Why I Won’t Vote for Joe Donnelly
Or the ethical and strategic limits of red-baiting
Over the past two years I have written over sixty pieces arguing that Trumpism poses a clear and present danger to liberal democracy; that an effective opposition to Trumpism must involve resistance but also the deepening of democracy; and that given the nature of the US political system, this means reinvigorating the Democratic Party as a party that advances the values of civic equality and social justice.
Over these past 24 months I have developed a number of “lesser evil” arguments, sometimes to support the center, and sometimes to support the left, and always to do my very small part to promote intelligent debate about the importance of resisting Trumpism on ethical-political grounds because it threatens liberal democracy, human rights, and social justice.
For this reason, I published a piece two months ago explaining why I would vote for incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly in my home state of Indiana even though I find his right-wing views to be deeply objectionable.
I continue to believe that the upcoming elections will profoundly shape the future of American politics, and that Democratic victories are essential to end Republican dominance, halt Trumpism, and lay the basis for greater victories in 2020. And I was prepared to hold my nose and vote for Donnelly in November.
Then his new ad came out.
And I watched it in disbelief. And I was sickened. And outraged. And then I realized: Donnelly had crossed a line and I could no longer vote for him. This realization can be described as a decision. But it originated in a simple and visceral reaction, something not really chosen at all: revulsion. The language of “here I stand and I can do no other” is hyperbolic in this case, and I am surely no Martin Luther. But it expresses the essential truth developed in one of my favorite books, Albert Camus’s The Rebel: sometimes just “No!”
Here is Donnelly’s ad, neatly described by this headline in the Indy Star: “Joe Donnelly criticizes ‘radical left’ in unlikely ad for Democrat.”
As is my wont, I immediately posted this on Facebook:
I have written some pieces about the complex judgments facing Joe Donnelly in his Senate campaign. I’ve had some interesting discussions and debates with friends on Facebook about these matters. And whatever my criticisms, I have said that I will vote for Donnelly in November.
I’ve now seen his most recent ad, and having done so, I’ve decided that I WILL NOT VOTE FOR DONNELLY.
In this ad he does more than position himself as the authentic heir to Reagan and the ally of Trump — in other words, not really a Democrat at all.
This ad is red-baiting pure and simple, and in it Donnelly chooses to appeal to Republicans by attacking the left, by feeding Trumpist hysteria about the left, and by targeting people like me and those, to my left, who I regard as colleagues, allies, and fellow citizens.
This ad is toxic.
Is Braun worse? Yes. But the margin is narrowing. And there are certain lines whose crossing I can’t abide.
Donnelly has crossed the line. On ethical grounds I cannot vote for him, and I regret having given him money earlier this year. And on political grounds, I am willing to make this judgment: while there is a real risk to 6 years of Braun, who will vote with Trump 100% of the time rather than Donnelly’s proud 70% of the time, there is also a risk to further solidifying this reactionary Democrat in office. I would rather support those who can honestly stand by the LEFT LIBERAL VALUES I hold dear, and who cannot abide his red-baiting, and who will work to promote a REAL DEMOCRAT for this Senate seat in 2024.
Donnelly had “made his bed.” Let him sleep in it. He wants to attract right-wing voters by red-baiting people on the left? Perhaps this will work for him. But he has lost me. And as someone on the left, I say, on both moral and political grounds, FUCK JOE DONNELLY.
Nothing I have ever have posted has received so much instantaneous and outraged response, and from my friends! While many of these people are regular followers of my writing, almost all of them proceeded to school me as if I was some kind of political naif. “We can’t afford to lose the Senate” (we don’t have the Senate, and are not likely to get it, but who is “we” anyway?). “So you are voting for Braun?” (this deserves no comment). “You remind me of Jill Stein” (again, no comment). “So you are proposing that we get into another circle, like in 2016, and shoot at each other rather than at our enemies?” (well, actually, it is Donnelly who has decided to turn his fire on me and on those on the Democratic and democratic left who have supported him even as he tacked farther and farther rightward; I don’t know about you, but it is hard to regard that as the action of a “friend”; and when fired upon, it makes some sense to take cover and figure out how to resist your attacker).
And so, I have spent the last few days skirmishing with my friends on Facebook. Some are annoyed. One even declared that I made her feel sick. It appears we have not yet escaped the culture of narcissism.
There are two reasons I will not vote for Donnelly. The first is ethical-political, and the second is strategic. Both are important to me, and indeed they go together, as I will now explain. But first a short preface.
1. Preface: Who Cares How Jeff Isaac Votes?
Apparently, a great many people care.
I surely care how I vote. I believe that every individual citizen has the right to vote, that this is a precious and hard-won right, and that on election day each person really should decide for themselves how they wish to vote. I greatly regretted that some people abstained or voted for Jill Stein in November 2016. But in all of my pieces supporting Clinton, I never once argued that these people had a moral obligation to share my political judgment, and at no time since the election have I ever “blamed” anyone for Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. Political outcomes are complicated. At the end of the day, if you really believe in democracy then you have to believe that no politician is ever morally entitled to anyone else’s vote, and every single vote must be earned. If there are people who decide that they cannot vote for Donnelly because of what he has said, and then Donnelly loses, then his loss is not the responsibility of those individuals; it is the responsibility of Donnelly, whose rhetorical choices failed to garner the requisite votes.
My individual vote is ultimately a purely subjective decision with an infinitesimal effect. What has annoyed people is that I have said, publicly, that I will not vote for Donnelly. And indeed, for me, it is the saying of this that is most important.
Voting is a complex collective decision process, and it is decided not by individual votes, but by large aggregative processes amidst broader political processes. The act of voting is a small act linked to a wide range of other acts. Acts like saying “vote for me because I hate the socialists as much as you do, and I can better defend you against them than my opponent.” And “I want to keep the Mexicans out as much as Trump does.” And “I deplore those liberal mobs too.” In other words, acts like Donnelly’s current ad.
For me, voting is only the tip of an iceberg of deeper and more consequential commitments that spread over a lifetime. This is the truth of what Henry David Thoreau famously said many years ago:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.
I am no Thoreau. But I do regard my vote as but one, very limited, expression of those political values that make me who I am. There is always a next election, and then another — until democracy itself is threatened. Democracy is being threatened now, and intelligent people should realize that there is more than the next election to think about.
Playing to and stoking fear of “the left” and “liberals” and “socialists” is wrong, dangerous, and fundamentally hostile to democracy. It dishonors American history and my heroes. And those politicians who do this, whatever their party label, must be called out, and condemned, in the strongest possible terms. What Donnelly is doing is politically destructive, and even if it succeeds in getting him elected in the state of Indiana, this can only come at a great cost — the poisoning of our public culture and the weakening of the Democratic Party as a party that might represent liberal values worth defending.
And so, I declare that I will not vote for Donnelly. Because it is in my power to do so, and because for me democratic politics is about ideals and ideas and not about partisan allegiances. And because I am a writer, and my vocation is to explain my thinking, to enter into discussion and debate with others, and to in some small way promote the values I hold dear. The force of my words is limited. And my words are deliberately chosen. I am not telling anyone else what to do. I am explaining my own choice. I hope that some others might take my concerns seriously. And if the simple declaration of my intention not to vote for Donnelly is capable of riling up some people, might it perhaps be because the words touch a nerve?
2. The ethical reason I will not vote for Donnelly
Donnelly is a conservative Democratic politician in a conservative state. Like most politicians, what he says and does politically is a combination of what he actually believes and what he thinks he must say and do in order to gain and keep his job as an elected official. “Joe” has long presented himself as a “blue collar” guy who is socially conservative and “pro-life,” committed to “common sense Hoosier fiscal responsibility,” and dedicated to “working across the aisle” with Republicans. As he has faced challenges from the right, he has positioned himself further and further rightward, declaring with pride that he votes with Trump over 60% of the time and that Trump appreciates and even praises him. He has also loudly proclaimed that he seeks to “protect” Hoosiers from “illegal immigrants” by supporting Trump’s border wall (perhaps you didn’t realize that Indiana’s Kentucky and Illinois borders are dangerous places indeed; Barack Obama still owns a home up north, and to the south there is Ashley Judd!).
As I said in August, these commitments are deplorable. But Donnelly’s new political ad is more deplorable, and crossed a more serious line: the line separating objectionable and reactionary policy positions and statements, from positions and statements that contribute to the Trumpist assault on liberal democracy itself . There is nothing “normal” about this. Donnelly is not simply linking himself to Trump but adopting the very language of Trump, about immigrants, but also about fellow citizens who protest, and even fellow citizens who challenge Trump when Trump attacks those who protest. When Donnelly stands there with a giant axe in his commercial, and declares that while “the liberal left” seeks to “chop down the wall,” he stands for its construction, he is adopting the rhetoric and the visual bearing of fascism. And when he runs footage showing left-wing “mobs,” and says he stands against them, he is even more emphatically drawing from, and intensifying, the atmosphere of insecurity, fear, and resentment that is the very heart of Trumpism.
His liberal defenders will point out that at least 30% of the time “Joe” votes against Trump, and especially that he voted against Kavanaugh. But this is incredibly short-sighted. For it is notable that Donnelly is adopting Trump’s rhetoric, deliberately, now: after the Kavanaugh battle, and at a time when Trump and the entire Republican Party is seeking to mobilize the hatred of their base against the Democrats and especially against those who took to the streets to demonstrate against Kavanaugh.
On October 1 I published a piece on the Kavanaugh hearings in which I wrote about Ana Maria Archila, the woman who confronted Jeff Flake in the elevator, and who was celebrated by every liberal I know during these days, and rightly so. As I pointed out then, she is not simply a brave woman but a grass-roots activist and Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy. The Republicans immediately joined forces to denounce Archila as a radical, linking her to George Soros, and treating her as the face of “the mob.” Every day since, Trump has taken to the campaign trail in support of Republican candidates, and every rally he holds is a replay of the most hysterical Nuremburg-style rallies of his campaign, except that now cries of “lock her up!” are joined with new cries against “the Democratic mob.” Republican ads show footage of the anti-Kavanaugh demonstrators, and they fuel fear and hatred toward the demonstrators. And Donnelly’s new ad shows the same footage.
It makes no sense to say that Trumpism represents a real threat, and that the November elections are crucial in order to resist the threat, and then ignore the fact that Joe Donnelly is strengthening the Trumpist threat. Does he really believe the things he says? It does not matter. Politics is not about motives, it is about consequences. Donnelly is throwing gasoline on the flames of right-wing extremism.
To refuse to call this out, loudly, clearly and passionately, is to be complicit.
I cannot do this and be true to myself.
This refusal is ethical, grounded in my sense of right and wrong. There are some lines that are simply impossible to cross without deep cost to one’s sense of self and one’s sense of decency.
On this topic, I will give the last word for now to one of my heroes, Vaclav Havel, who often went against the grain and sometimes even seemed hopelessly foolish to his more “realistic” friends who thought they understood power better than he did: “even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.” It turns out that Havel knew some stuff, and that some of his self-righteous friends lived to regret their short-sightedness.
3. The strategic-political reason I will not vote for Donnelly
Moral conscience and personal integrity are surely important things. At the same time, my objection to Donnelly involves more than “keeping my hands clean,” and is linked to a broad political purpose: the opposition to Trumpism and the creation of a better politics that can banish it to the nether regions of our society.
The most common “objection” to my position is that by not voting for Donnelly I am thus strengthening, however marginally, the chance of Braun winning, which would give another Senate seat to the Republicans and thus strengthen Trumpism. If my choice is in fact having the effect of strengthening Trumpism, and if I know this, then what I am doing is surely counterproductive, idiotic, and indeed ethically objectionable.
But that is a very big “if,” and there are three reasons why.
The first is minor, but worth noting nonetheless: because all talk about consequences is speculative and probabilistic. We simply can’t know in advance. Those who are so certain about the effects of my choice might regard a vote for Donnelly as the logical “default” position for anyone not a Trumpist. But that position too requires more by way of justification than outraged statements. Blather about Jill Stein won’t do it.
And this leads to my second reason: this “default” in favor of voting for Donnelly gives too much credit to what a Donnelly victory is likely to achieve. It is true that Donnelly voted against Kavanaugh (it is quite amazing how this single issue has suddenly become the fixation of so many). But he voted to confirm Gorsuch; it is virtually certain that he would have voted to confirm the more conservative Amy Coney Barrett had she been nominated; and Donnelly has already made very clear that he is not a supporter of reproductive freedom. There is simply no reason to think there is much daylight between him and Braun when it comes to future court appointments.
Donnelly might have a higher ACLU rating than most Republicans. But he supports Trump’s border wall, ICE policy, and general approach to restricting immigration. He condemns socialist and liberal activists for their policy advocacy and their use of protest — a time-honored political tactic protected by the First Amendment. His ads suggest he is as bullish on “law and order” as Braun. In short, the differences between Donnelly and Braun do not center on the worst features of Trumpism, and even these differences are more uncertain that it might first appear. When you factor in that it is highly unlikely that the Democrats can hope to take the Senate in November, the small difference between Donnelly and Braun is even less important.
Further, in the upcoming elections the House and not the Senate is the most important site of contestation, and flipping the House is the Democrats’ most important priority.
I cannot imagine a scenario in which I wouldn’t support Donnelly if he were running for a House seat in November, for every House election now matters. In the same way, Presidential elections are absolutely crucial elections. It is imperative to elect a Democrat, any Democrat, in 2020, because it is imperative to remove Trump and Pence from the White House. If Donnelly—God forbid!!!!!!—were running for President against Trump or Pence, my ethical objections would loom large, but my assessment of the political situation would be different. I would still condemn him, but I would also hold my nose tight and vote for him. But this is not 2016, and it is not 2020, and the question of whether or not to vote for Donnelly for the Senate has nothing in common with debates in 2016 about whether to vote for Clinton for President.
To sum up: it is clear that the marginal benefits of Donnelly’s Senate victory are much smaller than most claim, and that the marginal costs of his defeat are also much smaller.
And this leads me to the most important reason behind my decision: because the November election does not simply present us with discrete choices on a state-authorized ballot. It is a “national” election, centered on one fundamental question: will Trump’s xenophobic, racist, sexist, and inegalitarian vision of “American greatness” prevail, or will it be halted, and defeated, by an alternative vision of civic equality, human dignity, and social justice?
Donnelly’s red-baiting might be motivated by his own Indiana concerns. But the poison that he draws from, and spreads, does not stop at the state borders, nor will it evaporate on Election Day. Across the country exciting new candidates are running for office as democratic leftists. Some are running in liberal districts; some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, are even running as democratic socialist Democrats. But many are running very strong campaigns for statewide office in “red states.” Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, for example, are running strong and competitive campaigns as liberals who are harsh critics of core features of Trumpism. Abrams is running not against “liberal mobs” but against the disenfranchisement of minority voters. O’Rourke, running in Texas, the reddest of red states, does not loudly support Trump’s border wall; he condemns it — though his state actually has a border with Mexico. And he is running as strong as any Democrat in recent memory.
These candidates represent the future of the Democratic party, and they give the lie to the claim that Donnelly-style reactionary campaigns are necessary in “red states.”
Donnelly has not simply chosen a different path; the path he has chosen involves making war on candidates like these, and declaring himself against those parts of the Democratic Party that are most central to a progressive revival. By choosing to seek victory in Indiana by these fear-mongering means, Donnelly is weakening these other Democratic candidates, in the current electoral cycle but also in the future. He is poisoning the political atmosphere, and he is declaring that the Democratic party will only be reinvigorated “over his dead body.”
Last week Bernie Sanders visited Bloomington to support the Congressional campaign of Liz Watson (who is running an issue-based progressive campaign with integrity). Sanders brought with him Nina Turner, the President of Our Revolution. The Sanders events were electrifying. Both Turner and Sanders spoke at a huge rally, and sounding the themes for which Sanders and Our Revolution are well known. Almost every one of my liberal friends who adamantly supports Donnelly attended these events. Many of them waited in line to shake “Bernie’s” hand. But none seemed to get the obvious performative contradiction: they are celebrating the most prominent socialist in U.S. politics, and at the same time they are supporting a Senate candidate (Donnelly) who is now running ads denouncing “the socialists” and feeding Trump’s hysterical rhetoric, which has as its main target . . . Bernie Sanders.
Lest I be accused of armchair moralizing, consider this: in his Bloomington speeches, Sanders spoke loudly about the need to support Liz Watson and for Democrats to win in November and in 2020. But he never mentioned Donnelly much less said “vote for Joe Donnelly.” For Sanders is serious about building a movement, and he knows that Donnelly has chosen not simply to run on “conservative” issues, but to run against his own party and its activist core, and against Sanders himself. And Sanders is no fool.
Donnelly might be marginally better in the Senate than Braun, though the margin is slimmer by the day. But the costs of his campaign extend beyond him. His rhetoric cuts against every progressive candidate running in Indiana and beyond. He has thus forfeited the right to expect any support from progressives. And so I will not vote for him.
I suspect that most liberals will hold their noses and vote for him nonetheless.
But I am frankly less concerned about how other liberals vote on November 6 than I am about what they say and do now.
If you are a liberal who will support Donnelly as the “lesser evil,” then don’t you think that you should declare, publicly, loudly, and now that you deplore his recent red-baiting ads; that you welcome leftist Democrats as party activists and as fellow citizens; that you strongly disagree with Donnelly about human rights and the importance of democracy in the streets; and that after November 6, whatever the outcome, you will work to support a progressive Democrat for Senate in 2024, someone who proudly embraces liberal values and who strongly opposes Trumpism?
It is, after all, possible to “pull the lever” for Donnelly in two weeks and still speak up, with integrity, now. I can hear the response. “Yes, yes, I hate the ad too. But now we must get him elected. Can’t you just wait a few weeks? We can turn to this later.”
There is always a “later.” But not for me. Donnelly has made a calculated, opportunistic, and cynical decision to seek the support of reactionary Republican voters by attacking the liberals and leftists in his own party. It appears increasingly possible that this maneuver will fail, and that Republican voters drawn to red-baiting rhetoric will prefer the real Republican Trumpist to the slimy Democratic facsimile. Should this come to pass, Donnelly will have only himself to blame. There are many brave Democrats who deserve our enthusiastic support, candidates who have sought to defend and to mobilize their core supporters. But Donnelly has betrayed them and he has betrayed us. He will get what he deserves. And we deserve better.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, forthcoming next month from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. Jeffrey C. Isaac wants to thank Deb Kent and Bob Orsi for their editorial suggestions.