Before You (Don’t) Cast Your Protest Vote: Think 1980. Think 2000.

October 26, 2012, 6:38 pm

Remember all the protest votes cast for John Anderson in 1980?

One of the commenters on my last post disagreed with my view that deciding not to vote is an abnegation of civic responsibility. “There is a good argument to be made about not voting as an act of protest,” s/he wrote, and then pointed out that there are more than two candidates running.”The Green Party candidate, Jill Stein… does represent a real progressive alternative to the status quo.”

I find this comment usefully provocative, and an excuse to extend my remarks about protest voting. In a place like Canada, I would vote for Jill Stein. In the United States, where we have two parties, it is not a “real…alternative” to vote for Stein. This election is so tight that voting for someone who is a progressive alternative, but who will never win the election or exert any power, could bring us Mitt Romney — just like the Ralph Nader people in Florida brought us George W. Bush and the War on Terror in 2000.

Great outcome! Of course, if we re-elect Barack Obama, and “become Greece,” as Mitt Romney puts it so beautifully, we would have the added bonus of transforming ourselves into a multi-party democracy.

In our current two-party system, protest votes cast and withheld by disgruntled progressives have a history of delivering us over to reactionary governance. In 1980,  Tenured Radical and 7% of other citizens followed people like Gore Vidal and the National Organization for Women’s “Anyone But Carter” geniuses right down the rabbit hole. We voted for John Anderson.

That brought us Ronald Reagan! This was in a year where only 27% of eligible voters cast ballots at all, in part because so many liberal voters stayed home in protest. As Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson would say, “Thank you. Thank you so very much.”

I am ashamed to this day that I fell for it. Would a second Carter term have been progressive? Not especially. Would he have brought raging homophobes into the White House and withheld resources from HIV/AIDS? I think not. Would he have spent billions for dumb a$$ Star Wars defense systems that never panned out? No.

As I discovered in my research at the Sophia Smith Collection today, feminists had a far more interesting plan up their sleeves than “Anyone But Carter.” This was the “Infiltrate the Republican Party” campaign. Proposed by Gloria Steinem in 1978 as activists were losing the battle for ERA, promoting Ted Kennedy’s disastrous candidacy, pulling the rug out from a Democratic president and watching Reagan beam his way into the White House, Steinem proposed that feminists re-take the GOP from the right wingers by running for state and local office. As Republicans.

But why stop at a local election? Margo St. James – sex worker, organizer and president of the coalition to decriminalize the sex trade Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) – decided to run for president. “I became a registered Republican in September of ’78 and announced my candidacy for U.S. president on the ticket per [feminist] Victoria Woodhull in 1872,” she wrote Gloria Steinem in January 1979. “Your call for change groups to infiltrate on the precinct level is brilliant and certainly timely,” she wrote, noting that women had a historic claim to the GOP, “the first party to come out for women’s equality.”

Steinem, an admirably big tent gal (she included anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin among her friends at the time) wrote back: “Thank you for your great response to the call for Republican infiltration. I’ve actually talked to a few Republican women about it, and they’re not as shocked by the idea as one might think. We’re all getting radicalized.

“If anyone can make a dent in California Reaganism, you can,” she concluded. “May the spirit of Victoria Woodhull (also Tennessee Claflin) be with you!”1

Infiltration strikes me as an idea that is worth revisiting, actually, but my point is, again, the failure of liberals to suck it up and vote for Carter did not bring on the revolution, nor did it register with the Democratic Party as a serious protest. As Gil Scott-Heron explains below, it brought us Ronald Ray-gun! 

So do think of that historical outcome as you consider staying at home on election day with your protest vote.

1. Correspondence between Gloria Steinem and Margo St. James, January 4 and January 23 1979, Box 90, Folder 7a Gloria Steinem Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.

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