this version of consequentialism in voting: if this is our logic, then people who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary necessarily supported Trump. Because she lost! Hillary lost the election! And no matter what the pink pussy hat brigade still says 8 years later, there is no individual human being more responsible for Trump’s victory than Hillary. She lost! It was her campaign, and she lost! She ignored the Rust Belt and assumed she had key states in the bag, followed Chuck Schumer’s laughable advice, hired Robby Mook’s useless ass, and ran a campaign based on celebrity glitz in an era of rampant inequality. If you voted for Hillary, you backed the wrong horse, and by any consequentialist logic you bear more responsibility than a non-voter. And there were many more Hillary primary voters than these supposed hordes of leftists who refused to vote for her in the general.

Establishment Democrats have tended to hate this type of messaging because it suggests that they have to actually do something economically.

For the Pod Save America boys, it seems that it’s always November 2000 and that every left challenger to machine Democrat dominance is a Florida lefty who voted for Ralph Nader. What’s always left out of the 2000 postmortems is that while only 24,000 registered Florida Democrats voted for Nader, more than 300,000 voted for Bush! Gore was such a terrible candidate that a number of Florida Democrats equal to the population of Cincinnati voted for the other team directly. And of course an affirmative vote for Bush is mathematically twice as consequential than a vote cast for Nader. Besides, this 2006 study finds that the core assumption of the “blame Nader” crowd is wrong: Nader’s support was not made up of voters who would have voted for Gore if Nader hadn’t run. A large chunk of Nader’s Florida support came from voters who would have stayed at home absent Nader’s candidacy. You can complain that they’re stupid for that, but asking why a committed anti-Democratic leftist didn’t vote for Gore demonstrates fallacious thinking. What Al Gore could have done is to run a campaign worth voting for. As Jim Hightower pointed out at the time of the election, in his 1992 campaign against George HW Bush, 62% of voters who made less than $50,000 a year voted for Bill Clinton. When Gore ran, he captured only 43% of that demographic. And that’s your election, right there, that’s an actual structural cause of Gore’s defeat – his inability to rally support from poorer voters.

Hightower chalked this erosion up to “four more years of income stagnation and decline for these families under the regime of the Clinton-Gore ‘New Democrats,’” which sounds right to me. Establishment Democrats have tended to hate this type of messaging because it suggests that they have to actually do something economically, which would entail raising taxes and in so doing risk alienating the wealthy donors who have captured the party. The pleasant surprise of the Biden administration has been its willingness to pursue aggressive initiatives that actually address the immense inequality and lower-income stagnation that have been the defining economic story of my lifetime. It’s paying dividends. That kind of domestic-policy aggression was exactly what Barack Obama refused to attempt. He was too busy running for the title of “Most Reasonable President Ever,” which of course was folly while Congressional Republicans burned him in effigy and relentlessly pulled the country right. Being reasonable never got Obama anywhere.

Of course, the most obvious answer for why Obama liberals have been so enamored of the blame Nader/Bernie/Stein voters attitude is that they are substantively opposed to the left-wing economic program such voters support. Second question!

  1. If you pledge to “vote blue no matter who,” promising Democrats your vote no matter who they nominate, what leverage will you ever have over the party? Once you give away your vote for nothing, how do you get any of what you want?

I have been searching for an answer to this question my entire adult life. Here’s how it’s supposed to work. You, as a voter, want things. These are based on self-interest, on moral principle, and assorted other impulses. Representative democracy is supposed to give you an opportunity to pursue such things; you just might not have the votes to get them. But your vote is your voice and, crucially, your leverage. If a candidate or party doesn’t represent your values, won’t pledge to give you what you want, then you withhold your vote from them. They can then decide if your vote and the votes of people who feel the same way as you do are worth pursuing by embracing your preferences. If the number of people who feel the same way as you grows large enough, eventually it becomes very politically expensive to ignore you. Your individual vote is worth very little. But if enough of you feel the same way – well, you can do things like vote en masse for George W. Bush despite your Democratic registration and hand him the presidency. Or you might eventually get the Democrats to implement a policy agenda that broadens their coalition and enables a 50-state strategy instead of piecing together coalitions of disparate groups that you hope turn out in sufficient numbers.

Your vote is your voice and, crucially, your leverage.

Instead, people like me are constantly told to vote blue no matter who, to support Democrats in any election regardless of what those individual Democrats stand for. To do otherwise, supposedly, is to support the Republicans, and because Trump is a particularly inflammatory figure, they emphasize that you’re supporting Trump specifically. (Even if the race in question is for, like, comptroller of Cleveland.) I lived a particularly aggressive version of this, as a young man, as Joe Lieberman was my senator. Liberman represented the repudiation of almost everything I believed in, but the pressure from Connecticut Dems to support him was overwhelming. But he was a neoconservative in all but name and epitomized the cautious, establishmentarian version of Democratic politics that has dominated in my lifetime. So I couldn’t vote for him. Well, they always told us to use the primary process, so we did, and we defeated Joe Lieberman! And for our trouble most of the “blue no matter who” types in Connecticut voted against the Democratic candidate and reelected Lieberman, but not before calling us traitors and anti-Semites. Womp womp!

So here’s the question: once you’ve pledged your vote to a party in perpetuity without any qualifications and with zero expectation of getting anything in return… how do you make that party do what you want? You’ve already promised to give them the only thing they care about. Your vote’s already committed, so why on earth should they move in the direction of your values the slightest bit? It’s like a wife promising to never leave her husband no matter how badly he treats her; if the commitment is real, there’s no reason for him to change his behavior. At all. Am I supposed to believe that the Democratic party – the Bill Clinton, Tom Daschle, Zell Miller Democratic party – is going to give me what I want out of some sense of obligation, when I’ve made it clear I’ll support them no matter what they do, forever? That does not make sense. People love to say that there’s no other choice than a worse choice. But what if the Democrats and Republicans just keep getting worse in tandem? What if the Democrats remain one inch better than the Republicans, forever? How does actual progress happen? How do you get an actually-good option, instead of just “better than the Republicans,” which is the lowest of low bars? I have no idea. I don’t think the people who insist on “vote blue no matter who” have any idea, either.

Of course, as with the idea that third party voters are really votes for Republicans while votes for Democrats who predictably fail are not, this is really about substance, not process. “Vote blue no matter who” people are substantively opposed to the agenda of the left wing. Which is fine, go ahead and advocate for what you advocate. But the idea that leftists should keep voting Democratic in the face of decades of bad Democrat policies, supposedly for their own good, is just a transparent trick. It’s a way to dramatically narrow the in-coalition debate while pretending that you’re just being pragmatic. “You have to support this candidate no matter what, by the way the fact that the candidate agrees with me on everything is mere coincidence.” Try harder.

The idea that leftists should keep voting Democratic in the face of decades of bad Democrat policies, supposedly for their own good, is just a transparent trick.

I’m prepared for these questions to have answers that I don’t like. They do however strike me as very sensible questions, and yet Democrats often react to them with anger. And if we’re going to be in the business of condescending to each other, allow me to point out that for all of the post-2016 election recriminations the Democratic party has still not done essential work in figuring out what went wrong, which of its fundamental assumptions about politics had led it astray, and whether it really benefits them to treat left-wing voters with such unbridled aggression. I don’t listen to a lot of Pod Saved America, but I don’t think those guys have figured it out either. Hillary Clinton was a uniquely bad candidate who earned the nomination thanks to a massive amount of insider advantage, which she received because it was “her turn.” We can now agree that that was bad, right? How do you stop that from happening again? Can we stop caring about “turns”? Looking forward, Trump is a unique threat, but also uniquely vulnerable thanks to his personal instability, the incompetence of the people he surrounds himself with, and his lack of policy coherence. What happens when the Democrats have to again run against candidates who enjoy at least a minimal amount of stability, competence, and a coherent policy agenda? It’s a frightening question.

People keep telling me that the Democrats have actually moved left; for my part, I’ve been saying for awhile now that Biden has cleared the extremely low bar of being the best president of my lifetime. For any of this progress to mean anything, the party has to truly leave its triangulating, center-right, Clintonite past behind it. And to do that it has to ask itself uncomfortable questions.

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