Deciding to vote, and for whom
As I was reading Facebook entries on the election, and especially exchanges between supporters of Sanders and people in favor of voting for Hillary Clinton, I began to realize that to some extent they were arguing at cross purposes. In what follows I try to make clear, for myself if for no-one else, what’s going on.
Absolute opposition on moral grounds
Some people flat-out refuse to entertain the thought of voting for Clinton. I think I understand why. Their opposition to her is morally grounded, and it is absolute. They do not, in other words, merely prefer Sanders to Clinton. On moral grounds, they look upon Clinton as someone for whom they cannot vote, regardless of who else is in the running, whether in the primaries or in the general election.
Here’s an analogy. A moral vegetarian doesn’t merely prefer her diet to one that includes meat; she is absolutely opposed to eating meat, and since in general moral grounds override grounds of other sorts, she will—entirely reasonably given the judgment she has made—be wholly unmoved by appeals to practical consequences and so forth; only in the direst of circumstances would she consider eating meat, and then not as in any way approving of that act, but because the imperative, let’s say, of survival has precedence over other moral imperatives.
So too someone who on moral grounds opposed Clinton in the primaries will be, again entirely reasonably, unmoved by appeals to the consequences of Clinton’s being defeated. Quite reasonably too she may be angered by being told that voting for Clinton is preferable to voting for Trump; that is like telling a vegetarian that fish is less “meaty” than raw steak—true, perhaps, but beside the point.
I don’t see any inconsistency in the position I’ve just outlined. It would be reasonable for someone who holds that position to refrain from voting, given the options, or to vote for a third-party candidate. Nevertheless I think a person who holds that position may have grounds (but not, strictly speaking, moral grounds) for voting for Clinton. What those are, I’ll say later.
Preference for Sanders
If you prefer Sanders, on moral grounds, to Clinton, then I assume that on similar grounds you will prefer Clinton to Trump. In that case it’s not apparent why you should not vote for Clinton. The only reason I can think of is to hold that the eventual outcome of Trump’s winning would be better than the eventual outcome of Clinton’s winning. That case has yet to be made—especially as addressed to someone who prefers Sanders to Clinton. What has been offered, as far as I can see, is speculation to the effect that Clinton’s victory would preclude, while Trump’s victory would promote, a takeover of the Democratic party by people who favor Sanders’s views to Clinton’s.
In the face of such an argument, it’s entirely in order to bring forward the likely consequences of a Trump victory (which in my view would result in eight years of Trump or Pence; think of what happened to Kerry in 2004). Proponents of Clinton have laid them out in detail: a Supreme Court much worse than the present one (and even more inclined to go along with Republican efforts to restrict the right to vote), an even more corrupt executive branch (Trump wants to eliminate Civil Service protections, for example), not to mention whatever Trump and a presumably Republican Congress would do to realize his threats against Muslims and immmigrants.
Except for someone convinced that a Trump presidency would be such a disaster as to result in the destruction of the Republican Party and the ushering-in of a Sanders revolution, I think Clinton comes out better; and one should keep in mind that Bush’s presidency, with its disasters, had no such effects—though I’ll admit that the Obama White House did its best to forestall them.
Why vote for Clinton if you’re absolutely opposed to her
I think there’s a pretty good case for being morally opposed to a Clinton presidency. Her embrace of Kissinger, for example, which well represents her neoconservative views (Cold War, really) on foreign affairs; her own acquiescence, about which she has been misleading at best, in the demise of democratic government in Honduras, her strong advocacy of intervention in Libya (which she later referred to as a “work in progress”), her favorable view of TPP (until she was forced to express some misgivings during the primaries)—these and more provide ample moral grounds to oppose her.
The best argument I can think of (that would be persuasive to someone who opposes Clinton on moral grounds) is to consider what the act of voting for her signifies. Does it signify moral approval of her opinions and acts? There is a strong tendency in the US to regard the President as not only the head of the executive branch, and in charge therefore of fulfilling the duties of that branch, but also as the moral leader of the country. Washington and Lincoln are the exemplars; Obama traded strongly on that tendency in his first campaign. If you think that in voting for a presidential candidate you are endorsing that person as the moral leader of the US, then it will be hard to come up with reasons to do so in the face of a strong moral case against that person.
But one can think of voting for a presidential candidate in practical terms, as choosing, from among the realistic options, the one whom you believe will do the best job—best as you conceive it. (I say ”realistic” because voting for a third-party candidate who has only an infinitesimal chance of winning is a different sort of act, resting on different sorts of reasons.) Clinton has already shown that for perhaps entirely self-regarding motives she will veer left; I don’t think the same can be said for Trump.
A vote for Clinton, then, by someone morally opposed to her being elected could, as a sort of speech act, be paraphrased as follows: “Yes, you are preferable to Trump (not for what you have done but for what you, unlike him, probably won’t do and for what you might be persuaded to do). But this preference rests on inferior, pragmatic grounds, not the high moral ground, and on those issues where I am morally opposed to your view I will fight you every inch of the way”.