Political Absolutism is Harmful Bullshit

For longer than I’ve been alive, the idea that the establishment political parties (particularly in America) are more or less the same garbage in a different bag has been a popular sentiment among leftists. It remains one of the favourite lines of internet slacktivists and lazy editorial cartoonists everywhere, and it reached new heights of ubiquity following Hillary Clinton’s victory in the Democratic primaries.

It’s easy to see how this line of thinking is attractive to people of certain political stripes. On the wide, diverse spectrum of political opinions one can have, the Democrats and the Republicans — and the status quo parties in most Western democracies — fall pretty close to each other. They both endorse capitalism pretty explicitly; they both often betray the interests of the working class due to how heavily lobbied they are by corporations and oligarchs; they both seem, to some extent, to want to continue America’s troubling penchant for imperialism.

If one finds themselves disagreeing with a substantial number of those ideas that both parties share, it becomes tempting to view them as essentially the same thing. The daylight between their respective ideologies starts to dwindle, and sooner or later, one ends up with the absolutist world view of “they’re all the same crooks anyways, so I’m just not going to vote for either one of them.”

While enticing, it’s a bullshit idea, and it’s deceitful in a way that causes tangible harm to people’s livelihoods. The fact that it isn’t more widely condemned by the people on the left who claim to be champions of the working class has always baffled me.

It’s easy to point out all the ways in which the establishment parties are nigh-identical to each other, but when the current political reality is that you’re going to get stuck with one or the other running the country for the foreseeable future, it’s important to pay attention to how they’re different from each other. This is particularly true when the ways in which they differ have the potential to shape the fate of a not-insignificant number of human beings.

The current healthcare debacle is a perfect example of this. It’s one of the biggest ways in which the Democrats differentiate themselves from the Republicans; despite their lukewarm attitude towards a proper single-payer system, the Democrats have at least done something to reduce the likelihood of Americans falling into life-ruining debt when they get sick or injured. Meanwhile, the Republicans are actively trying to dismantle that system without making any real effort to replace it with anything even vaguely functional.

If the Republicans get their way, and the Affordable Care Act is repealed, people who would have gotten treatment under that program will instead be left to die, for purely financial reasons. The blood for those deaths will be on the hands of not only the Republican Party, but indirectly on the hands of anyone who fomented political apathy by peddling that “both parties are exactly the same” bullshit. There are literally human lives at stake here.

Of course, the argument from the left has always been something along the lines of “but instead of supporting the lesser of two evils, we should be working at building a viable alternative!”

This is nonsense, for a couple of reasons.

The first one is pretty obvious: voting for the lesser evil and building a better alternative are not mutually exclusive. Voting for the lesser evil takes an hour or two once every four years. Maybe a couple more hours if you want to actually participate in the lesser evil’s campaign, or vote in state and municipal elections. That negligible amount of time expenditure is not going to prevent you from attempting to build your perfect, utopian alternative the rest of the time, if you actually want to put some effort into doing so.

The other flaw in this rationale is that it’s an incredibly easy thing to say for a person with no skin in the game, but it’s much harder for people whose well-being hangs in the balance between Democratic and Republican policies. It’s the height of privilege to say “let’s wait and see if we can build a perfect alternative instead of supporting the least-awful of our current options”, because it relies upon knowing that your life isn’t going to get ruined if the least-awful option loses.

Ask a gay or lesbian person how much they feel like the two parties, one of which just made a dude who believes in gay conversion therapy the Vice President, are basically the same. Ask a working class person who has health insurance for the first time in their life, and may well lose it again in the next few months, how identical they think the two parties are.

I get that it’s easy to become disillusioned with the political process, especially when it’s as broken as America’s is. I get that it’s easy to fall into cynicism when neither party seems to give a shit about you, especially when you’re a working class person with more immediate real-life shit to be worrying about. I get that it’s a huge bummer that you don’t have a more diverse array of options when you go to the ballot box, and I think it’s incredibly important that people attempt to try to change the system to allow for better alternatives (and then build those alternatives).

However, while you’re building those systems — and it’s not going to be a quick or easy process — there are still marginalized folks who have to deal with the immediate consequences of which group of status quo cheerleaders get into power. They could use your help in picking the option that improves their chances of survival, and you may find that they’re going to be much more willing to get on board with your vision for a better future if they can get to a point where they’re not worrying about those chances of survival quite as much.

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