Since late last spring when it seemed likely that progressive and overwhelming Millennial favorite Bernie Sanders would lose the Democratic presidential nomination, a question has been brewing among his supporters. It's not by any means a new question, but it now takes center stage in progressive politics and the conscience of my generation. Can we work within and transform the deeply flawed Democratic Party, or should we instead forge a path independent of a broken system—perhaps through the Green Party? Can we trust Hillary Clinton and the Democrats with our aspirations for ourselves and the world? Do we really have a choice, in this election? Is now the time for a third party vote? And if not, when?
With the election looming nearer—along with the very real threat of a Donald Trump presidency—this discussion has been heating up. This week Hillary Clinton's surrogates, as well as the media and many of her rank-and-file supporters, have been going hard after third party voters—especially Millenials—suggesting that such a choice could only come from childish idealism, white privilege, moral egoism, or a lack of historical awareness (especially as concerns Ralph Nader). As these attacks have unfolded, Hillary has come out with some new policy proposals long championed by both Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein: ending private prisons and (especially important to Millenials) making public universities affordable for everyone.
Attacks from the third party side suggest that Bernie sold out, and anyone now supporting Hillary is either a sellout or operating solely in reaction to the fear of Donald Trump—a fear happily stoked by the establishment Democratic Party.
On both sides fear and anger dominate over optimism—fear of Donald Trump, fear of trusting the Democratic Party again, anger at third party voters for their willingness to throw the election, anger at the establishment for giving us two of the most disliked candidates in history.
The question is about safety, trust, ideals, and more than anything, compromise. We accept that compromise is a necessary part of progress—but how much can we compromise before we've been compromised?
The Win-Win Generation
Despite coming of age in a difficult economy and an era of widespread distrust of both government and corporations, my generation, the Millenials, has a reputation for unflappable idealism.
We're highly skeptical of compromise. Having come of age in the early 2000s, we grew up watching our parents' generation make countless compromises between career and family, work and art, wealth and freedom, thrift and satisfaction, success and happiness. We watched the invasion of Iraq, the housing collapse, the Wall Street bailouts, the growing wealth gap—and we suspected our parents were taken for a ride. We're tired of hearing over and over again—from said parents and teachers and mentors and politicians, often with overtones of bitterness—that we have to make the same hard choices. Well, we're skeptical.
Thanks largely to that stubborn skepticism—and further fueling it—we Millenials have become quite good at finding and creating win-win solutions. We're champions of the ethical for-profit company, the tiny house movement, the sharing economy, the locavore and artisinal food movements. We're thrifty, innovative, collaborative, and somehow—despite the political climate, and to the occasional annoyance of our forebears—pretty optimistic.
As for myself—as a Junior at Hope College the 2008 housing collapse planted in my mind a deep suspicion of our economy and my future within it. The following spring and summer I worked an internship at a software development company. They liked my work and wanted me to return after graduating—clearly the "right" career move, in the orthodoxy of past generations. But I found the work boring and devoid of personal meaning, and the lessons of the housing collapse echoed in my mind. Is this really how things have to be—this division between "work" and "life"? I remember eavesdropping on a phone conversation over the cubicle wall—a former intern who graduated from the same Computer Science department just two years ahead of me, talking to a banker about refinancing his mortgage. (Already.) My future, if I stayed the course.
Long story short, I found a new course. Fast forward to May 2013: I moved into a resource-friendly tiny house I built for myself on money I earned from a small stipend working seasonally at a small non-profit urban organic farm. (No, I'm not trying to become the poster child of generational buzzwords.) While working at a job I cared about and believed in with people I love, I built equity without incurring new debt. Now I live in an affordable house that fits my life like a glove and I've never paid rent higher than $150 a month. As any of my friends could tell you, I certainly haven't freed myself from troubling compromise, but I feel great about the choices I've made and I feel confident that I can keep finding win-win solutions in the future—despite the dubious looks I continue to receive from Boomers and Generation Xers.
Last winter and early spring, while Bernie Sanders' campaign gained momentum much faster than anyone anticipated, the path forward for progressives seemed clear. Bernie had earned our trust with decades of experience on the right side of history as an independent funded by small donors yet demonstrably capable of maneuvering within a two-party system. With his loss and the frustrating revelations of the DNC leaks, the path became murkier, and we've seen increasing bitterness and infighting among Bernie's supporters who share the same values but disagree about their realistic implementation.
I'm not going to tell you how to vote. (Not in this essay, anyway.) But I am going to point out some ideas I think would benefit all of us—win-win solutions for the short- and long-term no matter who you end up supporting.
First of all, let's stop demeaning and shaming one other. Let's not assume that just because I engaged my intelligence and conscience and arrived at one conclusion, someone with another conclusion must be operating from immoral, amoral, foolish, or idiotic grounds. By all means we should explain our positions—and try to convince each other—but with the understanding that others might quite legitimately arrive at different conclusions. After all, if I want to engage someone's intelligence and conscience in a genuine dialogue—and hope she might eventually agree with me whole-heartedly—I must put some faith in her faculties as a fellow human person, and I must be equally willing to listen and learn as to speak and teach.
Let's stop making baseless claims about the other candidates. Most of us are guilty of spreading misinformation from time to time—after all, it's much easier to see and share information than to verify it—so let's make a point to investigate claims, gently call each other out for propagating misinformation, and, when we sooner or later realize we were wrong about something, let's set the record straight. (No, Dr. Jill Stein is not anti-vaccination. And if you're going to claim that Hillary Clinton murdered someone, please provide some evidence.)
To the major voices on both sides of the issue: stop talking about it as if it's black-and-white. Bernie Sanders and Robert Reich: please speak plainly with us on our legitimate reservations about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. (Why would you think that suddenly going silent on those reservations after the nomination would help us trust her? Instead you're eroding your own credibility.) Jill Stein: stop equating Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump. (You can and should talk about the two-party trap without this reductionistic logic.) All of you: respect our intelligence, acknowledge the valid concerns on both sides, and have the humility and decency to admit that the answer is not universally self-evident.
Why should we let an election like this drive a wedge through the progressive movement? Passionate people with almost identical goals and values are tearing each other apart, calling each other egoists, sellouts, crybabies, shills, idiots, fearmongers. This behavior is undoubtedly a lose-lose situation. Who profits from progressive infighting? The corporate wing of the Democratic Party and especially the Republican Party. The paltry wins we might make by bullying others into submission are certainly not worth the damage to the soul of the movement.
We should be allies. If we can't talk together, we can't work together. And we must work together to build a win-win solution for the future.
An Abusive Relationship
I want to cast a strong vote for progressive, green, democratic, peaceful, pro-black, anti-corporate values with Jill Stein. I want to cast a strong (safe) vote against Donald Trump with Hillary Clinton. Both choices pull at my conscience. Either could mean "voting my conscience", and neither leaves me with a clean conscience. But why is this a necessary compromise in the first place?
Bernie Sanders and many others say this isn't the year for a "protest vote"—which apparently means a third party vote. But there's a missing piece to the argument—when is the year for a third party vote? Fairly or not, Ralph Nader and the Green Party took much of the blame for Al Gore's narrow loss in the 2000 election. That was a very different situation—was that the time for a third party vote? Can Bernie Sanders point us to the right time for a third party vote—aside from his own elections?
The cornerstone of Hillary's campaign is Donald Trump—which makes sense because for many people, myself included, fear of Donald Trump is the most convincing reason to vote for Hillary Clinton. It's a valid fear. But when a campaign's primary tactics are fear-mongering and—to an increasing degree—shaming and bullying, the relationship is no longer built on trust.
After the DNC leaks—exposing a major violation of trust for Bernie supporters—the Democratic Party declined to rebuild genuine trust and instead launched into a display of blame-throwing, grandiosity, self-righteousness, and fear-mongering. Since then I've often compared them to an abusive partner of the progressive movement. By dangling the threats of a harsh world filled with scary people—and never creating or allowing any other form of safety net—a protector-abuser maintains control over his codependent.
The DNC tells us we have no choice but to vote for Clinton—because who then will protect us from Trump? It's a two-party system!—but like any protector-abuser they've blocked or stigmatized the possibility of any safety net outside the DNC. When Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign tipped the scales in favor of George W. Bush, the DNC blamed Nader and his passionate supporters while doing nothing to create a smoother, safer path to viability for third parties. For me, this is a major source of wariness—can the DNC really secure my loyalty just by parading its worse opponent? And if so, where does it end? How do we escape the cycle of abuse?
"It's a two-party system!", we hear again and again. By why does it remain a two-party system? Only because the two major parties—and our own self-fulfilling codependent groupthink—keep it that way, prolonging the abuse.
Some progressives believe we can heal the relationship with the Democratic Party. Others believe we should file for divorce. Either way, like anyone moving forward from an abusive relationship, we need a safety net.
The Win-Win Compromise: Ranked-Choice Voting
To be free (in or outside the relationship) we need a clear, safe, stable path to viability for new parties. No spoiler effect, and no shaming or fear-mongering against third party candidates or voters. That path is ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is a simple change to the election process. Instead of choosing one candidate, you rank them all from first choice to last choice. The results are tabulated in a series of simulated run-off elections. Each round, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. The votes that candidate received are then re-allocated to those voters' next choices. Simulated runoffs continue until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, a clear majority.
If we had ranked-choice voting in this election, I might vote Stein, Clinton, Johnson, then Trump. As she's currently polling in fourth, let's suppose Stein had the fewest first-choice votes. She'd be eliminated, and then my vote would transfer to Clinton. Thus I can vote for my favorite candidate (Stein) while also protecting the safe bet (Clinton) from my worst nightmare (Trump).
In the municipalities where ranked-choice voting currently exists—including San Francisco, Berkeley, Minneanapolis, and St. Paul—citizens report kinder, gentler elections. Candidates think twice about running attack ads because they can't afford to alienate an opponent's core supporters. After all, they might need those supporters' second- or third-choice votes. Likewise, conversations among voters become more balanced and civil.
For the Democratic Party and the Green Party, ranked-choice voting is largely a win-win situation. Most importantly, it eliminates the spoiler effect. Democrats and Greens alike no longer have to worry about Green Party voters "giving their vote" to Republicans. For the most part, they all can count on Green Party voters (and many Libertarian Party voters) ranking the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate.
Ranked-choice elegantly solves the often-agonizing dilemma between idealistic voting and pragmatic voting. You can do both.
Ranked-choice voting unifies the progressive voice. Whether you put the Democratic candidate or the Green candidate or another candidate as your first choice, you can still ally yourself with people holding similar goals and values, even if they choose differently. And unlike our current system there's no incentive for infighting.
By eliminating the spoiler effect, ranked-choice voting provides a smooth on-ramp for new and growing political parties—and a smooth off-ramp where parties that have overstayed their welcome or consistently betrayed their constituents can fail gracefully.
And thus ranked-choice voting gives us a safety net as we proceed, cautiously, in partnership with the Democratic Party. We can also build the Green Party, simultaneously, without risking a repeat of the 2000 election. No party can hold us hostage, claiming that we have no other choice in the face of an awful alternative.
If the Democratic Party lives up to its promises of progressivism—great! Let's continue the relationship. But if the party sells us out we can stop supporting it without risking exposure to worse options. Either the party will change or the relationship will die—slowly and safely.
Ranked-choice voting is already a part of the Green Party platform. Many prominent politicians including Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Howard Dean have also expressed support. The State of Maine will vote this November on adopting it for statewide elections. A national ranked-choice system would take time to implement—especially because, for it to work properly, we'd also need to eliminate the long-obsolete electoral college. But we must pursue it.
If the DNC wants to serve as a legitimate vessel for progressive and democratic values it ought to make ranked-choice voting a major part of its own platform—and Hillary Clinton's campaign. Put the issue front-and-center on the public consciousness. Build ranked-choice voting as a mandate we can support.
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Democratic Party: if you really love us, set us free. Stop preying on our fears. Stop shaming us for seeking safety elsewhere. If you want a real relationship, build trust by helping build us a safety net. And if you want the Millenial vote, stop appealing to the bad compromises your generation has made again and again. Show us a win-win solution for the elections of the future.