The Great Lesser-Evil Illusion

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Justin Schwartz

EVERY FOUR YEARS, progressives in the United States drop whatever they are doing and rush to support the least disgusting Democratic candidate in the primaries—this year Tom Harkin or Jerry Brown—then in the general election they reluctantly back Clinton or Dukakis or Mondale.

They do not do this because they like Democrats. Progressives say rather that the Democrats are the lesser evil. That they are evil is not denied. But; it is said, the Republicans are even more evil. The reliable support offered to Democrats by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Communist Party USA, shows that even socialists are not immune to this folly.

Because it is folly: The Democratic alternative is no alternative at all for people who care about peace and justice whether or not they support socialism. The real alternative is independent political action, outside the one-party system which offers us a choice between Demicans and Republocrats. I’m not saying, “Don’t vote; it only encourages them.” I’m saying the political activity that matters today is in grassroots movements.

I myself would encourage a vote for Ron Daniels’ independent campaign this year. It is also noteworthy that both the National Organization for Women and parts of the labor movement (e.g., Labor Party Advocates) are exploring third-party prospects. But it matters less what we do in the four minutes we spend in the voting booth than what we do in the four years between presidential elections. A vote for a Clinton or a Dukakis is wasted in any event, but time spent campaigning for or as Democrats is worse than a waste. It is a mistake.

The Democrats under Clinton may win if the economy does not revive by November, but if they do we will have another chance to test my expectation that electing a Democrat would not make any real difference in addressing the basic problems we face. Understanding why the Democrats lost the last three elections and why they may lose what should be a shoo-in will show why their victory would be hollow for progressives.

We can see this if we ask: What have the Democrats made of two decades of disaster in which they have won only one presidential election? After the defeat of Dukakis, as after those of Carter and Mondale, the Democratic leadership argued that the candidate was too liberal, out of tune with the mainstream. The Democrats have accepted the rhetoric of the Republicans and the conventional wisdom of the media. Harkin, who advocated a diluted “New Deal” (but no national health care, lest that frighten Iowa-based insurance business) was hooted offstage by the press for advocating the “same old stuff” Democrats have always purportedly offered.

Running Right of Nixon

In fact they haven’t been offering “that stuff” lately. The lesson Democrats have drawn from their defeats has been to make a continuous slide to the right, as Mondale was to the right of Carter and Dukakis to the right of Mondale. Clinton—surprise!—is to the right of Dukakis. Indeed, on many issues he is to the right of Richard Nixon. That’s the ticket, the party bosses and the media say: Nominate a Democratic Richard Nixon.

Even from their point of view this may prove suicidal. As Truman said, given the choice between a Republican and a Republican, the voters will choose the Republican every time. But even if the Democrats win with this strategy, we lose. A Nixon is still a Republican, even if he’s a Democrat But I may malign Nixon, who, between crimes, created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, expanded affirmative action for women and minorities, funded social programs at what would be today unimaginable levels, and called for a guaranteed annual income. A Democrat who advocated Nixon’s policies would be dismissed in 1992 as a lunatic leftist. What the Democrats want is their own George Bush. In Bill Clinton they have come close.

The Official Story is deeply flawed. In the first place, the Democratic candidates have not been too liberal. Lately they haven’t been liberal at all. In the second place, the mainstream is far to the left of either Bush or Clinton. The problem is with the party, not with the people. Some recent history is in order.

In 1984, Mondale ran the most right-wing campaign of any Democrat hitherto, campaigning on an austerity program of putting the working class through the wringer of higher taxes to maintain the Reagan-Carter arms buildup and to “balance the budget.” Because he wanted to keep social spending at the reduced level at which Reagan left it, the party concluded that he was too liberal. In 1986, the Democratic Policy Commission released, New Choices in a Changing America. Its point, one DPC member explained, “was to get out from under the false image that Democrats are weak on defense, have weird lifestyles, and are big taxers and spenders.”

But Mondale was at least a liberal. When Reagan accused Dukakis of liberalism, he replied, “I think the President is a little confused.” Given his record as an austerity governor, his demurral was perfectly correct. To hammer it home, Dukakis picked as his running mate Lloyd Bentsen, a conservative Texas oil multimillionaire whose main distinction was that, as a senator, he authored the report calling for the shift to supply-side economics in 1977—under Carter Cold-shouldering Jesse Jackson, the Democrats chose a “Southern Strategy” which took African Americans for granted and went for white backlash Reagan Democrats.

In 1992 the nominee is Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas, a right-to-work, non-union state which is near the bottom in every measure of social well-being: spending on education, health and welfare, per capita income, wages, occupational safety. To appear “tough” on crime, Clinton refused to commute the death sentence of a brain-damaged African American. His idea of welfare reform is workfare—but not providing decent jobs or childcare for those forced to work or (frankly) starve. Real wages have fallen 19% since 1973, to the level of 1959, but Clinton proposes tax cuts for “the middle class”—a notion from which he has since retreated without offering any alternatives.

Clinton’s health care policy is a “reform” that will cut costs by reducing benefits. In foreign policy his silence on cuts in military spending in the face of the Soviet collapse speaks volumes, as does his toleration of illegal semi-private support for the contra war out of Arkansas in the 1980s. All of this is just about what one would expect of the chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, the white center-right Southern-dominated caucus which has led the Democratic right turn.

Is The Public Conservative?

So the Democratic candidates have not been too liberal. But perhaps (so the argument goes) the public is even more conservative. Well-off liberals think of working people as reactionary Neanderthals.

Racism is strong among white Americans of all classes. But Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, in Right Turn (1986) cite a New York Times/CBS poll in November 1984, after Reagan’s re-election, which found “no suggestion that the American public has grown more conservative. There is more willingness now to spend money on domestic programs” (16). Here are some supporting data (drawn from Public Opinion Quarterly):

• In January 1986, 66% thought government should support Great Society style programs to help the poor, only 40% thought that the poor could get along without assistance as opposed to 51% in 1981. Polls show strong support for aid to cities after the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion protesting the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King.

Between 1981 and 1987, support for increased federal spending on day care rose from 38% to 57%; on Medicare from 44% to 61%; on Social Security from 49% to 63%. Support for widened health benefits was crucial in the Pennsylvania Senate race last year, where liberal Harris Wolford upset Bush’s candidate former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.

• In January 1988, 87% of Americans opposed cutting social welfare programs to deal with the deficit, 33% approved of higher taxes, and 59% called for cutting the military budget. Support for greater military spending briefly rose in 1979-80, during the Iran hostage affair and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but plummeted from 71% to 14% by 1983.

• In 1990,71% of Americans thought the government should spend more on environmental protection, up from 48% in 1980, and 54% thought that preserving the environment required more government regulation, up from 33% in 1980. Sixty-four percent agreed that “We must sacrifice economic growth to preserve and protect the environment,” up from 41% in 1981.

Bush is right—the Democrats are out of the mainstream. But Bush is even further out of the mainstream. The mainstream is a public consensus firmly in favor of social spending at the expense of the military budget, comprehensive health care coverage, and increased assistance to the jobless and the poor.

These attitudes are consistent over time. In an important study, “Liberal and Conservative Trends in the United States Since World War II,” Tom Smith concludes that “in terms of the ‘big picture,’ the view in [post-war] America has mainly been to the left Liberal and conservative trends have been about equal in magnitude, but liberal trends have outnumbered conservative trends two to one.” Liberal attitude growth “on average levelled off in the 1970s, but did not move in a conservative direction” (Public Opinion Quarterly 1990).

That these results appear surprising is partly due to the myth, promulgated in the media, of a “right turn” in the 1970s, but also maybe understood in terms of a fact noted by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their classic study The Political Beliefs of Americans (1968). They found that U.S. voters are “ideological conservatives” who like the rhetoric of small government and personal responsibility but are “operational liberals” who support welfare state programs and progressive goals when these are stated in concrete terms.
Much depends on the wording of surveys. Barry Sussman reports that in a 1985 poll only 19% said too little was spent on “welfare,” but 63% thought too little was spent on “assistance to the poor” (What Americans Really Think, 1988, 100).

The Losers

The question then is: why do Democrats lose if the conventional wisdom is wrong? And why the rightward drift of the party in the face of public commitment to New Deal programs? The answer takes us to the heart of why the Democratic Party is a dead end for progressives.

Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis lost because not enough people voted for them. This may seem stupefyingly obvious, but in fact it is quite deep. Reagan and Bush won with just over 25% of the potential electorate. Half of eligible Americans don’t vote. If they did, the GOP would never win an election with anything like its current program. The half that doesn’t vote is the half that would benefit most by increasing social expenditures, taxing the rich, and cutting the military, budget—African Americans and other minorities, the unemployed, the poor, the working class.

They don’t vote because the Democrats offer them nothing but the chance to give more money to S&L speculators, the Pentagon, and the rich investors to whom we owe the national debt Obstacles to voter registration, which is more difficult in the United States than in any other democracy, worsen the problem, but the problem is that the main nonvoting groups have no one to vote for, no party that represents their concerns.

The Democrats, as they themselves repeatedly emphasize, are a pro-business party. The “permissible” ideological spectrum in the United States starts at center right with Clinton—the campaign made clear that even Brown and Harkin are too far left—and goes to far right past Bush to Buchanan. No wonder 68% of Americans agree that “neither party really represents working people.” Contrast the United States with other countries which have a mass social democratic party which stands in some sense for the interests of working people. In Canada, general elections turn out 85% of the eligible voters. In France, there was concern because “only” 80% of the electorate voted in the last presidential elections (1987). A real choice produces wide participation. This cuts both ways: wide participation pushes the permitted spectrum leftwards.

In Canada, the Conservatives won the last two elections, but they implement policies left of anything the Democrats have even promised since Truman’s time, including national health care and comprehensive unemployment insurance. Because of mass participation, a Canadian conservative would be a left-wing extremist in the United States. And in Canada the mildly social democratic New Democratic Party governs Ontario, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. It’s as if the Democratic Socialists of America won the legislature and governorships of California, New York and Texas.

Without mass participation, politics becomes the playground for elites offering variations on programs acceptable to themselves. Today this means a vast transfer of wealth from ordinary working people to the rich via the military budget and tax breaks. The Democrats don’t challenge this. There are two main reasons why.

One reason is that money talks, and big money talks big. The 1984 presidential election cost $180 million, of which federal funds accounted for only $115 million. The rest came from Political Action Committees (PACs), mostly corporate. Dukakis and Bush each raised around $50 million in PAC money. Bush and Clinton will beat that by $10 million each this time around. So it’s not surprising that they agree that the Pentagon can’t be seriously cut and the rich shouldn’t be taxed. They disagree mainly over whether our money should go to Star Wars or to bailing out the S&Ls. Why indeed should the working class or the poor vote?

The Democrats’ Dilemma

A second and perhaps more disturbing reason that the Democrats are unlikely to support progressive policies is the factor of racism in U.S. politics. If the Democrats lose because they fail to offer their potential constituents a reason to support them, Thomas and Mary Edsall show in Chain Reaction (1991) that Republicans have forged a winning coalition between affluent and poorer whites based on race. We need not concur with the Edsalls’ distasteful tendency to blame the victim to recognize that the Republican ascendancy has a lot to do with real working-class and middle-class racism.

The crude racism that was the norm only thirty years ago has become unacceptable, but race, expressed in the coded language of “welfare,” “taxes,” and “crime,” was the central issue for the working-class Reagan Democrats who carried formerly solid Democratic areas for Reagan and Bush in the 1980s. In Macomb County, Michigan, a 1985 Democratic study showed that:

“These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about… politics….Blacks constitute the explanation for almost everything that has gone wrong in [these voters’] lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live…. [V]irtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms…. The special status of blacks is perceived by almost all of these individuals as a serious obstacle to their personal advancement.” (Edsall and Edsall, 182)

In the Reagan Democrats’ minds, the Democrats are the party of “special interests”—Blacks and other “deviant” groups like gays, feminists, and criminals—and the Democratic language of “fairness” means giveaways to welfare loafers. This is ironic in view of the Democrat’s retreat from social justice, but the Republicans never had to retreat.

Racism is most salient in hard times, when Democratic redistribution and support, however qualified, for affirmative action pits white workers against the Black poor, but it is strong even in good times. White backlash became a major factor in the 1966 midterm elections, in the middle of the long boom, and after the passage of the 1%4 Civil Rights Act.

The affluent, predominantly Republican white suburbs will cast an absolute majority of the votes in 1992, and the devastation of the industrial working class means that Reagan Democrats are less central. “We don’t need their votes anymore,” said one GOP strategist after 1988 (Edsall and Edsall, 227).

This may mean campaigns less blatantly racist than Reagan’s or Bush’s—fewer Willie Hortons and welfare queens—but it presages ill for progressive politics. If the Democrats are to win, or even play, politics as usual, they must accommodate an electorate that doesn’t care about the Black inner cities or the working class.

Some reluctant liberals, like the Edsalls, accept this conclusion and advocate distancing the Democrats from “special interests,” making the image of their party as white as the GOP’s while taking modest steps to preserve what is left of the economic gains of the New Deal and the Great Society for “the middle class” This is what a number of Democratic strategists call—”populism!”

In Minority Party (1991), Peter Brown approvingly quotes Louisiana Senator John Breaux: “If we want to win [Blacks) have to moderate [their] positions…. [Democrats must say:] Are you better off with a candidate who goes down in flames or a moderate Democrat?” and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, whose advice is to “go all out and get those white voters … even if it risks losing some blacks” (330). Democratic National Committee member and pollster Natalie Davis told Alabama Democrats they should make 1989 “the year of the white male” (65). The Edsalls and Brown deny this is racist and, in a puff for Brown’s book, Clinton agrees: the white voters whom Democrats must accommodate “are not racist, but are acting out of perceived self-interest? Compromise is a necessity in politics, but this is capitulation.

Is There An Alternative?

Many reluctant progressives agree with my indictment, but point to the horrors of twelve years of Republican rule as the alternative: the inner cities in ruins, the unions in disarray, Roe v. Wade on the chopping block, the courts packed with militant reactionaries, military spending through the ceiling, the S&L crisis and bailout, draconian cuts in welfare, education, and health spending. Congressional Democrats approved all that, Mondale or Dukakis wouldn’t have reversed it, and Clinton won’t; but they offer a kinder, gentler exploitation.

This is a counsel of despair. Let those who advocate it be quite clear on that. On this view, there is no hope for progressives in this country: The people may support liberal and left economic policies, but the argument concedes that for the foreseeable future the rich and the racists will rule. We can affect only whether it will be the utterly ruthless rich racists or the merely rapacious and reluctant ones.

Since this argument, correctly, grants that the Democratic slide to the right is irreversible, it amounts to a case for supporting whomever the Democrats put up no matter how far to the right they go—as long as the Republicans are further to the right (and they will be). People who advocate this should ask themselves whether there is a limit. The Democrats are already to the right of Nixon. Should they be supported if (or when) they go to the right of Reagan?

The issue of the Supreme Court is often raised in this context by people who are concerned to preserve what remains of the basic rights won under the Warren Court. Democrats will in general appoint better justices—although Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren. I do not minimize this concern, although I think the court is already lost to liberals for a generation or two,

It is, however, self-defeating for progressives to structure their activities around influencing the least democratic institution in the U.S. government rather than building the kind of mass democratic consensus which can force the legislatures and the courts to respect the interests of ordinary Americans.

To allow developments in the court to hold hostage the sort of political work that we do is not only to let the right set the agenda, and on far more favorable ground to the right than to us, it is to reinforce popular perceptions of the left as part of an anti-democratic “cultural elite” that lacks the support of those on whose behalf it claims to fight. Moreover, a Democratic Senate confirmed the right-wing justices on the Republican court.

Some have greater hopes—or more accurately, have hopes, because the lesser-evil argument offers no hope at all. If persistent punishment at the polls will not make the Democrats look more favorably at a more progressive candidate, these people hope that the Democratic Party will be thrown into disarray. This, it is hoped, will allow progressives to influence party, and in event of victory, national policy. Some, like Rainbow Coalition leader Jack O’Dell, fantasized in 1988 that if the party does not come around, “it will go out of existence and the Rainbow Coalition will become the second party,”

This is sometimes called an “inside-outside” strategy: progressives should support Democrats and build movements to keep them in line or even displace them. The most recent opportunity to test the prospects for this strategy was in Jesse Jackson’s campaigns of 1984 and 1988. (See my more detailed evaluation of the Jackson campaigns, “Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere,” ATC 16.) Jackson ran on a program closer to the mainstream than Mondale’s or Dukakis’, for increased social spending, taxing the rich and cutting the military.

But we know the tree by its fruits. What are the fruits of the Jackson campaigns? Have they moved the Democratic Party leftwards or given progressives any leverage in party policies? Does the Rainbow Coalition even exist anymore apart from a letterhead? The record I have reviewed speaks for itself. In part this failure is due to racism. But much of it is due to the nature of the Democratic Party itself.

What about this record makes us think we will do better this time around (or next)? Are any of the factors different? Will the Democratic Party cease to be run by business elites who profit by high military spending and cuts in social programs? Will PAC money cease to matter to politicians? Will Democratic National Committee Chair Ron Brown—a former Jackson campaign official—wake up to virtues of a shift to the left? Will Reagan Democrats embrace their Black neighbors or the suburbs reach out to the cities?

There’s an old saying that “it ain’t a trend till it’s happened twice.” Fair enough. It’s now happened four times since 1976. The factors which produced these defeats—for Democrats and for progressives—are still in place. How many times must it happen before we learn?

The “inside-outside” strategy is based on a fallacy. The conditions which its advocates claim make it necessary also show that it is impossible. We cannot, it is said, afford to work outside the Democratic Party because outside it we are too weak and disorganized to accomplish anything in the face of powerful and politically dominant right-wing forces. But if progressives are too feeble to stand on our own, how are we strong enough to take the Democratic Party away from its owners? And if we can do that, why do we need the Democrats?

In fact, we on the left are weak and disorganized. But that is not a reason to divide our efforts further by supporting those who are our antagonists—the Clintons and Dukakises and those who finance them.

So what’s the alternative? Is mine, too, a counsel of despair? Is there nothing we can do? To those who would change or split the Democratic Party, it is a counsel of despair: As far as that goes, there is nothing you can do. But the Democratic Party does not exhaust our options. There is independent political action, independent of the Democrats or the one-party system. This is the avenue through which change has always come. What we need is precisely more of that unrest on campus, turmoil in the streets, and militancy on the shop floor that have brought us every progressive gain worthy of mention.

If You Can’t Win, Change the Rules

Progressive change does not come from within the Democratic Party. It may be reflected there, and indeed in the GOP when the heat in the streets rises. This is true historically as well as today. In 1919, women forced suffrage on an unwilling establishment after decades of organizing. In the 1930s, union organizing rights were wrested from Roosevelt by militants in the auto factories and coal fields. In the 1950s and 1960s, segregation was legally abolished only after peaceful marches and unruly ghetto rebellion.

In the 1970s, women won reproductive rights and some measure of equality not by electing Democrats but by making a fuss. In the 1980s, the U.S. solidarity movements blocked an invasion of Nicaragua and El Salvador by grassroots protest, and the Freeze and European peace movements forced Reagan to negotiate real if limited disarmament by demonstrating, sitting in, and passing ballot initiatives.

Since race is the hardest issue, the one on which progressives are furthest out of the uncompromisingly racist (white) mainstream, it’s useful to look at the civil rights movement of the sixties. Lyndon Johnson would not have acted to end Jim Crow had not Martin Luther King, Jr, and countless lesser-known activists struggled for a decade independently of major party politics. Since King has become a plaster saint, most people have forgotten that in his day King was seen as a dangerous radical precisely because of his political independence.

In Parting the Waters (1988), Taylor Branch reminds us that the NAACP, which advocated a “gradualist” strategy of court-enforced desegregation and lobbying for civil rights, thought King’s nonviolent resistance irresponsible and counterproductive. But it took mass arrests, marches, sit-ins, and civil disobedience to make Johnson start to deliver on civil rights. I do not pretend to have a magic solution to pervasive racism, perhaps the fundamental problem facing American democracy—but the Democratic Party’s solution is surrender.

In each case, the “good guys” won what they did by changing the rules. Short of revolution, which is not presently in the cards, we must win reforms and struggle on electoral grounds, but we can’t win on those grounds without mass popular pressure, and that has to be generated outside the electoral arena. To those who want more from the Democrats, the lesson is: stay out of the party and build an organized movement to the left of it. Every day, every minute, spent campaigning for Democrats is time taken away from building the popular movements, the long-term hope of bringing about the changes we want—at a time when the movements are not precisely overflowing with surplus personnel.

Liberals think the truth is in the middle, which means that the truth moves left when the middle does. The real action is on the edges. That’s a lesson we might learn from the New Right, whose grassroots activity on the other side helped turn the party of Eisenhower into the party of Reagan. However, progressives waste their vote—there is no way to avoid this under the circumstances—our place is in the movements, building an independent alternative.

If we want systemic change, we need more than a fragmentary and disconnected series of movements winning (we hope) partial gains in a system that remains dominated by big business. If we want to break the power of big business and to bring the economy and society under small-d-democratic control; if we want, in one word, socialism, we will need our own party. We don’t have it yet and it’s not visible on the horizon. But we cannot make the Democratic Party into our party. That’s the real lesson for progressives of the recent history of Democratic defeats.

September-October 1992, ATC 40