No, Voting Democrat is Not “Harm Reduction”

By Andrew Dobbs

AP Photo

So the elections have come and gone. We now have about half the country sure that a new day is dawning and hope is born anew, and half the country sure that we are doomed to a thousand years of darkness. I’m writing this before the results come out, so it could still go either way, though all the signs indicate the Democrats will perform very well this year.

For those of us on the left, we’ve heard from our friends and comrades for weeks now about the importance of setting aside whatever qualms we have with this imperialist party and holding our noses to vote for them. This used to be called choosing “the lesser evil,” but that branding has gotten stale and so a new generation of NGO-niks have started calling it “harm reduction.” The idea is that things will get so much worse if the GOP wins and will be somewhat better if the Democrats win, so we should just get the Democrats elected so we can minimize harm while we do our other, more impactful organizing.

But is this true? If so it would be news to the very poor and exploited communities these folks claim to be looking out for. Most of them do not vote, and did not vote in this election. They have seen different election results over time with nothing really to show for either side on the other.

This means that it doesn’t really matter who won or lost — which is nice on the one hand because you don’t have to deal with the emotional exhaustion your average liberal are dealing with this week. It also sucks because we have just put hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of hours of energy into an exercise that doesn’t matter.

It’s almost like the system was designed to do just that — freak us out, wear us out, and waste our time.

Long-term objective data points support the experience of working families, poor people, and the oppressed/exploited: they do not benefit from either party’s victory. Let’s start by looking at income inequality.

Neither party has had a meaningful effect on income inequality. The most common measure for income inequality is the Gini Coefficient. It runs from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality). Here’s a chart of the Gini in the US between the late 40s and the early/mid teens.

As you can see its rise, i.e. the rise of inequality in the US, has been pretty inexorable for the last 40+ years. The sharpest increase was there in the early 1990s, one of the only periods of unified Democratic control of the federal government, and a large majority of state governments as well. Its sharpest decline — still pretty modest in context — was in the latter years of George W. Bush, and it rose again sharply under Obama. It didn’t really matter which party was in charge, inequality has gone up.

This inequality is not just run of the mill either, it’s the top 0.1% of the population grabbing more and more of society’s wealth. You can see just how much in this chart:

Again, this figure has gone up dramatically and with only temporary and limited reversals for about 40 years. The most profound upturn, again, was under Bill Clinton, beginning in the first two years of his administration when he actually had Democrats in control of both houses of Congress. The Great Recession actually knocked things down a peg, but as you can see Obama and the Democrat controlled Congress — with a 60 vote Senate majority — got to work and the top 0.1% saw their share of the economy go right back where they thought it belonged.

Maybe there IS a partisan difference when it comes to inequality, it’s just that at the national level we can’t see it. In that case then states with Democrats in charge would tend to be more equal than those with Republicans, right? Except that the evidence is the exact opposite. This look at Gini coefficients by state found that the top 5 states for income inequality include three of the most liberal Democrat-dominated states — New York, Connecticut, and California. The 5 least unequal states include 3 of the most conservative — Alaska, Utah, and Wyoming — with New Hampshire a GOP-leaning competitive state and Hawai’i as a “blue” state. In general there seems to be very little correlation between inequality and partisan affiliation.

Of course, this inequality is not equally distributed. Black and Brown folks are especially screwed under this system. I’m told over and over again that we need to elect Democrats because it will help these families. Is this the case? Nope, not at all.

As you can see, African American household income has pretty much done bupkis for more than a quarter of a century, with both Democrats and Republicans in charge at various points with very little to show for it. Their wealth went up for a while, but that had a lot to do with the housing bubble and predatory lending. By the second half of Obama’s reign you can see the wealth level crash back to Bush levels.

In fact, as you can see from this above chart, the number of Black families with no wealth at all went up about a quarter under Obama’s watch, all the way back to mid 90s levels. Fully half of this increase came in the years when Obama had unified Democrat control of Congress. Clinton likewise had nothing to show for these folks in his time with unified control.

The best performance for African American families actually came in the first years of the George W. Bush Administration. This isn’t to say Bush was good, it’s just that there was no correlation whatsoever between Democrats winning and poor Black folks seeing their lives improve. Indeed, overall, as noted (and as you can see again here), there has been no real growth in African American wealth under either party.

Ah, but what about those “working class whites” we’re supposed to give so many fucks about? Looks like they are doing a-okay! Except that the white wealth you see here reflects mostly the benefits accruing to the wealthiest. Any look at median income or wealth shows that NO working people have seen any benefit from either party.

As you can see, in real terms folks are doing not much better now than they were 40 years ago. There was a little bit of growth during Clinton, and it was especially stagnant under Bush, but there was also pretty steady growth under Reagan and big relative declines after Carter and his unified Democratic control of Congress.

Here’s another look that shows again that GDP growth — most of which is going into the pockets of the megawealthy — and the last several years of growth not included in the chart above. Things didn’t get much better under Obama; incomes started to rise in the last couple years of his administration, but that just got things back to pre-recession levels, or about where folks were almost 20 years before.

That’s income, but what about wealth? Turns out the numbers bear up the hypothesis I started looking at in my “Nationalists and Technocrats” piece — the US middle class has been liquidated since the Great Recession.

It’s very politically significant that the median US household lost about half their wealth in the course of 3 years, wiping out half a century of growth in a matter of months. That happened under Obama, though of course the policies that produced that outcome preceded him. Before that there was growth under Clinton — though the period when he had unified Dem control of Congress saw a decline — with even stronger growth under George W. Bush and solid growth under Reagan.

Again, the point isn’t that these Republicans are good for families, it’s that there’s no real difference between the parties when it comes to working families. This is because most people work for a living, punching a time card and drawing an hourly wage. For these folks there has been zero wage growth for decades.

That’s a whole bunch of Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, moderates, and everything in between with working folks seeing no change whatsoever. Is it any wonder why they don’t vote, and what specifically was proposed this year that makes us think anything is going to change now?

Let’s step out of the median, however, and look to the margins. Mass incarceration has been a thoroughly bipartisan affair, with the most substantial runup happening under Bill Clinton’s watch, and the levelling off of incarceration beginning mostly under George W. Bush. Things declined a bit under Obama, but they still remain at disproportionately high levels.

And as for those drops, most of that happened at the state level, not the federal. You can see from this report that the top 10 drops in incarceration happened in 5 “blue” states, one swing state (Colorado), and 4 “red” states, including Texas. Republican states seem to incarcerate more folks than Democrats, but the correlation isn’t as strong as you might think, and plenty of Democrats are throwing people in prison. It’s hardly clear that they represent real “harm reduction” on this metric.

As for Black folks in particular, in 2012 “red” and “blue” states were nearly equal offenders when it came to disproportionate imprisonment of Black men.

This was back in 2012 when Wisconsin had gone for Democrats for the White House for a couple of decades straight and still had plenty of liberal cred leftover. California, of course, is the most Democratic big state in the country, and Colorado is a Dem-leaning swing state.

Here’s one that’s older but really unsettling. This is not just an incarceration rate, but a measure of how many children have incarcerated parents broken down by race. As you can see, there was a bipartisan rush to imprison the parents of Black youth.

Still old but a little more recent, you can see that across the board people of color saw skyrocketing incarceration rates under Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton, and evening out under George W. Bush and Obama. Again, there seems to be little correlation between “harm reduction” and party affiliation.

This chart shows the same trends, but with the timeline extended a bit longer and Native and Asian folks accounted for as well.

In fact, in light of the dramatic increase in incarceration overall and the relative steady level of white incarceration, we can say that the “mass incarceration” phenomenon really amounts to a large scale exile of Black men from US society. This was done under both parties, the harms were not reduced by either side.

Moving on, one issue that was especially important this year was health care, and sure enough Obamacare caused the uninsured rate to plummet. Had the GOP-appointed courts not made Medicaid expansion voluntary on the states you probably would have seen that number go down even further.

But that’s not actually measuring access to quality healthcare. That’s just asking who has health insurance. For those of us with expensive, restrictive, high deductible plans it’s way better than being uninsured (I’ve been both), but still not great. We can see that life expectancy has pretty much grown with every sort of government, Democrat or Republican.

In fact, the only two times life expectancy has declined in the US in the last 30+ years were in 2015 and 1993, both during Democrat White Houses (though again, that may not be because of them, but also indicates that “harm reduction” isn’t necessarily their game).

And as for racial disparities — remember, voting for Democrats is important for people of color — in fact many of these have not improved under either party. A look at infant mortality rates over time shows the same persistent gap between white folks and Black folks, where African American families see their children dying at consistently higher rates than white families do.

Neither party has made a dent in this problem. Here’s data that comes up after this chart, extending through the Obama Administration.

In fact, towards the end of his term you see the gap get worse and Black infant mortality went up slightly.

Part of this may be due to poor diet due to malnutrition and poverty. So do Democrats do better when it comes to food security? Not at all.

As you can see, both parties have had pretty similar levels of food insecurity over the last 20+ years, with a huge jump at the time of the Great Recession that took all of Obama’s eight years just to get back close to pre-Recession levels.

Some liberals might not want to blame him, but if there are about 125 million households in the US and 15% of them or so were food insecure at the worst time, that’s 18.75 million households. If he had taken half of the money used to bail out the big banks — $700 billion — and distributed it to those households over the course of 5 years they would have gotten about $7,500 a year. That’s $143 a week, a huge step in the right direction towards food security. But Obama and his party prioritize billionaires and bankers over poor families, every time.

Environmental harms may also play a role in disparate health outcomes, and in general we get better environmental protections under Democrats than Republicans, right? Except that on the most important measures things either get worse regardless of party or have gotten better with both — with a catch. Energy related carbon emissions, for example, were about the same under Obama as they were under Bush.

Carbon intensity is going down, which is good, but again that’s pretty secular as to which party is in charge. Both parties have dug in on an “all of the above” approach which means continued investment in carbon-based fuel production.

Coal dropped pretty precipitously under Obama, but he more than made up for that in greater natural gas and crude oil production. He and George W. Bush formed a tag team for environmental destruction, and while Obama put forward some solid emissions regulations, they were a mile wide, an inch deep, and immediately erased upon his leaving office.

Not only that, but the Paris Climate Agreement, the deal that everyone freaked out about Trump kiboshing, was watered down by Obama, who fought to keep the entire thing voluntary and which refused to carry it to a level that would actually reverse climate damage.

On other fronts, however, the US is doing better over time, but this improvement too has been bipartisan. Per capita water consumption has been declining for decades, under both GOP and Democrat governance.

Energy consumption has been pretty steady as well, though population growth means that we are burning more and more, unlike our water resources which we have managed to conserve more than you might think. As for air pollution, that has improved in a bipartisan way as well. Sulfur dioxide has plummeted since the early 1980s under both parties.

A big chunk of that improvement happened since the turn of the century, under Bush and Obama both

As for the most standard measure of air quality, ozone, those levels have steadily declined under both parties for many years now.

So is this to say that things are doing great? Not at all. Many issues are still getting worse, and the US has simply outsourced our pollution to other parts of the world. Here’s a look , for example, at US imports from Bangladesh. As you can see, they have tripled in recent decades.

Air pollution has become a massive problem in Bangladesh over this time, with deaths increasing 50–60 percent in just a few years. In fact, you can see from this chart that Bangladesh is not only one of the worst countries for particulate matter, it’s had one of the worst increases over time.

Closer to home, there seems to be very little difference on a state-to-state basis when it comes to air quality.

The big difference, as you might imagine, is urbanization, so that heavily urbanized areas like the Eastern Seaboard or Southern California — both very Democrat-oriented — are polluted while rural areas like Utah or South Dakota are both conservative and pretty clean. Party rule doesn’t really matter.

The same phenomenon seems to be at play with this list developed by corporate overlords McKinsey and Co. ranking states by their environmental quality. Florida, with decades of GOP governors, is #1 with a bunch of “red” states like the Dakotas, Arkansas and even Mississippi in the top 10, and “blue” state Illinois is the worst, with California in the bottom 10 as well.

As for one specific metric they looked at there, water quality, Republican-led states such as Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and even Mississippi again all come in the top 10. Republican-led states dominate the bottom of the list, but liberal Vermont is third from the worst. Again, the partisan divide here is less than clear, and so it becomes impossible to claim that one party winning amounts to “harm reduction.”

Of course, the thing we love exporting the most is death, and as far as I’m concerned warmaking and violence against the Third World should count when we’re considering harm reduction. A look at this list from Wikipedia is a bit staggering, just the relentlessness of US military deployment. This list is fully bipartisan, with some of the most outrageous interventions — Yugoslavia, Libya, and of course the Vietnam War — beginning under Democrats.

To take just one conflict, the drone war in Pakistan, Obama killed more civilians than Bush — he owns the drone war.

This is also where we can answer fears of GOP support for fascists and neo-Nazis. This is a very real threat, and something we should take very seriously. That said, not only have Democrats not actually run on an explicitly anti-fascist agenda or explained how they would suppress the current fascist insurgency, they have actively promoted fascism overseas. In the Ukraine the US under Obama sponsored neo-Nazi parties that now dominate the government there. Fascists are actually in state power thanks to a Democrat.

The same is true for the Islamist extremists he backed in Syria, as well as the reactionary coup regime he backed in Honduras (NOTE: I originally accidentally said “Guatemala” here). Yes, Trump’s footsie with domestic Nazis is outrageous and wrong, but outsourcing the fascist problem to other countries and calling yourself pure is a means of protecting your own neck at someone else’s expense. It’s not harm reduction, it’s harm redistribution away from the imperial center and towards people we’ve already screwed over.

Finally, I believe that perhaps the most important indicator of the suffering of the colonized world is the plight of the Palestinian people. Both parties have collaborated with the criminal Israeli regime to devastate this nation, especially with regard to those trapped in the Gaza Strip. Look at the hollowing out of their economy over 18 years, 10 years under Democrats and 8 under Republicans:

The message Gaza sends to the rest of the world is clear: if at any point we find you, your community, or even a nation of millions of your people inconvenient for our power, we will destroy you and there is nothing you can do about it. In fact, “progressives” in our country will say we should ignore your plight in the name of “harm reduction.”

So after I published this I realized there was an issue that I didn’t cover that inspires a lot of people to vote Dem, abortion access. I decided it was important to answer this because it actually demonstrates an important concept here that I don’t talk about otherwise. First thing first, the flesh and bones of abortion access is whether or not you have a clinic in your community, and clinic numbers have declined under both parties.

Now those are old numbers, but what’s really outrageous is how abortion restrictions skyrocketed under Obama.

This seems to contradict me, however, in that those restrictions were passed by GOP legislatures and Congress, right? The issue here — the important one to remember — is that when you elect Democrats to office you are at the mercy of their political strategy. If that strategy abandons you and your community, tough shit. Obama’s singular focus on holding the White House and his neglect of party-building at the state and local level created the conditions necessary for this assault on abortion rights.

He bears some of that responsibility, and when it comes to things like Clinton signing the Defense of Marriage Act, or Louisiana’s Democrat governor signing the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, or Joe Manchin voting for Kavanaugh or the Dems going whole hog for the Iraq War, there’s nothing stopping the Democrats from screwing you if that’s what their re-election entails. You aren’t reducing harm, at best you are hoping that they don’t need to harm you to stay in power.

So to sum things up, working people make about the same amount of money no matter who is in charge, they have lost ground on wealth under both parties, they struggle to feed their families under both parties, Black and Brown folks have especially gotten screwed by both parties, and inequality and wealth hoarding by the elites has expanded under both parties. Both parties have thrown millions of people in prison, both parties want to burn as much fossil fuel as possible, neither party has been able to figure out how to keep Black children from dying, and both parties have exported US abuse to the world’s poorest countries. Both parties also buddy up to fascists when it is convenient for them to do so.

Why am I supposed to vote for one party over the other as “harm reduction”? The truth is that one party SAYS they will be a LITTLE better on SOME of these issues, but it doesn’t matter what they say or even sincerely want to do. The system under which all parties operate is designed very explicitly for one purpose: as John Jay said, to make sure that the people who own the country run it.

Anything that disrupts that rule by shifting wealth away from the owning class and towards the working class gets blocked by courts or prompts political recrimination. And the class struggle really is a zero sum game, so without that sort of redistribution working people stagnate or decline. Racial division is key to keeping the working class from organizing and revolting, and mass incarceration scares everyone into line. Both parties have to play their part in this, and the ultimate source of all that money comes from extracting resources out of the ground and out of colonized labor. Protecting those fuel sources and keeping those populations in line means bipartisan support for imperialist warmaking and reactionary regimes.

It’s time to start putting our money and energy into organizing that freaks these guys out as much as your average Facebook lefty gets freaked out by Ted Cruz. Until then, remember that voting for the Democrats isn’t “harm reduction” if the harms never reduce when they are in charge.

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Activist, organizer, and writer based in Austin, Texas.