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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally in Greensboro, N.C., on Sept. 13. (Photo: Rob Brown / AP)

Don't Mistake a Protest Vote for a Strategy

Tom Gallagher

Last week, I received the same response from a crowd of Bernie Sanders backers that I had seen another group of his supporters give the man himself the prior week in Philadelphia – they jeered me. I was kind of flattered, actually. In Bernie’s case, the negative reaction was in response to his support for the election of Hillary Clinton, against whom we had all campaigned for so long. In my case, I didn’t even argue against voting for Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, in California, a “non-battleground” state, but I did express the hope that no one who did so would mistake a protest vote for a strategy. In other words, we shouldn’t abandon the Democratic Party – where we may not feel loved – for the Green Party, where we may feel better, but go nowhere.

I found a bit of personal irony in the situation, in that I had come in for a quite similar response just down the hall in the very same building a little over four years ago. That night I sat on a panel with Rocky Anderson, a former mayor of Salt Lake City then seeking the presidency on the Justice Party ticket. What had met with audience disapproval then was my argument that, while my co-panelist seemed like a fine candidate, the problem was that if we had really wanted to effectively take on Barack Obama, what Anderson or someone else should have done was enter the Democratic primaries. Anderson ultimately did not make it onto the ballot in California; he received 86 write-in votes in San Francisco, some no doubt from that audience. He got 43,018 nationwide, 0.03 percent of the total.

Obviously what I had to say that night had precious little to do with it, but it is nonetheless the fact that four years later Sanders – despite being the longest serving independent in U.S. congressional history – took the plunge into the Democratic primaries and emerged with over thirteen million votes and two million campaign contributors. And I can hope that maybe at least a few of the quieter individuals in the audience took my point that night. If saying what needs to be said entails some boos, so be it.

(Besides I’m a substitute teacher by day, so no matter how rude an audience may be, they’re never going to match what one encounters in middle school.)

So far as the election goes, I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s necessary to share the attitude of Sara Silverman, the avid Sanders supporter in the primaries who told the Democratic Nominating Convention that she planned to vote for Clinton “with gusto.” Having participated in the process all the way to being a convention delegate, I will support the winner – although I’ve often been a safe-state, protest voter myself – but unlike Silverman, for me it’ll be more like vote for Clinton and take two aspirins – or maybe a shot of tequila. Do I have more in common politically with Jill Stein than Hillary Clinton? Absolutely. And it pains me to no end that we didn’t put the candidate that virtually every poll said was stronger out there against Trump in the final. But the point is that it was Sanders rather than Stein who took the road that leads somewhere in the long run, even if it may leave us feeling a bit empty between now and November.

As a Ralph Nader supporter in 2000 (and constant defender of the man ever since), I once hoped it would be possible to utilize the particulars of the Electoral College system to build an alternative starting in the “safe states.” Unfortunately, I found myself with no choice but to conclude that it was not. (And also came to believe that, were it not for Harry Truman’s upset win over Tom Dewey, our predecessors on the left would have reached that conclusion following Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign.)

Certainly, there’s little in modern history to suggest that Stein or any other third party candidate is likely heading for a breakthrough. Since the Republican Party was founded in 1856, it has failed to finish in the top two in a presidential election just once – in 1912, when former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt ran as a “third party” candidate and dropped the sitting President William Taft to third place. Over that same period of time, the Democratic Party has never failed to finish in the top two. The last “third party” presidential candidate of the left to receive as much as three percent was Robert La Follette in 1924 – and he was a U.S. Senator!

The future, of course, can always be different. And yet the contrast between this history of failure and the stunning success of the Sanders campaign could hardly be starker. Yes, success, my fellow broken-hearted Berners: winning forty-five percent of the delegates the first time we tried this sort of thing was a success beyond our wildest dreams at the outset. So puuuhleeeze – let’s not let the corporate-connected Democratic Party powers-that-be convince us that they’re too powerful, too entrenched, or even too corrupt for us to beat them next time around. They’d like nothing better than for us to go off with the Greens or some other party hoping to maybe someday crack five percent in a presidential election – while they continue to control a party that actually sends people to the White House.

For November, let’s think about all of those other important races down the ballot. And even if you do opt for Jill Stein in a “safe state,” let’s start thinking about the 2020 presidential primaries.


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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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