Tuesday's vote will be the first time in my life that my vote for president actually counts for something. Thanks to my state moving its primary up to Super Tuesday. This is also an especially confusing primary with unbelievably high stakes. In short: trump thinks he can just rig the election by trading US policy away to foreign authoritarian governments in exchange for personal gain in the form of election aid. Republicans are protecting him from facing any consequences for this abuse of power. If the president can do that, are we still a democracy? If it's not already too late to save democracy -- which it might be -- our last best chance to save it is by doing the impossible and winning this fall despite the election being rigged against us.

So, I've spent an unusual amount of time being undecided and agonizing about who to vote for. Let's start with what I'm not considering in my vote: I don't like any of these candidates. It's OK, I don't need to like any of these candidates. I don't need to have a beer with them, I don't need to feel they get me on a personal level, etc. I made the mistake of letting myself get romanced by Obama in 2008, which just made the inevitable disappointment hurt all the more.

Somebody asked me who I would want to be president, if I could have anybody I wanted, and wasn't just voting for lesser-evil. My honest answer is "Nobody". That is, no one person should ever be able to have the amount of power that the US President currently has, and we should seriously rein the presidency way back in, so that it's not a deadly weapon lying around waiting to fall into the wrong hands like it did in 2016.

Presidents are war criminals: Every president of my lifetime has been guilty of things that we would rightly consider war crimes if anybody else did them.

Therefore, we don't vote in order to get a good person into office, we vote to keep the worst people out of office. I wish we had ranked-choice voting, which would make multiple parties viable, but as long as we don't have it, I believe it's most important to use your vote against the greatest evil. Sitting it out in order to keep your hands clean is actually morally indefensible.

So yes, I'll vote for any other eligible human being over Trump. No question. Like, pick somebody at random out of a phone book; at most they'll be the second-worst war criminal running for the position.

Now that we've set our expectations at rock bottom, let's strategize.

Out of the candidates on offer, I think Warren probably has the best policies. But it doesn't matter, because she has a poor matchup against trump in the midwest. Doesn't matter how good her policies are if she can't win. (Is this due to sexism? Yes, of course it is. But, unless you have a way to replace our electorate with a less sexist before November, the "why" doesn't matter to our voting strategy.)

Policies don't matter unless you win. I'm not very optimistic about the chances of any Democrat, because:

  • We know we won't have a fair election, since trump has already tried to rig the game by trading foreign policy away in exchange for help rigging the election. Republicans helped him get away with it, sending a clear message that he's above the law and can do whatever he wants, so he will definitely be attempting more election-rigging schemes after this one, if he hasn't already.

  • We know Russia meddled before, and Mitch McConnell successfully prevented Congress from doing anything at all to defend election security, so we must expect Russia to meddle again.

  • Even if the democrat overcomes voter suppression, the electoral college, misinformation, and whatever foreign help trump ropes in to help him rig the election, to actually win? What are the chances trump actually steps down? I don't think he will, I think he'll just declare the election invalid, declare himself president-for-life, republicans support him and at that point

  • And even if the democrat actually became president, the republicans in the senate would rather burn down the country than let a democrat accomplish anything. imagine their policy of total obstruction to obama multiplied by ten. Even with 60 senators Obama could barely get anything done , and 60 D senators is probably never happening again.

  • In none of these scenarios does it make the tiniest bit of difference what policies the Democrat had. Not a single one is becoming law under our broken system.

(Am I contradicting myself, by saying both "the presidency has too much power" and "the president can't get anything done"? Not necessarily -- the power the presidency has is such that it's very easy to use it for bad things, like starting wars or detaining immigrants without trial, and very hard to use it for good things, like fixing climate change or inequality. Most of the actually-beneficial applications of the federal government run through Congress, which is broken, while the end-run-around-Congress, executive-order stuff is mostly crude and destructive.)

So: since no president is a good president, and policies don't matter, and our sole reason for voting is to unseat trump, then our sole concern must be who has the best chance of unseating trump. This is the only question that matters.

Sanders and Biden both have good match-ups against trump in current polling, but the question is who has better polling in November after the next 8 months of republican attacks. And that is, in fact, unknowable. There's the rub.

I don't know which candidate has the best chance, but I know who has the worst chance: "bernie plurality but not majority, contested convention gives the nomination to somebody else, the base perceives them as illegitimate and stays home". To avoid that, is it better to vote for Sanders (in hopes he gets an outright majority) or against Sanders (in hopes somebody else takes the lead)? That's been the biggest question on my mind as I watched the early primaries. The calculus has been changing after every primary, which is why i've been waiting until the last minute to see which way everybody else is jumping. Despite Biden's big win in South Carolina it seems Sanders is still the front-runner, so voting for him seems to be the best way to avoid the contested convention scenario.

You'd think Biden or Bloomberg being more "moderate" has better chances than Sanders. But...

you put Bloomberg up against Trump and I think most people say "Two corrupt, racist, self-dealing New York billionaires? Why even bother voting?" and stay home. Bloomberg is the "run somebody as similar as possible to our hated enemy who we say is destroying the country" strategy. Last time we tried that was John Kerry and he did so poorly, he was our only popular vote loss since 1992. It's a bad strategy because it makes us look like we don't believe what we say.

Biden, meanwhile, has a lot of weaknesses. His best argument is "Obama trusted me". his second best argument is "i'm a harmless old white man who makes people feel safe". But, i think he lacks the killer instinct to survive what will probably be the dirtiest smear campaign in history. I think there's a good chance he just reacts like a deer in headlights. My wife had a great way of describing it: "Biden's a bad debater because he reacts to being attacked with petulance, which is the worst possible look for a presidential candidate."

There's also the fact that he's exactly as corrupt as a typical politician. Which is far less corrupt than trump, but still not what you'd call clean. hypocritical as it was for trump to go after Biden's son's cushy job in Ukraine, and as illegal as it was to make foreign aid contingent on election help, and much as Biden's son has been "cleared of wrongdoing"... republicans might be hypocrites but they're not wrong to consider it sketchy.

Biden also touched a lot of women without their permission. Like the Ukraine thing, he's nowhere near as bad as trump, but trump has no shame and is not afraid to be hypocritical going after his enemies for things he himself is guilty of. You better believe it's going to be a thing.

The best pro-Biden argument I can think of is: black democratic primary voters support him quite strongly. And, at risk of being stereotypical, I think black democratic primary voters tend to be pretty pragmatic and realistic. And they tend to show up. Following their lead is not a bad idea.

Sanders of course has the obvious weakness that the smear campaign is already written, and it only needs one word. For the next 8 months, every media outlet is going to be the word "socialist" on loop 24/7, and that's going to erode his lead, because Americans are trained to stop thinking and panic when they hear the word "socialist". This is the single most worrying thing and the best reason to vote against him.

Sanders is also hella old. Whoever he picks as VP had better be good because there's decent odds they'd be taking over.

Anyway, that said, I'm voting for Sanders not because I like him -- I don't, really -- but entirely because of the electability argument. This is a bit counterintuitive, since the conventional wisdom is Sanders is less electable because he's "extreme left" (only relative to our extremely skewed standards, I'd argue). To explain the electability argument for Sanders, I first need to lay some groundwork, so forgive me a detour into theory.

I believe the "rules" of American politics that we'd gotten used to over the previous 4 decades have stopped applying, and 2016 is when we all suddenly noticed that. Nobody knows what the new rules are, yet. Maybe the new rules are just "democracy loses out to authoritarianism", but let's consider some alternate possibilities:

  • The optimistic view is that trump proved the middle ("centrism", "moderation") no longer has any power -- the Cold War neoliberal consensus is finally dead! -- and the bright side is, that creates an opportunity for the left as well as the right. In this view, the old "centrist" status quo (i.e. neoliberalism) is so unpopular that we might actually have better chances with a "socialist" than a centrist.

  • The pessimistic view: that trump is actually just a continuation of politics-as-usual; he's as racist and corrupt and authoritarian as the republicans have been since nixon, the only difference is that trump isn't hiding it, he's not bothering to pretend otherwise. Meaning: trump winning despite being an open white supremacist doesn't mean somebody outside the mainstream can win; it just means that white supremacy has never actually been outside the mainstream.

But let's go back to the hypothesis that the "middle" no longer exists. I've seen some interesting studies suggesting that the "moderate" voter is a myth -- typical swing voters actually hold a mix of right-wing-extremist and left-wing-extremist views. Or actually, we need to do away with the terms "left" and "right", because this is at least a 2-dimensional model. Think of the cliche 4-quadrant chart with "socially liberal/conservative" and "fiscally liberal/conservative" as two axes. These two axes sort of, but not exactly, map to "rich/poor voters" and "white christian native-born voters" / "any other race/religion/immigration status". ("Socially liberal/conservative" being largely a euphemism for "how much do you hate immigrants?" and similar questions.)

To hugely oversimplify:

Democrats win when they make a cross-racial coalition of the poor/working/middle class against the rich.

Republicans win when they make a cross-class coalition of white people against minorities.

In this model, the "white working class" is the swing vote, NOT because they're "moderate". But because they're at the intersection of "socially conservative" and "fiscally liberal" and therefore the group that both parties need in their coalition to win.

Within that quadrant, there's a lot of voters who, to put it very crudely, want policies that benefit poor people and white people because they're white and poor. Their ideal policy would be "The New Deal, but minorities aren't allowed to benefit from it." (Which is to say: exactly The New Deal. Look it up some time, the New Deal was loaded with anti-black exclusions. Remember the democrats were the white supremacist party back then.)

In this model, Clinton lost (in the states where their votes count more than our votes) because she didn't offer a good enough economic story to make that class-based coalition happen. She represented the economic status quo. I think a lot of the swing quadrant looked at Clinton and thought "her economic policies will be the same as trump's so i might as well vote based on 'cultural issues' i.e. my resentment of immigrants".

(Wait a minute, there are four quadrants in this model, right? The opposite quadrant ('socially liberal/fiscally conservative') ought to be just as much swing voters. Problem is, there's not actually that many voters in that quadrant /in the states where votes matter/ (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, etc.) The natural constituency of the quadrant opposite "white working class" would be "wealthy minorities" but they're not numerous. Mostly "socially liberal fiscally conservative" is hugely popular among, like, the pundit class, bloggers, newspaper columnists, etc. who make up a large share of the /writing/ about politics, but they don't have many /votes/ and those votes are mostly in large cities that are overwhelmingly blue anyway. Trump's extreme horribleness pushed more of those voters towards Clinton, but it was a sparser quadrant than its opposite. Not a good trade.)

If this model is right, then Sanders is actually the best positioned to fight for that swing vote quadrant, by focusing on economic and not cultural issues. To lure them away from white supremacy we can't just lecture them, we have to offer them something they like better than white supremacy. Such as tangible improvement in their material economic conditions. Again, yes, I would like these people to be less racist! But much like I said about Warren, unless you have a way of replacing the electorate before November, these are the sordid calculations we have to make.

Finally, I must emphasize that our single biggest enemy is low turnout. More than Russian interference or fake news or anything else, the Democrats lost Pennsylvania/Michigan/Wisconsin to low turnout. Fun fact here is that trump won Wisconsin with fewer votes than Romney lost Wisconsin. Meaning that the biggest problem wasn't Obama-to-trump switchers, it was former Obama voters staying home.

Sanders' best argument is that he could bring the turnout, especially the youth turnout, who might otherwise stay home. I think a lot of people who stayed home for Clinton might stay home for Biden as well.

Are these upsides stronger than the downside of the word "socialist" scaring people? I don't know. It's a huge gamble. But Biden is a gamble too.

Closing thought: even a Sanders presidency doesn't save us, it doesn't fix the big problems. It's likely to be 4 years of Republican sabotage and deadlock and bitter infighting, about which the best can be said is that it was 4 years in which trump couldn't continue his agenda of absolute dictatorship and persecuting immigrants.

What we really need, to address the big problems, is not to be found in presidential politics at all -- if it's to be found anywhere, I think it's to be found in rebuilding the idea of democratic self-governance from the bottom up. We've gotten way too used to politics-as-spectator-sport, just asking someone else to solve our problems and complaining when they don't. My whole life I've been able to sort of coast along assuming democracy would always be there, that somebody else would keep it working, that it didn't need constant defending and renewing. I was wrong! Taking democracy for granted is what allowed it to become so weak that an opportunistic parasite like Trump could take over.

The last few years have forced a really difficult change in my thinking. We need to think of democracy as something we actually construct from the neighborhood level up, as a practice of mutual aid and coalition-building first, with elected officials following after.

Easier said than done! Especially for someone like me, who is really shy about even introducing myself to my neighbors. But we need to do this whether we win or lose this year.

Last modified March 2, 2020, 9:42 a.m..

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