Breaking the cycle of lesser evilism
NOVEMBER 4, 2016
The astonishing rise of Donald Trump has ratcheted the intensity of this argument to an unprecedented level. His open racism and misogyny has pushed many on the left to rally, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign. We share the disgust and revulsion at Trump that so many have expressed to justify their support for Clinton, and our preference is for a Clinton victory—which at this point is highly likely. As such, socialists should campaign for whomever they want (or nobody at all) without being browbeaten, guilted, or privilege-baited.
Hillary Clinton is a staunch defender of the status quo, and will not be a friend of social movements and the left when in office. We think our time and energy is much better spent on building opposition to her administration now instead of canvassing votes for her.
In practice, campaigning for Clinton entails convincing people that she and her party will move to do a number of things—attacking the finance sector, opposing bad free trade deals, raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, defending and expanding Social Security, etc.—they are not likely to do. Socialists should not undertake this work because it has the potential to undermine our efforts to build a base after the election, when all too often the promised effort to “hold the Democrats accountable” doesn’t materialize.
There is always a new threat from the right to rally against, a new opportunity to insist that maybe this election will really be different. More importantly, institutions like unions that would have the most capacity to enforce accountability pursue a self-preservation strategy that depends upon access to Democratic politicians. If forced to choose between confrontation and access, they will choose access—the same way that most of them chose Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.
Our dissatisfaction with the old formula goes beyond this seemingly endless presidential campaign. The choice on offer this November shows just how ineffective it has been on its own terms. For decades, Republicans have moved steadily to the right while most Democrats, with the votes of a potential left-wing base safely in their pockets, have moved ever further to the neoliberal center.
As a defensive strategy focused on protecting the institutional infrastructure of the left, it has been remarkably unsuccessful. One only has to look at the labor movement for a measure of its ineffectiveness—union political spending hits a new record high each election cycle, but union membership declines and working class living standards continue to crumble.
We agree with everyone else on the left that social movements are of critical importance. Militant and dynamic movements are absolutely necessary to disrupt the political system and foster the conditions for a new resurgence of the left. To that end, we participate in and support worker organizing campaigns, Black Lives Matter, minimum wage fights, and every struggle against racial, gender, and sexual oppression.
While social movements are a necessary condition for the emergence of a new left, they are not sufficient. A new left needs a new approach to electoral politics, an approach that takes seriously the need to build independent political formations—including new left-wing and socialist parties.
The US has a rich tradition of third party challenges to the two-party system, and they were not simply motivated by a sense of ethical purity. The Liberty and Free Soil parties helped to put abolition on the nation’s agenda, and contributed to the political fissures that resulted in the most successful third party in our history—the Republicans. After the Civil War, new parties of workers, farmers, populists, and socialists put demands for change on the agenda and propelled party militants into office at all levels of government, particularly at the state and local levels. Their success inspired a backlash resulting in the passage of “reforms” aimed at getting these forces out of politics—voter registration, high thresholds for ballot access, bans on fusion voting, etc. These laws, followed by integration of the labor movement into the New Deal coalition of the 1930s, led many on the left to conclude that independent political organization was a dead end. The formula that resulted—build social movements while voting for Democrats—continues to dominate today.
Advocates of the old formula often argue that the two main parties are simply lines on a ballot, or perhaps a “field of struggle” that the left can step on to and potentially win. While these parties are more loosely organized than their counterparts around the world, they still represent recognizable teams of interest groups, donors, and elected officials. While the Democrats and the Republicans have their respective popular bases, their organizational structures and funding networks are dominated by the rich and corporations. This means that each party will, by and large, choose issues and themes that reflect those interests. When Democratic leaders have to choose between articulating the interests of union members and people of color, or those of the financial, media, and technology elites that fund their campaigns, who usually wins? One only needs to compare the needs and preferences of the vast majority with the shape of actual policy to know the answer to that question.
We reject the realignment strategy that has guided much of the left’s electoral orientation for decades. We do not, however, call for an immediate and total break from voting for or supporting any Democratic candidate. We all fervently supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, and recognize that he probably would have been a footnote to the campaign if he tried to run as an independent. Voting for Democratic candidates in specific state and local races can be justified in many circumstances.
But if we want to move beyond the cycle of mobilization and retreat that dominates left electoral activity in the US, we have no choice but to build our own political formations, as difficult as that will be. They will have to do what all parties do—run candidates for office, particularly in states and localities where competition between Democrats and Republicans is low. Considering the many institutional barriers to effective independent politics, they will also have to launch fights to change ballot access laws and other measures aimed at maintaining the two-party duopoly.
Beyond that, they should also focus on building the intellectual and organizational capacities of their base between elections, and raise people’s expectations of what is possible instead of managing them downward. And perhaps most importantly, they must resist the tendency of unions and other social movement organizations to prioritize short-term interests and goals above all other concerns.
The Sanders campaign and the mini-revival of protest activity shows us that millions of people are fed up with the political order and want an alternative to it. Instead of accepting and working within the limitations of the system they despise, why not begin the hard work of offering one to them?