Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Jill Stein: The Ultimate Ideological Compromise

Last week, I explored the issue of whether leftists "should" vote for Jill Stein. Many people on the left frame the choice as being between ideological purity -- the candidate whose positions are closer to their ideal candidate -- and realism about who can get elected. My argument was that (a) part of the preference calculation for picking one candidate over another should include the realistic effects of that choice (here, making it more likely Trump comes into office), and (b) while one can decide that said effects are less important than avoiding the moral compromise of voting Clinton, that decision is substantively awful and is condemnation-worthy in itself.

But while I still agree with that analysis, I also think it gives Stein way too much credit, in that it accepts the basic suggestion that Stein is a non-compromised, purely progressive choice hampered only by the fact that she stands no chance of victory.* In reality, many of Stein's positions range from the objectively terrible to the merely incoherent. The "realism" argument isn't just about political realism but policy realism -- Jill Stein swaps out actual progressive reforms in favor of vague fulminations about how the "system" is all that stands between us and our hearts' desires. It's the revenge of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics. To the extent that progressives have an ideological commitment to, say, basic precepts of science, it is not an uncompromised position to punch the ballot for a candidate who plays footsie with anti-Vaxxers and rejects the scientific consensus on GMOs.

To take one example near to my heart, Jill Stein's energy platform calls for moving completely to clean power sources by 2030. That sounds great; I'm all for aggressive efforts to promote clean power. But in this call she excludes nuclear power and (if we take the Green Party platform seriously) hydroelectric as well, without which the move to clean power is essentially impossible (unlike, say, wind or solar, nuclear power and hydroelectric power are "dispatchable" sources of power -- they can run at any time as needed, as opposed to only when the sun shines or the wind blows. This attribute is absolutely essential for grid stability, which is why we couldn't just build a lot more solar plants to replace our fossil fuel generators). This isn't a more ideologically pure energy package that suffers from being a political non-starter; it's an ideologically blinkered energy package that suffers from being utterly unmoored from any understanding of how the electricity grid works, much less how to leverage it in favor of our environmental goals.

To put it another way, the choice isn't between a flawed progressive who can get elected and a great progressive who can't. It's between a flawed progressive who can get elected and an even more flawed progressive who can't. Voting for Jill Stein is a massive ideological compromise for anyone who thinks of themselves progressive. And one gets the sense that it only feels like a "pure" choice because Stein stands no chance of being elected; the vote isn't even "for Stein" as much as it is "against the system."

And that logic hammers home another reality: The basis of Jill Stein's appeal is more or less the same as that which pulls people to Donald Trump. Both are seeking to harness an inchoate anti-establishmentarian rage that need not (and in many ways prefers not) tie itself to the world of facts and data. Everything from workable policy agendas to a basic consonance with the factual world can be dismissed as a sort of establishment-gotcha. It is to the great credit of the American left that Stein looks like she'll only muster support from the left-most 2% of the electorate or so, while Trump will capture the votes of at least the right-most 46%.

I doubt that most left-wingers are going to end up voting for Jill Stein. And it strikes me as equally unlikely that they will be the ones to tilt the election over to Donald Trump (though the spectre of Nader continues to linger). But regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins come November, if you're a Jill Stein supporter you don't get the consolation prize of knowing you kept your ideological purity intact. You compromised your integrity just as much as anyone else did.

* Some might object and argue that Stein, while not perfect, is on net a better progressive than Hillary Clinton. I'm not sure I'd even cede that, but I'll also stand my ground on the argument as presented. If voting Jill Stein is conceded to be an ideological compromise, it isn't clear how the argument against voting for Hillary Clinton on the grounds that one is tired of "compromising" sustains itself. At most it could be an argument of degree -- I'll concede up to Jill Stein, but not further -- but that's rarely how it is presented and lacks quite a bit of the self-righteous purity that normally drives the claim.

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