Rejoinder: 2004 & the Movement

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Christopher Phelps, Stephanie Luce & Johanna Brenner

WE WROTE “THE Elections and the Left” (ATC 110) as a result of longstanding commitment to independent politics.  One of us worked to build a progressive third party in Madison, Wisconsin, then was active in the Labor Party.  Another was the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate from Oregon in 1996.  All of us supported Nader in 2000, and still consider that the correct choice.

Reflection on those experiences, combined with conversations with activists this year, prompted us to advanced two types of argument in “The Elections and the Left.” The first concerned how socialists should orient themselves in the 2004 elections. A second and larger point concerned the serious structural problem facing proponents of independent political action at the national level given the two party, winner take all electoral system in the United States.

Regarding 2004, we expressed our conviction that anyone who wishes to vote their conscience for Nader or some other independent candidate should be free to do so without facing belittling and browbeating from those who fear a Republican outcome.

We characterized Kerry’s politics as “corporate DLC” and noted that many will refuse to vote for Kerry given the imperialist and neoliberal priorities of the Democratic leadership. We spelled out the reasoning of those who will vote for an independent candidate, whether because they feel the necessity of affirming principle despite impossible odds, or because of the possibility that by repeatedly playing “spoiler” independent campaigns may prompt electoral reform.

On all of these matters we share common political ground with Jeff Melton, which makes much of his response beside the point. We concur that the record of Democratic administrations has been one of treachery and deceit.  We place no confidence whatsoever in Kerry. We concur that it is not meaningful to claim that Bush’s is “the most reactionary administration in U.S. history” (we recited this phrase only because we believe it to be a common argument for voting Democratic in 2004).

We argued–and reaffirm here–that socialist groups, trade unions, and other movement organizations should not endorse Kerry because such organizations’ independence from the Democratic and Republican parties is essential.  This is so because all significant social change has come from the militant self organization of working class and oppressed people. Only a political party of their own can represent them in the electoral process.

We would welcome such a party. At the same time, we expressed our estimation that the prospects for independent campaigns at the presidential level, always difficult, are especially meager this year.

Given the right wing onslaught manifested in the atrocious record of the Bush administration–including the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tax cuts for the wealthy, the USA PATRIOT Act, contempt for democracy, dismantling of affirmative action and environmental protection, attacks on reproductive rights, and blurring of lines of church and state–we expressed understanding for the impulse of those who will vote Democratic on defensive grounds, though we did not call for that ourselves.

Individuals and Organizations

We drew a distinction between what individuals do in the voting booth and the stances appropriate for organizations. The latter, we believe, need to fight for popular interests against whoever occupies the seat of government, and therefore should never endorse the Democratic Party, short of the prospect of an openly fascist state.

(In the U.S. winner take all system, we can imagine a situation in which the rise of a mass fascist movement in a period of capitalist crisis might require revolutionaries to bloc with Democrats. In making this argument, we mentioned fascism only because some on the left see Bush as fascist and justify support for Kerry on that ground.  We were signaling that we do not concur with this analysis.)

The main purpose of our article was to lay out a framework for talking about national politics. We suggested a policy of expressing understanding toward those who have decided to vote Kerry, while at the same time cautioning them that the entire political, cultural, and economic agenda we oppose will remain a threat no matter what the outcome, and that movement building is the solution, not elections.

This, we believe, would be a far better approach than attempting to dissuade people from voting for Kerry and to vote instead for a candidate who they know has no chance of victory.

Will a Nader Campaign Build Movements?

Our differences with Jeff Melton lie partially in divergent assessments of this year’s prospects.  We hold that the political context in 2004 has changed dramatically because of 9/11, the Iraq War, and four years of Bush Cheney Rumsfeld Rice.

In 2000, a Nader Green candidacy stood a reasonable chance of obtaining the 5% of the vote necessary to obtain federal matching funds. Those funds, in turn, would have helped build the Green Party.

Nader’s campaign drew together post Seattle global justice strands and articulated popular resentment of the Clintonian years of neoliberal corporate policy.  Combined, these provided sufficient grounds for socialist groups to back Nader strongly.

This year, much has changed. Second thoughts anguish many left leaning voters. Though Nader cannot be blamed for Gore’s bumbling, it is true that Gore would have won decisively had Nader’s votes in Florida and New Hampshire transferred to him. The situation is still murkier because Nader has distanced himself from the Green Party, leaving it to his supporters to “Draft Ralph” despite his ostensible lack of interest in the nomination.

At this time of writing (mid-June), the Green convention has not yet occurred. If David Cobb wins the Green nomination, it will mean direct Nader Green competition.  If Nader receives a Green endorsement, confusion will still arise because he has also accepted the Reform nomination, and may appear as a Populist in several states.

All of this occurs in the midst of a neck and neck major party race that reflects an electorate deeply polarized in its feelings about Bush, with very few voters undecided even at this very early point in the electoral process.

We believe all evidence points to Nader doing considerably worse in 2004 than the mere 2.7% that he received nationwide in 2000–itself obviously inadequate. In 29 polls conducted between March and May of this year, Nader’s support ran at a median of 4%, with a high of seven and a low of two percent.

In May 2000, by contrast, Nader was polling consistently at 7%.  Our reading is that Nader’s support is about half of what it was in 2000.  In our conversations with trade unionists, students, people of color, anti war activists and leftists from other countries, we find a strong shared sentiment that although Kerry is bad, Bush must be voted out of office.

In this context, is working on a third party presidential race the best use of time or resources?  Is it the best vehicle for building working class power or consciousness?

We do not think so, but Jeff Melton holds that “growth in the consciousness and organization of the working class” is enhanced by independent presidential campaigns, regardless of their paltry returns.  He holds that “an all out independent left Presidential campaign can significantly contribute to the strength and political independence of social movements.”

We can imagine conditions when that would be true, but this year we do not see the potential.  Although much can happen between now and November, we anticipate that Nader’s support will all but collapse by November, given the extent of left of center loathing of Bush, given the extremely close race, given Nader’s unlikelihood of being on 48 states’ ballots this year (as he was in 2000), given that Nader’s supporters are less likely to vote than others, and given the traditional failure of third party candidates to deliver returns commensurate with their polling.  We take no joy in that, but we believe it to be more than likely.

Wishful Thinking

Nader’s principled position for withdrawal from Iraq, Melton believes, will turn things his way. We consider this wishful thinking.  Most voters who dislike the war blame Bush for it and will vote for Kerry, accordingly. Kerry has, after all, criticized the war, saying that he was misled to vote for it by the administration’s lies.

Many voters see defeating Bush as essential to repudiating the Bush policy, regardless of whether Kerry openly calls for withdrawal.  In the Democratic primaries, exit polls found that voters who opposed the war voted for Kerry despite his ambiguity on the war when compared to Dean, Kucinich or Sharpton. They thought Kerry the candidate most likely to beat Bush–suggesting that while they were against the war, they were against Bush even more.

Since we do not believe there will be significant support for Nader or any other independent campaign this year, we do not believe contesting other activists’ voting preferences to be the best use of socialists’ finite resources.

It may very well be that in some local circumstances, the Nader campaign can be used to build movements and to attract activists to socialist politics.  But we are highly dubious that on a national scale this year’s electoral campaign presents real opportunities for building social movement and organization.

What Can Be Done

Instead, we believe radicals should focus their attention on building social movements directly, above all the movement to end the war.  We believe there are far more productive and worthy interventions imaginable in that movement than pushing an independent campaign viewed as quixotic by most.

Much more likely to bring radicalizing young activists around to the socialist left and to raise the level of political consciousness in the antiwar movement, we believe, would be well researched pamphlets and literature on such subjects as capitalism, the environment, and energy policy; the connection between trade liberalization and Pentagon world domination; the relationship of prison industrial complexes and civil liberties constrictions domestically and at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; the role of the United States in the decline and defeat of nationalist and leftist alternatives in the Muslim world; and why labor should oppose empire and war.

In the abstract, these approaches do not preclude organizing around independent politics, but in the concrete present circumstances, socialists are limited in numbers and resources. Building the movement against the war–which entails deepening the movement’s political sophistication, guaranteeing its inclusiveness and internal democracy, and increasing its numbers–is more important than campaigning for Nader.

This is especially the case because activists must do what we can to prevent the movement’s disorientation should Kerry win, or its demoralization should Bush win.  We do not see how pushing hard for an independent presidential campaign this year, perceived by so many to be futile, is essential (or even very useful) for achieving those aims.

Problems of Independent Politics

The larger point of “The Elections and the Left” was to assess the dilemmas posed by a winner take all electoral system.  We argued that lesser evilism inheres in this system. Left of center voters face a choice between a candidate with mostly great positions who cannot win (hypothetically, Nader), a flawed and undesirable candidate (Kerry), and an appalling candidate (Bush).

This effectively constrains most voters’ options, and they vote persistently for the lesser evil, rather than the beautiful, unobtainable dream.

We argued, therefore, that the left should pursue a strategy first and foremost of social movement building, then local and statewide independent political campaigns (where stakes are lower and openings greater), and finally the promotion of a full scale movement for electoral reform to bring about instant runoff voting.  We expressed increasing skepticism about the wisdom of investing the left’s energy in campaigns at the presidential level, where we see a point of diminishing return.

Jeff Melton holds that we pose “a false dichotomy between electoral politics and movement activity.” He argues that federal level campaigns are “more important” because “higher profile campaigns result in substantially more media and public attention, and thus have more movement building potential.”

Melton contests our observation that proponents of independent politics, faced with the dilemma of lesser evilism, often mistakenly equate the major parties (“Tweedledee and Tweedledum”) or minimize their differences, as Solidarity’s recent pamphlet does in calling the differences between Democrats and Republicans on such issues as church and state, abortion rights, gay rights, the judiciary, and so forth “secondary” questions.

Our characterization of the pamphlet was completely accurate. It is reaffirmed by Melton’s own persistence in calling the differences between the parties secondary when compared to large areas of agreement between them (for example, holding that Democratic opposition to a Constitutional amendment outlawing same sex marriage is secondary compared to the Democratic Republican agreement that gays and lesbians should continue to be denied the privileges conferred upon heterosexual couples who marry).

We do not think it is helpful to call issues “secondary” that millions of people find important.  It makes a difference to millions of people that Kerry would have much greater distance from the religious right than Bush. It makes a difference to them that Kerry does not support a Constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. It makes a difference to them that Kerry’s environmental record, however bad, is not as meretricious as Bush’s.

In a system that poses only two live options, these differences become significant. We may safely say that voters for Kerry are slated for disappointment, but the issues that motivate them should never be called secondary.

We do see a strong relationship between movement building and politics:  Where there are strong movements, independent political candidates can successfully challenge the Democrats, if not by winning, at least by exerting a strong pull to the left.  But we consider overly rosy Melton’s assertion that presidential level campaigns can enhance working class consciousness.

Tellingly, his sole example of independent political activity having an effect is at the local level, in San Francisco, a longtime stronghold of the left, where the Green candidate for mayor ran with the organized support of many progressive movements.

Under the winner take all system at the federal level, most voters simply do not give consideration to third party candidates.  We agree with Melton that elections offer opportunities for greater media exposure- and a moment where more people than usual are paying attention to politics. On the other hand, these opportunities are limited by a corporate media that constricts access and frames independent campaigns in ways that marginalize them.  This is particularly hard to contest at the level of the national media.

History of Failure

What evidence do we have from history that presidential third party campaigns are vehicles for building organization and movement?  Very little, except for Eugene V. Debs, who did help build a mass party and movement, but whose high tally was merely 6%.

We need to confront the long history of failed independent political projects, including the Workingmen’s, Greenback, People’s, Socialist, Progressive, Peace and Freedom, and Citizens parties.

The only third party in American history to become a major party, the Republican Party, emerged out of the decomposition of the Whigs as slavery and free labor became the animating issues of the 1840s and 1850s.  Despite the torpor of the Democratic Party today, it is nowhere near as vulnerable as the Whigs were.

The historical inability of third party efforts to make inroads in the U.S. electoral system profoundly limits their ability to influence mass consciousness. For socialists, winning is not the sole point of independent political action. Most voters, however, find no attraction in a political strategy sure to go down to defeat.

The Green Party, like all progressive alternatives preceding it, will falter unless the terms of the game are changed by a powerful electoral reform movement.  We need a movement akin to earlier movements that prompted democratic reform, making American citizenship inclusive by removing property, gender and racial restrictions.

Until we at a minimum achieve instant runoff voting (preferential balloting), every independent presidential campaign will face the impossible situation Nader now faces.

One might argue that if pressed by spoilers the major parties will concede such reforms, but in recent history Nader and Perot performed that role, without wresting electoral reform.  In the absence of a mass movement specifically pressing for democratic electoral reform- a new suffrage movement–spoiling alone cannot bring about the desired effect. Most people, moreover, will not be drawn to independent politics by a vision of themselves as spoilers.

Friedrich Engels, writing to his American correspondent Friedrich A. Sorge in December 1893, spoke of “particular difficulties for the steady development of a workers’ party” in the United States.  Atop his list was “the Constitution, based as it is in England upon party government, which causes every vote for any candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties to be lost. And the American, like the Englishman, wants to influence his state; he does not throw his vote away.”

Isn’t it time we begin to address, in theory and practice, Engels’ insight about the structure of American politics?

ATC 111, July-August 2004