In Praise of Left-Wing Candidates

This piece is cross-posted at Ordinary Times.

I have not been kind to Jill Stein, the US Green Party’s presidential candidate. Other commentators on the left have found equally reasonable points of criticism to direct towards the Stein and her party. There isn’t much left to be said of her candidacy that would influence her unswerving supporters, but I do hope they rethink their vote.

Rather than condemning activists for what I consider a squandered vote, I want to praise candidates like Stein and Sanders against some of the inequitable criticism coming from the left-of-center punditry. Even as we near Election Day, the core criticisms these candidates have articulated against the unfairness in the American economic system is one that should be shouted from every rooftop or message board.

I will unequivocally vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8th, and will do so accepting the litany of problems she and her husband have justifiably garnered over the decades. Trump, and the political forces he has unleashed, provides a very acute and specific threat to our democratic society that simply must be rejected. Defeating an obvious con man, lacking even the rudimentary temperament to function as head of state, must be the duty of liberals, conservatives and socialists alike this fall. A vote for a protest candidate like Stein or Johnson will only embolden the reactionary forces adjoining Trump to continue their fight against the very core of our liberal democracy.

Having said that, there is an unfortunate tendency within Democratic politics to dismiss and disparage the real and legitimate concerns candidates like Sanders and Stein articulate regarding economic and social equality, especially as the election date approaches. Michael Totten, a journalist I highly admire and respect, recently penned a piece for City Journal titled, “Children of the Revolution: The rise of the alt-left.” In it, he recounts the 2016 Democratic Convention:

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that Philadelphia was ground zero for an anti-Clinton insurgency. When I went downtown to pick up my press credentials the day before the convention, furious Sanders supporters swarmed the sidewalks, blocked streets, snarled traffic—and guaranteed overtime pay for local police officers. They chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t vote for Hillary!” They carried placards and signs. CAPITALISM HAS OUTLIVED ITS USEFULNESS, read one. I saw “Bernie 2016” T-shirts everywhere and not a single Hillary shirt. Even without the T-shirts, the Sanders activists were easy to spot. They were the ones who looked like they’d just eaten a sack of lemons. Right in front of Philadelphia’s gorgeous City Hall—it’s the largest in the United States and could fill in for the Paris City Hall in a pinch—a Sanders crowd impersonated a Donald Trump rally, chanting “Lock her up!” and carrying “Hillary for Prison” signs.

Totten goes on the document many of the fringe and problematic views Sanders fans have on domestic and foreign policy issues, adding that these activists are no more palatable to the American electorate than their alt-right brethren in the Trump camp. He concludes:

There’s nothing inevitable in politics, but these delegates, if they take over the Democratic Party in the future, will control the platform and the messaging, and their extreme views, combined with their generation’s startling disregard and even contempt for democratic and broadly liberal principles, will scare the daylights out of moderates in the party and could easily trigger an existential crisis. Don’t think it can happen? Nobody saw the rupture of the Republican Party coming.

While I share Michael’s concerns about peripheral political elements seizing a major party and leading it to electoral and ideological ruin, sweeping aside Bernie and Stein’s voters as wide-eyed extremists is defeating for the long-term wellbeing of our society. For every college student sporting a “Bernie or Bust” shirt that forced my eyes to roll, I knew half a dozen tradesmen who threw their support behind his populist, social-democratic ticket. I have friends who are veterans, church leaders and small business owners who saw in the Sanders campaign a chance to move the discussion within the Democratic Party towards addressing the staggering economic inequality and injustice perpetuated against working people.

None of the aforementioned individuals will be supporting Stein, but that is beside the point. Watching the last few weeks of the presidential campaign unfold, one might assume the United States is facing few problems based on the focus of the media’s conversation. We have heard a lot about crotch-grabbing and campaign emails, but almost nothing on the snowballing influence of China in Asia or climate change. These persistent issues were eschewed in favor of tabloid points during the three presidential debates, let alone a deeper discussion about the economic forces working against Americans. Rightly or not, an average citizen concerned with the direction America is embarking socially and economically saw little to dissuade them from the view that the major political candidates are simply uninterested in these concerns.

I am not an idealist; I believe that compromise and concession is central to a functioning pluralistic democratic society. Believing that a single individual can rise to power and magically will your vision into power leads to disappointment and tyranny; the center should push back against the idealistic demands of its more radical wings. Yet, a party that is willing to compromise on any and all issues for the sake of expediency and power is nothing to praise. Stein and Sander’s voters want to guarantee that issues of economic and social justice are not primary season talking points, quickly dismissed as November approaches. For that, we should do more than praise these candidate’s arguments. We should engage them.