Treat the General Election Like a Primary
By David Swanson
Because I'm convinced that the current occupant of the White
House is off-the-charts, beyond-the-pale, outside-the-normal-range
worse than any of his predecessors, I am continually amazed
when I meet people who oppose Bush in the strongest terms
and then indicate their plans to vote for Nader or another
third-party candidate - or to not vote at all, but certainly
not to pour their hearts and souls into winning votes for
Kerry. Of course, I agree with many criticisms of Kerry, but
I can't understand this insistence on treating a general election
as if it were a primary.
I've found my most effective argument to convince the Kerry-Is-a-Lesser-Evil-But-That's-Still-Evil
crowd that I share their goals is that I spent the better
part of a year trying quite unsuccessfully to persuade Americans
not to treat the Democratic primaries as if they were a general
election. Rather than voting for their favorite candidate
- the one who they thought would make the strongest nominee
against Bush - many primary voters backed whoever the media
dubbed "electable" and whoever was in the lead following the
previous state's primary - thus giving substance to the concept
of "momentum," which ought not to exist in the primaries.
Another concept that makes no sense in primaries but cropped
up in all of them is "spoiler." The primaries don't use instant
runoff voting, although those states that use caucuses provide
on a small scale the opportunity to switch your vote if your
first choice lacks sufficient support. But the primaries are
not winner-take-all in each state. Voting for the candidate
you like best does not spoil anything for the others and,
if your candidate loses, your vote can still influence the
If you do not just have a favorite, but have strong preferences
for a second choice or third choice, then there are cases
in which you could reasonably vote against your first choice
in a primary, but that sort of calculation did not seem to
arise much among those who said they needed to vote for the
leader with the momentum and show a united front against Bush.
When the media asked whether it helped the party for candidates
to disagree with each other, I always said "This is a primary.
There's going to be a nominee no matter what, and we'll all
support whoever the nominee is."
I worked for one of the candidates because his views were
closest to my own and because I thought he would make the
strongest challenger to Bush. In recent weeks both The
New Republic and The Nation have printed columns
complaining that the Democrats can't come up with ideas like
free preschool or free college, both of which were part of
my candidate's platform - or what would have been a platform
had not the media, including both of those magazines - blacked
I spoke to hundreds who said my candidate was their favorite
(and I know the same happened to several other candidates),
but that they needed to be "pragmatic" and vote for whoever
was ahead. It would have been exactly as pragmatic to have
stayed home and not voted, which is of course what most people
did and always do in the most important part of our political
process, the primaries.
Now it's the general election, and an astounding number
of those complaining that they have to choose between evil
and evil did not even vote in the primaries. But they and
many who did vote in the primaries are now prepared to treat
the general election like a primary. Of course, so is Ralph
Nader. But we have a system in which it's winner-take-all
in each state and in which the media will not support a progressive
I agree with much of Ralph Nader's platform. I voted for
him four years ago in a state (Virginia) that I didn't think
Gore had a chance in. But it's too early now to be writing
off states like Virginia for Kerry, and getting rid of Bush
is too important for us not to be pouring our energies into
registering and turning out Democrats in the most highly contested
states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. Promoting a third party
presidential candidate makes no sense even for the growth
of a third party. Electing progressive Congress members would
be wiser, since it can actually be done.
Bush has the worst economic record since Hoover at least,
and the worst foreign affairs record ever - just count the
former allies he's alienated and the American civilians killed,
or look at the increased danger he has put us and others in.
Bush's secrecy, corruption, and open contempt for the citizens
who never elected him outdoes Nixon or any other.
We have created a full-time aggressive war-and-oil economy
and defunded and attacked jobs, schools, health care, and
the environment. We have corporations writing public policy
and paying little or no taxes. The power of an ordinary person
in our politics, like the value of the minimum wage, the opportunity
to move ahead, and the wealth of working people, is plummeting
alongside our civil rights and the wall between church and
state. George W. Bush is a danger to this planet, and it is
our responsibility to vote him out if we can't impeach him.
Senator Kerry would not pack the courts with Confederates
and fascists. Kerry would not turn the EPA against the environment,
OSHA against workplace safety, or the FCC against open communication.
Kerry would move us in the direction of protecting the environment,
in the direction of women's rights, away from government secrecy,
and toward an economy in which jobs and paychecks matter,
not just tax cuts for multi-millionaires.
Kerry was not the first choice for all of us, but Bush was
not the first choice for many who still support him and understand
what a general election is. We have two choices now, and the
gap between them this time is wider than usual, not narrower.
We have an unelected pirate in the White House. We can replace
him with a respectable Democrat if we put our minds to it.
Why would we work on anything else right now?