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Guest Commentary: Protest World vs. Political World

The former communications director to the late Sen. Harris Wofford argues there's too much at stake in this election for educated young people not to think critically about the history they risk repeating

Guest Commentary: Protest World vs. Political World

The former communications director to the late Sen. Harris Wofford argues there's too much at stake in this election for educated young people not to think critically about the history they risk repeating

Back in November 2016 when I was volunteering to help get out the vote in West Philly, I had a conversation with an earnest young voter that has long stayed with me — and seems as relevant now as it was then.

I had taken Election Day off from my communications job at Columbia University to return to my adopted home battleground state. I was near the Penn campus where I had also worked following years as a senior staffer for PA Governor Bob Casey and U.S. Senator Harris Wofford. A 20-something approaching the polls told me he just wasn’t satisfied with Hillary Clinton’s position on fracking. I said I certainly respected that principled point of view, but thought perhaps it wasn’t a good enough reason to throw away his vote against a guy who claimed climate change was a total hoax.

How should we judge the value of passionate protest over practical politics?

The disaffected voter never told me how he planned to vote. He may have cast a ballot for the Green Party’s Jill Stein or opted out of any presidential choice. But you and I know what happened in Pennsylvania: A former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady lost to a reality TV star and six-time bankrupt real estate scion by a mere 44,292 votes out of more than 6.1 million, while Stein got nearly 50,000, and Libertarian Gary Johnson, more than 146,000.

We can easily imagine the alternative history had it turned out differently — the many lives that doubtless would have been saved by a more competent Covid response; a Supreme Court that wouldn’t have set back reproductive rights, civil rights and common sense gun control a half century; not to mention undermining our faith in democracy at home and abroad, inciting an insurrection and generally degrading the overall tone of our national conversation. And, oh yeah: How exactly did refusing to vote for Hillary turn out for fracking regulation, along with every other environmental and climate issue?

Too often, we’ve seen the unintended consequences of protest votes — or of opting out of voting — at pivotal political moments in our modern political history.

History repeating

Commentators have likened today’s protesters to those in 1968, the first presidential election I vividly remember. Up to that point, protests both on and off college campuses had raised the nation’s consciousness about the quagmire of Vietnam and powered the antiwar primary campaigns of Sen. Gene McCarthy and then Bobby Kennedy. That summer, anti-war demonstrators targeted both political conventions. But the largest, most contentious protests happened among the Democrats in Chicago. That November, Nixon won by a narrow margin, earning himself and Kissinger the power to intensify American bombings and expand war into Laos and Cambodia for another four years.

How, then, should we judge the value of passionate protest over practical politics? Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that the war would have ended far sooner had Vice President Hubert Humphrey garnered just a few more votes in a few more states? (The alternative history to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination remains almost too tragic to dwell on.)

Vietnam War protesters in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
Vietnam War protesters in Chicago, Illinois during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Photo by David Wilson.

To those who correctly point out that the peaceful marches and Gandhian nonviolent civil disobedience of the Civil Rights era were also unpopular among most Americans at the time, it’s worth remembering that a critical goal along with ending legal segregation was securing the right to vote that had been long been denied to Black Americans, especially in the Jim Crow South. The students and other brave young civil rights volunteers of the 1964 “Freedom Summer” — three of whom, one Black and two Jewish, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan — went to Mississippi to register Black citizens to vote.

What if just a few more progressive voters had used that precious right to cast their votes for Al Gore instead of Ralph Nader in 2000? In Florida, Nader received 97,488 votes, while Gore ultimately lost the state and the presidency by a mere 537 of them. How might our nation’s disastrous post-9/11 response have been different or, at very least, wiser? Would anyone have even considered the catastrophic idea of invading Iraq, but for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld? Would Gore have taken on climate change — a core reason many voted for Nader — at a moment when it could have made a real difference for our world?

From progressive roots to practical idealism

I promise, young people (if any of you are reading this), I do get it. I came of age in the pervasively progressive enclaves of 1960s and 70s Manhattan. My late mother was a classic Upper West Side “red diaper baby” who went from her then-experimental public art high school on the same Harlem block as the radical hotbed of City College to a small midwestern college where she got suspended for a 1948 campus protest against the firing of a popular faculty member for his allegedly left wing sympathies.

At age 21, she cast her idealistic first vote for third-party Progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace — FDR’s former vice president for whom successor Harry Truman and the New Deal weren’t nearly liberal enough. Though Truman pulled out a historic upset re-election, she was among more 500,000 New Yorkers who likely helped swing the state for GOP candidate Gov. Thomas Dewey by some 60,000 votes out of six million cast.

Most actual voters wanted government to improve their lives in some ways — and stay out of them in others.

Though no activist at college, I marched for divestment from South Africa and in support of campus dining hall workers. But in leaving both deep blue New York City and the Ivy League for more than a decade of work in PA government and mainstream Democratic politics, including living in a small, conservative town in York County, I was lucky enough to learn first-hand that most actual voters wanted government to improve their lives in some ways — and stay out of them in others. I got to work with Pennsylvanians across the state who desperately needed policies to help the unemployed, improve schools, protect the environment and create new jobs in the face of a collapsing industrial base. But many also made political choices based on traditional social values and deep religious faith that were frankly new to me.

After returning to New York as a senior executive at Columbia, I experienced this political and cultural contrast in reverse. To be sure, most university campuses and college towns are more liberal than the rest of the country — yet that’s been true for more than a century. So have conservative attacks on “pointy-headed” academics like those who tried to testify about the science of evolution at the 1920s Scopes trial, who were fired from their teaching jobs during the McCarthyism of the 1950s, or the student protesters Reagan, Nixon and George Wallace regularly ran against in the 1960s.

The Israel-Gaza protest vote

Campus protests have again grabbed national attention in the days since October 7, and nowhere more so than the place I used to work. Taking my own viewpoint on the conflict out of the equation, a critical issue to me is its potential impact on the broader reality of this pivotal political moment.

When it comes to campus protest, no matter where you land on the difficult questions of free speech and rising anti-semitism, or, for that matter, on the humanitarian disaster inflicted on Gaza or Hamas’s horrifying terrorism, the fact is that the focus on divestment of American university endowments is a largely symbolic act aimed close to home, but a distant and limited lever against the current suffering in Gaza or on Netanyahu’s uncompromising far-right coalition. After all, in the real world beyond campus, it’s Econ 101 that financial markets have willing buyers as well as sellers.

Protesters on Penn’s campus in spring of 2024. Photo by Ethan Young.

To be sure, symbolism and even moral outrage have real value in shaping our public debate. But right now the urgent question — including for those who want an end to the fighting in Gaza — is who gets to wield global power in our own sputtering but still functioning American democracy. Fact is, it’s not university endowment managers. It’s the next president and Congress of the United States.

Still, many protesters, both collegiate and older, have vociferously called for abandoning Biden at the polls, not just in the recent primaries. No matter his administration’s ongoing efforts to press a recalcitrant Netanyahu toward a ceasefire and peaceful long-term solution with a new Palestinian state. Once again, one must ask: What will taking such a “principled” stand against Biden accomplish if it actually helps get Muslim-banning, Netanyahu-cheerleading Trump elected as a result?

The outcome of a 2024 protest vote

One thing we can be sure of: A second Trump administration will provide plenty of new reasons for progressives to protest. Expect a national limit on both abortion rights and birth control; an end to the Biden administration’s huge investments in a clean energy future, among other efforts to fight climate change.

Concerned about “systems of oppression?” Voting rights, civil rights and the rule of law will further erode. Trump’s promise to weaponize our Department of Justice against his political enemies while pardoning his most violent supporters of their crimes. Look for more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations — and deep cuts to all manner of assistance and grace for the most vulnerable Americans: seniors, people with disabilities, families living in poverty, asylum seekers, education seekers, job seekers, LGBTQ folks.

Right now the urgent question — including for those who want an end to the fighting in Gaza — is who gets to wield global power in our own sputtering but still functioning American democracy.

As for the right to protest itself? When the models Trump and the MAGA movement most admire aren’t our founding framers, but un-American autocrats from Putin and Orban, consider what it will mean to even try to publicly object to all of the above in the coming years when confronted not just by campus or local police, but by federalized troops and criminal charges in his promised imposition of the early 19th century Insurrection Act.

These are the very real stakes on Election Day this year — a moment when democracy really does hang in the balance, with likely razor-thin margins in key battleground states like Pennsylvania where every single vote will count.

The danger of unintended complicity

I hate the cliche of “woke,” but I hope those who feel bitterly disappointed with Biden’s efforts to end the fighting in Gaza are fully awake and thinking critically about electoral math of voting for a third-party candidate, or not voting at all in November — and the potential consequences for our democracy and all the issues they care about.

Of course, I also don’t understand how those non-MAGA Republicans who know full well and have even stated what a danger Trump represents to the nation and world, yet won’t take the only responsible path by putting country over “tribe” by publicly supporting Biden.

My first campaign boss, James Carville, is widely known for his 1986 description of Pennsylvania’s divided political map and for his “It’s the economy, stupid” strategic meme for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race. But he also regularly bellowed at us in our dank basement campaign office on Chestnut Street that in politics and campaigns, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” and “God save me from single-issue vot-ahs.”

Thankfully, my late mother never had to regret her righteous first vote against Truman. But if he didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, I do kinda hope that anti-fracking guy now regrets his.

Applying what my old boss Harris called a “practical idealism” from his years advising both Dr. King and John and Robert Kennedy, Mom never wasted her liberal Democratic vote again. Like her fellow New Yorkers Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I think she would have gladly told today’s protesters who feel a genuine sense of moral outrage about Israel’s war in Gaza that while Joe Biden and Kamala Harris may not represent the change they so fervently want, unintentionally helping elect an authoritarian like Trump — who seemingly couldn’t give a damn about Palestinian lives — risks a kind of complicity we will all live to regret.

David M. Stone, a former Executive Vice President for Communications and Senior Adviser to the President at Columbia University, previously served as communications director for U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and deputy chief of staff for Governor Bob Casey.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.


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