Who I’m Supporting

It is, my editor tells me, the time of year for political endorsements.  And my email inbox is quickly filling up with the same (thanks David Segal).

Actually, it’s past time, since the election is upon us. But I’m told that it’s better late than never, so here goes.

First, these are the State House candidates supported by Clean Water Action/Vote Environment, my favorite of the boards on which  I’m honored to sit:

Gayle Goldin State Senate 3
Dominick Ruggerio State Senate 4
Adam Satchell State Senate 9
Teresa Paiva Weed State Senate 13
Ryan Pearson State Senate 19
Josh Miller State Senate 28
David Bates State Senate 32
Catherine Cool Rumsey State Senate 34
Edith Ajello State House 1
Chris Blazejewski State House 2
Maria Cimini State House 7
Joe Almeida State House 12
Arthur Handy State House 18
David Bennett State House 20
Frank Ferri State House 22
Teresa Tanzi State House 34
Scott Guthrie State House 28
Lisa Tomasso State House 29
Donna Walsh State House 36
Larry Valencia State House 39
Jeremiah O’Grady State House 46
Stephen Casey State House 50
Linda Finn State House 72
Deb Ruggiero State House 74


Further up the food chain, I will support Sheldon Whitehouse, who has been almost everything I want in a Senator.  (Especially for his willingness to take a public stand on reforming Senate rules to reduce the power of individual senators to bollix up the works.)  On financial reform, civil liberties, and a host of other issues, he has set the bar high, and cleared it. [n.b. updated this paragraph, see below]

I’m also supporting David Cicilline, and will spend election day helping get out his voters.  About Cicilline, as I’ve written before, I think there were many people responsible for Providence’s fiscal condition at the end of 2010, and by going on the record blaming Cicilline they managed to evade taking any responsibility for their own actions.  I’m not sure I would have used that word to describe a city in the throes of taking huge fiscal hits from the state, but would a city in less than “excellent” condition have been able to withstand the draconian and sudden state aid cuts of 2010 without going broke?  Once again, I find it challenging to think of a politician besides Al Gore who has been so unfairly tarred, and I like and admire the way Cicilline has conducted himself in Congress.  I will support him without reservation.

In the second district, I find a hard choice for me.  I admire Abel Collins and think he’s very obviously the best of the three candidates for the office.  But experience tells me that the route to a fairer and more just government and economic system will not travel through third party bids.  When the pen is actually in my hand on election day, I might well vote for Abel because of how I feel about him with respect to the other candidates, but I haven’t actively supported his campaign because of how I feel about third parties.

Is a Third Party the Way Forward?

The fact is that the structure of our politics vastly favors two parties, though there is no single obvious reason why.  It could be because of the winner-take-all structure of our elections, the habits of mind that seem to set voter allegiances at birth, or the many institutional barriers to third party challenges.  Or maybe all of the above.  I’m not really sure why it’s like this, but a few decades of observations tells me that it is.

On the brighter side, that same few decades of observation has also shown me that the parties do change.  Both the Democratic and Republican parties of today stand for very different things than they did when I first cast a vote.  So now, when I consider what might be the likely paths for change, I see a two-party system that hasn’t changed a bit in decades, and two parties within it that have changed a lot.  Granted I’m not wild about the changes made by either party.  The Democratic embrace of anti-labor policies like free trade and the current corporate flavors of education “reform,” along with its surrender on issues like civil liberties and climate change seem almost as troublesome as the Republican conflation of the common good with tax cuts for rich people.  (And puts the lie to claims the Democratic party has moved left, by the way.)  Nonetheless, the fact remains that the current Democratic and Republican parties are very different things than their predecessors of forty years ago, though the names have stayed the same.

If change can happen in one direction, I see no reason it can’t happen in the other direction, too.  I see little evidence in opinion polls to suggest that America’s populace has moved right in policy preferences, despite the motion of its two institutional parties.  Whatever has happened, this is not a story of parties changing to suit a rightward-moving electorate.

What I do see is the pernicious influence of money in politics.  I see phenomenal increases in wealth inequality, which means phenomenal increases in the money available from big donors.  As more money flows into party politics, successful campaigns get more expensive, and the competition for election becomes more and more about a competition for dollars.  I suspect this explains much of the conservative drift of the Democratic party as well as the outright purchase of the Republicans, and am pretty sure that underfunded third-party challenges will address none of it.

What challenge, after all, does a third party make to the established parties?  That the one with the most support might still lose.  This is far from a guaranteed way to get a party to move your way, nor does it seem a realistic route to power.  Simply claiming otherwise does not make it so.

This, then, is my challenge to progressive third-party dreamers: don’t run.  Instead, help me find ways to change the Democratic Party.  Let’s work to get more progressive candidates in at the ground level, and to make the party a less hospitable home for those who don’t share our vision.  We can also work to make money less important in politics, by improving communication with voters, reforming our laws, changing our constitution if the Supreme Court insists it must be so.

Let’s also acknowledge that the way forward for our society is not to claim — against the mountain of evidence amassed during the George W. Bush presidency — that it doesn’t matter which party wins.  It absolutely matters which party controls the offices of our government, and it’s absurd and insulting to claim that people who acknowledge that mountain are in any way “selling out.”  Barack Obama’s has been a flawed presidency in many ways.  I’m not satisfied with many of his policies.  But neither do I think that Jill Stein and the Green Party offer any realistic path forward, so I will happily support Obama’s reelection.

To those who claim I am rewarding Obama’s bad behavior, I reply that I believe the small victories we may see in a second Obama term are more valuable than the ground that would be lost in a Romney victory.  Remember, these are not theoretical exercises; people’s livelihoods, and, in many cases, lives depend on this election.  To claim otherwise is to pretend the election is just an abstract debate about ideas rather than a contest over real power over real lives.  I will not be party to such a pretense and hope you will not, either.


[Note: Wrote this late last night and misremembered an email exchange with Senator Whitehouse about Senate rules and filibusters.  Corrected to reflect reality better, and he has my apologies.  11/6/2012, 5pm]

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Tom Sgouros is an engineer, policy analyst, and writer. Check out his new book, "Checking the Banks: The Nuts and Bolts of Banking for People Who Want to Fix It" from Light Publications.

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