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Protest Votes

Faye Dunaway

I remember reading part of Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative in college, and I was struck by one observation he made. When he finally reached freedom in Massachusetts, he expected to see that everyone there lived more modestly than whites had in the South. Without slavery, he figured, all people would be poor, but he accepted this was the price a society had to pay for freedom. He was genuinely surprised, though, to discover that most people in New Bedford didn’t seem impoverished at all. They lived in tidy, clean homes. They had decent clothing, good food. Society and the economy seemed to function quite well.

Just as slaveowners created a false narrative that slavery in the antebellum South was necessary for the rest of “us” to have a good life, today it is corporations, the 1%, and their paid-for politicians who tell a similar lie to avoid paying wages that allow employees to live above the poverty level. But just as 19th century New Bedford had enough money to go around, oppression today isn’t necessary for society to function, either.

We can raise the minimum wage to a level that allows workers to pay rent. We can provide family leave. We can guarantee overtime pay for overtime work, sick leave for sick employees. We can even guarantee those employees, their families, and their neighbors full access to healthcare.

My moderate Democratic friends tell me such an agenda would scare moderate Republicans away from Democratic candidates, and we must elect Democrats at all costs. But to me a win that doesn’t improve the health and living conditions of the people who made that win possible doesn’t feel very victorious.

Frederick Douglass described the practice by slaveowners of granting slaves a holiday between Christmas and the New Year, a time to relax and get drunk. The reasoning behind this “generosity” was that allowing the tiniest bit of relief would appease slaves and keep them in line the rest of the year.

Democratic leaders claim that if we ask too much, we won’t get anything, creating another false narrative far too many rank and file Democrats blindly accept.

The DNC likewise offers voters just a bit of counterfeit freedom. But we want the real thing.

Democratic leaders claim that if we ask too much, we won’t get anything, creating another false narrative far too many rank and file Democrats blindly accept. “Do you really believe a progressive can win in Alabama?” one of my friends asked recently, thinking he was posing a rhetorical question.

“Yes, I do,” I answered.

“How can you say that?” he demanded in frustration. “Even a moderate Democrat has trouble in the South.”

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“Moderate Democrats have trouble BECAUSE they’re moderate. All you’re offering people is a choice between Republican and Republican Lite. Why would anyone choose a diet drink that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste over the real thing? Diet Coke isn’t going to beat regular Coke in a taste test. So we’d do better to offer 7-Up. Or Dr. Pepper. Or orange soda. Or sparkling water. Something other than Diet Republican.”

“But you’ve resigned yourself to a lifetime of protest votes!”

“Haven’t you resigned yourself to a lifetime of capitulation?”

“Mature people understand that politics is all about compromise.”

I don’t disagree on that point, but capitulation and compromise are not the same thing, even if they both start with a C.
Progressives can win, both in primaries and general elections, but when so many moderates refuse even to try, neither the progressives nor the moderates will win. The moment I say that, of course, the comeback is always, “Then you should vote with us.” It’s never, “Okay, then we’ll vote with you.”

We shouldn’t cede all our power in the primary, leaving us with little to promote in the general. It is not a winning strategy to give in even before you try. You’ve lost even if you do manage to win the election.

Automatic voter registration already exists in other parts of the world. Medical aid in dying already exists. Guaranteed income already exists. Fair and transparent campaign finance laws already exist. These things are not part of a naive Utopian fantasy.

There’s a scene in the film “Voyage of the Damned” where the character played by Faye Dunaway reacts to the double suicide of a young Jewish woman and her German on-board romantic partner. Dunaway’s character is well aware of the danger the shipload of Jewish refugees fleeing a genocidal regime face, but she is disgusted that these two lovers willfully chose death over fighting for their lives. She says something disparaging like, “They behaved like little children afraid of the dark.”

Likewise, moderate Democratic leaders today are committing political suicide by pushing candidates who generate lackluster enthusiasm. For God’s sake, I think, fight! At least some of those forsaken refugees aboard the St. Louis survived the war. The only ones who even had a chance, of course, were those who didn’t willfully give up along the way.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend