Why I Insist on Voting for Hillary Clinton

A civic duty to stop Donald Trump requires that I support a candidate I could’ve never imagined backing.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

All my voting life I’ve been dissatisfied with the candidates put forth by the major parties. I’ve cast reluctant ballots for Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and even write-ins. There’s never been a contender whose preferences were close to mine.

In 2012, I published a widely shared article, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama,” that argued against holding one’s nose that year and voting for the lesser evil. Disillusioned by President Obama’s unconstitutional intervention in Libya, his secretive drone killings (even targeting an American), and his failure to rein in mass surveillance of all Americans, I wrote that while I wasn’t entirely sure whether Mitt Romney would be better or worse, I would cast a protest vote for Gary Johnson.

“If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in,” I wrote.If not? So long as voters let the bipartisan consensus on these questions stand, we keep going farther down this road, having been successfully provoked by Osama bin Laden into abandoning our values.”

This year, I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

I am voting for Hillary Clinton even though I disagree with her on a whole range of domestic policies, even though she urged that same unconstitutional intervention in Libya, and even though she favors the NSA’s program of mass surveillance. I am voting for her even though I live in California, the safest of blue states, and could easily vote for a candidate I like better, Gary Johnson, without increasing the chance that Donald Trump, the candidate I like least, will win the White House.

I am voting that way to practice what I preach.

Because I believe voters who live in states that Trump could possibly win, and think of themselves as classical liberals, libertarians, constitutional conservatives, or civil libertarians, should also vote for Hillary Clinton, and should not feel bad doing so, even knowing that we’ll fight like hell against many of her policies.

I believe Bernie Sanders progressives should vote for her, too.

I want her to know that my vote confers no mandate for large swaths of her agenda. And I want you to know why I am approaching this election so differently than four years ago, even after urging the Democrats to nominate anyone else this cycle, and even though I am generally sympathetic to the impulse to cast protest votes. There are ways in which it is still hard for me to vote Hillary Clinton this year. Yet I am confident in the case for doing so—and I think many of you will be, too.

* * *

Why “hold my nose” this year when I haven’t before?

One reason that my thinking has changed is tactical. After Obama broke so many promises on civil liberties and executive power, big progress on those issues was unlikely.  In 2012, I thought there was at least a chance that if enough voters showed that they cared about his reversals and misbehavior, there was a way to reinvigorate the fight against the civil-liberties abrogations adopted after 9/11—that Johnson would lose the election, but win lots of supporters, showing politicians that there are civil libertarian votes to be won, perhaps even inspiring a Rand Paul or a Russ Feingold to make civil libertarians part of a winning coalition in 2016.

What actually happened could hardly be more different.

Gary Johnson got less than 1 percent of the vote in 2012, advancing the civil-libertarian cause not at all. None of the Democratic or Republican primary candidates focused on civil liberties this cycle. And Rand Paul, who raised war powers and civil liberties most in the GOP primary, got almost zero support as a result. Then Gary Johnson, having mounted a new third-party bid against the least likable major-party candidates in a generation, still fell far short of the polling threshold needed to get into the debates, and seems unlikely to win more than 5 percent of the vote, even as a little known former CIA agent has an outside shot at winning Utah.

After all that how could I not change my preferred tactic?

I fervently wish that third-party protest votes were a long-shot path to changing the trajectory of American policy and culture surrounding civil liberties, but at the presidential level, there is just no evidence for that proposition. Indeed, there is so much evidence against it that it’s hard to see what more a skeptic could demand. If I were part of the leadership of a third party I would forget about the presidency for the foreseeable future and invest all my time and energy trying to win House seats, contesting state senate elections, and trying to replace statist district attorneys and judges. At this point, efforts to contest the presidency do less to spread Green or Libertarian ideas than to show how small the constituency for either party really is.

But my 2012 essay wasn’t just tactical. It had civic and moral dimensions, too. And that brings us to the bigger reason I am voting Hillary Clinton for president this year. After I published “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama,” the always-sharp Robert Wright challenged my argument that “sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as ‘the lesser of two evils’ is unacceptable.”

He argued that one implication of my position was absurd.

It sounds good to avow that "some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying."

But what if an election were held between a candidate who crossed some of those lines and a significantly worse opponent, who we knew, “through magical powers permitted in thought experiments," would "start a war that killed a million people. Or 10 million." What if the inferior candidate "would go nuts and nuke half the world"?

Said Wright, "If you'd rather see half the human species extinguished than vote for someone with a low regard for civil liberties and a high regard for drone strikes, just say so. But if you wouldn't, then it seems to me you're admitting that, actually, you've got a bit of consequentialist in you—that your 'deal-breakers' aren't really absolute."

I conceded the point at the time.

I still defended protest votes to send a signal in elections like 2012, when it seemed to me—and still does—that while one candidate might seem marginally better or worse, both were within normal parameters and the better choice was muddy.

In fact, I offered a slightly broader defense of signaling deal-breakers with protest votes. “My attraction to deal-breakers is largely in the norms that surround them…” I explained. For example, “society derives value from having a political system where virulent racism is deemed beyond the pale. It wasn't always so, and preserving that norm would, in most cases, be worth opposing a politician who had a superior policy platform to his dumber but non-racist opponent.” I also wrote about the importance of signalling that certain actions and positions “threaten the survival of the liberal order, weakening the very norms that function to preserve it for every member of our polity,” and should definitely be stigmatized.

Again, I was thinking of secretive drone killings and mass surveillance at the time. And Hillary Clinton still embodies many of the flaws of the status quo—too hawkish, insufficiently committed to civil liberties, resistant to transparency in government, beholden to special interests. Were she were running against Jeb Bush, her equivalent in the Republican Party, I might very well have concluded, as a California voter, that there wasn’t much point in trying to send any signal with my vote, and that I couldn’t predict which of them would do better or worse by my lights.

Instead, Clinton is running against a kind of candidate and campaign I did not consider in 2012, one worse than anything I imagined possible in the America of 2016. Trump is as useless as anyone else when it comes to reforming post-9/11 excesses. He wants to take torture farther than Bush, while Clinton seems unlikely to restart torture at all; he urged the invasion of Libya, like her, and though few realize it, he frequently takes positions as hawkish as any member of the Washington elite. Even now, he wants to seize foreign oil fields and kill family members of terrorists. He is no more likely than she is to reform NSA surveillance or drone killings, and is more likely, in my estimation, to transgress against norms now constraining their use.

And domestically, he would be a civil-liberties disaster.

So I rate Trump as much worse than Hillary when it comes to all the old civil-liberties problems—it is no small thing to openly call for torture and attacks on innocents!

But what I mean when I say that I didn’t consider a candidate like Trump in 2012 is that he’s worse than useless on restoring  norms that degraded after 9/11... and he also transgresses against a bunch of other norms that seemed to be intact. It’s as if America was already bleeding from an arm and he stabbed a leg, an ear, and a nose.

As Ross Douthat puts it:

A vote for Trump is not a vote for insurrection or terrorism or secession. But it is a vote for a man who stands well outside the norms of American presidential politics, who has displayed a naked contempt for republican institutions and constitutional constraints, who deliberately injects noxious conspiracy theories into political conversation, who has tiptoed closer to the incitement of political violence than any major politician in my lifetime, whose admiration for authoritarian rulers is longstanding, who has endorsed war crimes and indulged racists.

Here is how I would put it:

  1. The most dangerous thing a leader can do in an ethnically diverse country is stoke ethnic tensions in order to gain power. One needn’t invoke the Nazis to see that truth. Look to the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, or Iraq and Syria today. America isn’t on the verge of civil war, but that’s in large part because, while the exploitation of ethnic grievances has always been part of our politics, our leaders have at least held themselves to a certain standard in their public statements. In contrast, Donald Trump kicked off his campaign by encouraging his followers to think of Mexican migrants as mostly rapists, attacked an American-born judge of Hispanic ancestry, repeatedly savaged Muslims, inspired multiple hate crimes against minorities, used his Twitter platform, with an audience of millions, to retweet and elevate anti-Semites, and inspired more energy and assertiveness from the white supremacist movement than I can ever recall seeing. All by itself, this makes Trump a candidate worth defeating as decisively as possible.
  2. Trump didn’t just start off with zero experience in government, itself a worrisome characteristic. He showed that he had neither the discipline nor the respect for the gravity of the job he seeks to study the substance of issues. He just has no idea what he’s talking about on matters from the most basic to the most grave, like what the nuclear triad is and how he’ll manage it. Never in my lifetime and perhaps never in American history has a man with so little knowledge of the issues won a major-party nomination for the presidency.
  3. Relatedly, the man cannot master himself. His campaign staff didn’t trust him not to tweet—yet his supporters would entrust this erratic, easily baited man with the power to order a nuclear strike? To be a nuclear power is an awesome responsibility. America would abrogate it by electing a man like Trump president. As Megan McArdle puts it, “Say that you support Trump because you think he’s a wild force unbound by the normal conventions of Washington-as-usual. Great. But can you make the necessary logical leap to conclude that he is unbound by normal conventions … except when it comes to nukes? Because we want those normal conventions to bind us. They have kept humanity alive for seven decades. We'd like many more decades. It's not safe to assume that Trump will keep his finger off the red button. He is aggressive, he does have poor impulse control, and he is not bound by normal conventions along any dimension, nor does he show any evidence of listening to his advisers… Worse still, he seems to be constitutionally incapable of shrugging off even the smallest slight to either his person or his extended self. He wildly overreacts even when the reaction is obviously going to hurt him.”
  4. More than ten women say that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them by kissing or groping them without their consent. And as it happens, there is videotape of Donald Trump bragging about how he kisses and gropes women without permission. He doesn’t even wait. Had exactly the same allegations and evidence emerged against any other candidate in modern history they would’ve been sunk. Somehow, Trump survived not only those allegations, but also hiring Roger Ailes as a campaign adviser even as he left Fox News in disgrace after being accused of shockingly vile sexual harassment. And Trump insults women publicly, regularly, and unashamedly. Are we really going to turn the biggest bully pulpit in America over to this man, so that a cohort of little girls grow up knowing no president but him?

This is where a certain kind of Donald Trump voter will interrupt.

Hillary Clinton also violates a bunch of norms, they’ll say. She used a private server to evade future Freedom of Information Act requests; violated various rules governing how classified information ought to be handled; accepted donations at the Clinton Foundation that created conflicts of interest while she was Secretary of State; and gave special access to rich folks in return for their backing.

I won’t defend her behavior—I have criticized it myself many times. I find it distasteful. I wish saving my country from an unprecedented menace didn’t require her.

But it is absurd to compare her shortcomings to her opponent’s, because so many are in wholly different categories. I’ve been a professional journalist since 2002. Every government agency I have ever covered—local, state, and federal—has tried to evade public records laws at one time or another. Half of Washington doesn’t follow the rules governing how classified information is stored, in part because those rules are broken. Conflicts of interest and special access for donors are ubiquitous.

That isn’t to say these things should be overlooked. But most people insisting they cannot possibly vote for Hillary Clinton for this set of reasons have unashamedly voted before—and will vote again—for many politicians who conduct themselves with the same sort of low-grade corruption. It has plagued politics in America from the beginning, should always be resisted, and will never be eradicated. Absurdly, many seem to have convinced themselves that Trump, who won’t release his tax returns, as every presidential candidate has for decades, will be better on transparency; that a man whose finances we don’t even know, who used his charitable foundation to illegally funnel money to an attorney general investigating him for fraud, will be better on conflicts of interest; that an erratic man who blurts all manner of things out on Twitter and has shady ties to Vladimir Putin will somehow be a more trustworthy guardian of classified information.

Trump is likely to be worse across all those metrics!

Trump as redeemer for this basket of civic ills is absurd. And even if he were better on them—he isn’t—that would hardly matter given his aforementioned shortcomings: 1) deliberately stoking ethnic tensions, and even inspiring hate crimes; 2) having zero experience, embarrassingly little knowledge, and no sign of the impulse or ability to learn; 3) epitomizing the sort of personality that can’t be trusted with nukes; 4) constantly insulting women, plus multiple allegations of sexually predatory behavior of a type corroborated by the candidate in his own words.

Nor is that the extent of the norms Americans never used to worry about that Trump now endangers.

  1. The man doesn’t just lie, as all politicians do. He is in a different category altogether. What lie compares to his years-long insistence that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, or his brazen assertion that Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the JFK assassination? All politicians lie, but persisting in lies so shameless even when called on facts crosses a dangerous line.
  2. Donald Trump is openly, deliberately, unapologetically cruel, even against members of his own family. I cannot recall thinking that about any other presidential candidate. It is among the least desirable qualities for someone seeking power.
  3. As my colleague David Frum points out, Trump, bizarrely, “idealizes Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and the butchers of Tiananmen as strong leaders to be admired and emulated.” He has made statements of that sort across many years. What bigger red flag is there, for a would-be president, than praising the strength of repressive tyrants? “We don’t have to analogize Donald Trump to any of the lurid tyrants of world history to recognize in him the most anti-constitutional personality ever to gain a major-party nomination for the U.S. presidency.”

For the sake of their country, reluctant Trump supporters should heed the warning that they’re “overestimating the systemic durability of the American-led order, and underestimating the extent to which a basic level of presidential competence and self-control is itself a matter of life and death—for Americans, and for human beings the world over.” They should worry about economic jitters, especially if Trump follows through on his threat to start trade wars, and about civic unrest in cities and on campus.

And then there are the consequences for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Many Democrats will dismiss these concerns, and hope for the right’s decline. But I believe the future health of the country requires two competent, constructive, competitive parties and a range of conservative insights. I further believe that Trump will destroy the Republican Party if he is elected. Ilya Somin has it right when he details how frequently Trump is against the Constitution:

For many years, Trump has sought to undermine freedom of speech (in order to shut down his critics) and constitutional property rights (in order to empower government to seize property for transfer to influential developers, including himself). He also wants to gut constitutional constraints on executive power, in numerous areas – going even farther in that respect than Bush and Obama. Much of this is a result of his deep authoritarian streak, exemplified by his lonstanding admiration for brutal tactics of foreign strongmen like Vladimir Putin and the Chinese communists who perpetrated the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The list of unconstitutional policies promoted by Trump increases almost daily. Just in the last two weeks, he has advocated gutting the Sixth Amendment rights of terrorism suspects (including even US citizens with no known connections to foreign terrorist groups) and outlined a maternity leave policy that includes unconstitutional sex discrimination.

As Somin goes on to write, “Even worse than Trump’s immediate agenda is his potential long-term impact on the Republican Party and its judicial philosophy. Trump seeks to transform the GOP into into a European-style big-government nationalist party, such as the French National Front. As prominent originalist constitutional scholar Randy Barnett points out, ‘[i]f Trump takes over the Republican Party it’s likely to become a right-wing nationalist party of the kind you see in Europe.’ In the long run, such a party would have little use for originalism, free markets, property rights, or constitutional constraints on government power.”

Somehow, many longtime Republicans who support Donald Trump don’t see how shortsighted they are being, even as Trump campaign manager Stephen Bannon is on record literally asserting that he wants to “bitch-slap” people like them.

* * *

A lot of people who can’t quite bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton don’t want to reward her for what they and I regard as a series of discreditable behaviors.

They don’t want to be “with her.”

I am voting for Hillary Clinton because whether my vote rewards her or not matters far less to me than whether it prevents Donald Trump from four years of stoking ethnic anxieties of whites, disparaging Hispanics and Muslims, insulting women from the biggest bully pulpit in the nation, destabilizing the economy and the world order, feuding on Twitter when he ought to be focused on the nation’s problems, and generally causing much more harm and misery than the country or the world would have had to suffer if voters had been sensible enough to defeat him.

I’m not “with her.”

I’m with the Hispanics who won’t be insulted by the president if Hillary Clinton is elected, the Muslim Americans who won’t fear nakedly discriminatory religious tests, the African Americans who won’t be subject to Trump’s nationwide stop-and-frisk proposal, the journalists who won’t be targeted by Trump’s proposed tightening of libel law, and the women who don’t want a pussy-grabber in the Oval Office.

I’m with every young conservative who believes in a principled version of the political philosophy and doesn’t want it hijacked by protectionists and white nationalists.

I’m with the NATO allies that want to count on America’s word, and every person on earth who’ll sleep easier on November 9 knowing Trump’s finger won’t be on the button.

This is not a drill.

If you’re a constitutional conservative, or a classical liberal, or a Bernie Sanders progressive, or a libertarian, civil or otherwise, this is what it looks like when civic duty compels you to use the franchise to stop a demagogue. Trump is a shameless liar, he stokes ethic tensions, he shows disdain for the Constitution, he prides himself on seeking revenge against all who slight him, he proposes torture and killing innocents, he has no experience of success in government because he has no experience of it at all, and he is ignorant of almost every policy area that he’ll influence.

What does it mean to safeguard the civic norms that make American democracy possible if not casting a vote for whatever candidate is likeliest to beat that demagogue? He imperils so much that I hold dear. And so, in the hope that he is defeated, I will go to my polling place and vote for the only candidate who can beat him.

That is why I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

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