The Left and the Elections

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

Christopher Phelps, Stephanie Luce and Johanna Brenner

TWO ELECTORAL PATHS will be taken by those left of center this year, and all the spilled ink in the world won’t affect the choices.

Appalled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, wholesale destruction of the environment, contempt for democracy, blurring of lines of church and state, erosion of reproductive rights, right-wing stacking of the judiciary, and tax bonanzas for the rich—appalled, in short, by the most reactionary administration in U.S. history—many this year will vote for Kerry and against Bush, simply to repudiate, if only symbolically, the conservative juggernaut.

A much smaller part of the left, knowing that a tiny stratum of wealthy corporate executives, lawyers and lobbyists holds the real power in Democratic and Republican circles alike, aware that both major parties are committed to a U.S.-dominated global empire, cognizant of the proximity of neoliberalism to conservatism, and keenly mindful that the rich-poor gap widened hugely under Clinton (who signed NAFTA, welfare reform, and prison-expansive crime legislation), will uphold independent political action.

They will vote for Nader, or whomever the Greens nominate, if only to register symbolic resistance to the corporate corruption of mainstream politics.  Maybe they’ll even vote for one of the miniscule radical parties that linger on the ballot.

Our position is that a reasonable case can be made for either of these left-wing responses to a baleful political situation that will not be resolved electorally.

Because the left is experiencing its weakest clout in memory, the proper stance for socialist organizations and publications in this election is not to endorse any candidate at the national level.  Individual revolutionaries and activists on the left should vote their conscience.

Social change in American history has never resulted from electoral politics, but from social and political movements.  Movements are only effective insofar as they mobilize widely and push their demands without compromise, that is, insofar as they stay independent of the major political parties.

Building Movements and Electoral Reform

Our common activity, therefore, should not be focused on the electoral arena, at least not at the national level, where the left can have almost no effect.  Our common activity should be bent upon building movements from below that are not beholden to either of the major political parties, the kind of movements that can fight against either a Bush or a Kerry administration to defend working-class and democratic interests and advance egalitarian-liberatory aims.

The left should lay claim to the teachable moment presented by election season.  Since elections focus people’s attention on politics, and since this race touches upon myriad issues important to us (war, jobs, health care, immigration, civil liberties, the environment), let’s find ways to engage people creatively.

Furthermore, elections offer a chance to begin promoting democratic electoral reform.  Only with changes to election methods will we resolve the dilemma of the lesser evil.

“Lesser evilism,” far from being an ideological deviation or moral failure of will in activists duped by the siren song of the Democrats, is a structural fate. It is inevitable so long as elections in the United States are governed by winner-take-all rules that render all alternatives to the major parties marginal and impotent.

All the pamphlets in the world will not displace lesser evilism so long as a system is in place that presents two choices in every contest—one slightly less bad than the other.

We are supporters of independent political action.  We do not believe that the Democratic Party is susceptible to a social democratic takeover, let alone a socialist one. We do not believe it will ever satisfy the needs of labor, people of color, women, gays, or its other constituents.  We do not believe that conscious intervention in it can lead to success for the left.

All historical evidence shows that leftists entering into the Democratic Party to transform it have instead watered down their aims and been transformed by it. This is all the more certain in the era of megamillion corruption.  Only independent campaigns rooted in programmatic principle, with leaders made accountable through strong democratic structures to their constituencies and base, will transform politics.

Such political campaigns independent of the major parties, for the foreseeable future, will only win in local races for school board, mayor, county commissioner, perhaps reaching somewhat higher—but not to the federal level.

Because of that, in races for Congress and the presidency, most voters believe the stakes too high and the odds too long to support third-party challenges at the polls.

(Exceptions, of course, may occur.  In Vermont, where the social movements of the 1960s transformed political culture, independent socialist Bernie Sanders took office in the 1980s by usurping a good part of the Democratic base and function.  This merely substantiates our ultimate point—that electoral politics will follow the social movements’ lead.)

Careful Dialogue Needed

Because of the widespread perception that the stakes are high at the federal level, we believe that great care must be taken when entering into dialogue with gay activists, feminists or civil libertarians (to take but a few examples) who are troubled by the implications of a second Bush term for their lives and commitments.

In such conversations, we believe, it is utterly sectarian to say that Democrats differ from Republicans only on “secondary questions” (the worst phrase in the generally excellent Solidarity pamphlet “Bush’s Wars, the 2004 Elections, and the Movements,” 14).

Such remarks will not contribute in the slightest to left-wing influence in the movements or to movement advancement.  Quite the opposite—for they will make the revolutionary socialist left seem uncomprehending.  But just this kind of slighting comment will crop up, time and again, if a policy of insisting upon the superiority of independent politics in every context and at every level is followed.

We hold a different view. We believe that there are logical reasons why radicals or activists might vote Democratic, reasons that in no way entail illusions about the reliability of Democratic politicians.  Most simply desire, viscerally, to see Bush and his cronies suffer a humiliating defeat.

Others believe that social realities are more clearly laid bare when the kinder, gentler bourgeois party is in power, noting that there are fewer illusions about the nature of the system’s workings when Democrats administrate austerity and war than when Republicans do. (Lenin made parallel arguments about the British Labour Party.)

Finally, corporations and the religious right most definitely do recognize a lesser evil, which ought to tell us something.  Not for nothing have they invested hundreds of millions of dollars and immense energy in ensuring the extension of Republican rule over all three branches of government and most states.

To the ruling class and our cultural opponents, there most definitely is a Republican preference.  For these reasons, we understand those who will vote Democratic defensively, though we take exception to any utopian rationalization of that choice (such as repainting the corporate-DLC Kerry in left-liberal hues).

The Dilemma of Alternatives

Independent alternatives, for their part, face a significant problem: Presidential campaigns outside the major parties simply cannot win. Even in the Socialist Party glory days of Debs, the strategy rendered only a six percent return at best. Higher water marks were reached by La Follette, Perot and other populists, but all were defeated.

The United States presents the quandary of a winner-take-all system that ensures marginality to any candidate apart from the major parties.  The 2000 election proved that yet again.  The vast majority of voters will always vote for the least objectionable candidate, however unimaginative visionaries of the left might find their choice.

There may nonetheless be reasons (educational or otherwise) to run independent campaigns.  But the prospects are especially meager this year. Unlike the Nader-Green ticket of 2000, which reflected post-Seattle global justice momentum and stood a reasonable chance of garnering federal matching funds for the Greens, this year’s independent electoral initiatives are fragmented and in disarray, and many who supported them before no longer do.

Nevertheless, we believe strongly that those on the left who wish to vote their conscience for a third party or independent candidate should be free to do so without facing belittling and browbeating from those who fear a Republican outcome.

We reject the recent liberal smear campaign to blame Nader for the failure of Gore. The Gore campaign was lackluster, inconsistent, and dimwitted; he lost his home state of Tennessee by a margin greater than Nader’s vote there, and he stopped advertising in the battleground state of Ohio four weeks before November.

There are, moreover, practical reasons why votes for independent candidates may have meaning and are not wasted.  There is the intrinsic value of registering dissent from the “duopoly,” as Nader aptly calls it, rather than abstaining entirely.  And some seek to create a crisis in the two-party system by using the perception of third-party spoiling as a lever for electoral reform.  They may very well have a point.

To summarize, at the presidential level, we consider individual voting for Democrats an understandable action when carried out by activists in the present environment—yet we also consider voting for independent political candidates an equally plausible response to the disastrous shift of mainstream politics to the right.

Both voting strategies have marked strengths and deficiencies, largely because they remain within the confines of the limited options presented by electoralism.

The Role of Organizations

We draw, however, a distinction between what is rational for individual voters of the left, and for socialist organizations or social movements.

Only under the rarest of conditions (where an expressly fascist outcome would be the result, for example) should Democrats or other capitalist parties be endorsed by socialist organizations and periodicals that stand for a principled politics of the left or by social movements of working people, environmentalists, women, gays, people of color, and others striving for social justice and transformation.

As movements, publications and organizations reflective of popular and working-class forces, it is imperative that social movements and socialist groups maintain their independence.

The lesson of the abolitionist movement that ended slavery, the feminist movement that won women the right to vote, the farmers’ alliances of the 1890s, the sitdown strikes of the 1930s that unionized basic industry, the Black-led civil rights movement, the student-based movement that ended the Vietnam War, the women’s movement that legalized abortion, and the gay liberation movement that expanded sexual freedom, among other mass movements in American history, is that autonomy from any major party is a prerequisite to the kind of bold and uncompromising militancy necessary to effect society-wide reconstruction.

Whenever such movements began to see their purpose in electoral terms—most commonly as the election of Democrats, preferably liberal Democrats—their resources, vision, and activity became redirected away from the street, community, workplace and movement, and they lost force.

This is why, in this election, we would urge groups that feel they have a great deal to lose from a Bush victory to use their constituents’ rage against the right-wing agenda to generate new recruits and resources—to enhance their organizations’ effectiveness, not waste their combined time and energy on a Kerry sure to disappoint.

Endorsement of independent candidates by social movements or socialist groups, by contrast, is not inevitably compromising.  However, it should not be done ritualistically, for the sake of “upholding a tradition.”  A compelling case must be made for the purpose of the endorsement.  Namely, a case must be made that supporting such a campaign will help build the movements.

In this presidential election, we submit, there is no such case (as, say, there clearly was for supporting Nader in 2000 or, more recently, the Green candidates for governor of California and mayor of San Francisco).

Rather than fixate on an electoral arena that offers only the agonized choice of principled irrelevance or opportunist compromise, the organized left should instead focus on rebuilding the social movements.

Mass movements of the left are the vehicle for stopping war, winning equal rights for gays and lesbians, obtaining universal health care, saving the environment, dismantling the prison-industrial complex, stopping attacks on pensions and Social Security, winning power and dignity for workers, defeating corporate globalization, and ending poverty and exploitation.

Breathing vitality into the movements sufficient to achieve these aims is a Herculean task, but that makes it all the more true that the movements, far more than elections, most deserve our finite energies and attention.

Urgency of Electoral Reform

Elections offer incomparable opportunities for political organizing and education, however, and an excellent opportunity is presented by the very sterility of the winner-take-all system.  Public alienation from the major parties can be the basis for pushing electoral reform.

One salient demand is instant runoff voting.  Also known as preferential balloting, instant runoff voting would allow voters to rank candidates, rather than simply vote for one. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the candidate with the least number of votes would have his or her votes reassigned to voters’ designated second choices.

In this way, instant runoff balloting would eliminate both spoilers and wasted votes.  It would open the political system up to many different parties and independent candidates.  It would allow people to vote for the lesser evil and the most preferable long-shot independent candidate.  It would substantially improve victory prospects for independent campaigns.

Computerized vote processing, while correctly viewed with security skepticism at the moment, offers eventual potentialities for making the counting of such ballots extremely easy. Australia, among other countries, has long used preferential voting of this kind.

But technology and precedent alone will not prompt change.  A long campaign of advocacy and action is the only way instant runoff voting will be achieved.  Earlier electoral reforms that unevenly broadened citizenship from a restricted number of propertied males to include almost all Americans—first the propertyless, then African-American men, then women, and eventually all people of color—came about only by demand from below.

We are skeptical that instant runoff voting will result from a Green-Democrat alliance, as some suggest.  We imagine that it will require forcing the hands of the Republicans and Democrats, primarily.

Powerful interests desire access, stability and profitability (not democracy) from politics, and they will try to block instant runoff voting.  However, Republicans have a motivation in preventing future Perots, Democrats have a motive in preventing future Naders; and the Naders and Perots of the world have an interest in a system that would make votes for independents more than an existential gesture.

What strategy can win instant runoff voting?  Introducing it first in localities and states?  Demanding systemic overhaul, including public campaign financing, proportional representation, and elimination of exclusionary ballot access laws?  We cannot say. Only the strategies and tactics imagined in the course of a mass movement will win this reform.

Better to begin thinking about how to jump-start that movement, however, than to haggle pointlessly with other activists and progressives over their personal voting preferences.

Better, more broadly, to use the enhanced attentiveness that comes at election season to organize and educate others about the key social, political, and economic issues we face no matter who occupies the White House.

Better to direct our financial contributions, letters to the editor, demonstrations, guerrilla theatre, and talk-show call-ins toward promoting our political values and objectives, like electoral reform, than to supporting presidential candidates running for office in the present futile electoral system.

Better, finally, to remember that elections are merely elections.  Real political power flows from relations of social forces.  We can break free of the rightward drift of the political mainstream only if we reconstruct daring and courageous social movements willing to push the politics of the left forward no matter what party or figure occupies the seat of government.

Christopher Phelps and Stephanie Luce are editors, and Johanna Brenner an associate editor, of Against the Current.  All are members of Solidarity.  The views of the. organization are expressed in the pamphlet “Bush’s Wars, the 2004 Elections, and the Movements.”

ATC 110, May-June 2004