Elections & the Democrats

Against the Current, No. 112, September/October 2004

Joel Jordan & Robert Brenner

REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALIST POLITICAL strategy is based on the fundamental idea of working class self-emancipation.  This means that working people and the oppressed can generate the power they need to change the world only through collective self-mobilization and class self-organization.

Class power depends on class struggle.  It implies as well that the only way they can develop the consciousness required to push the struggle forward is by acting collectively to confront the power of capital and the state. Class consciousness depends on class activity.

From this, socialists draw the strategic conclusion that the central goal of political work must be to contribute to the building of mass movements of workers and the oppressed, since such movements offer the only viable way to win reforms, transform consciousness and, it is hoped, to make a socialist revolution.

I. Strategy

A strategic socialist approach to the Democratic Party follows directly from a political commitment to self-emancipation and reliance on mass action. This means opposition to working inside and attempting to use the Democratic Party in order to secure progressive change, for the practical reason that attempting to do so is incompatible with building social movements.

The Democratic Party has been a graveyard for progressive mass movements because the forces that dominate it — both its top capitalist leadership and its middle rung leadership, composed of trade union officials and middle-class leaders of the Black, Latino and women’s movements — systematically oppose militant mass struggles.

Capitalists oppose such struggles because they threaten their profits and property. The middle class leaders oppose them because they tend not only to threaten their positions as individuals, but also the organizations from which they draw their lifeblood — their jobs, careers, and form of life.

As a result, these leaders are singlemindedly committed to the safety of the electoral road as a substitute for potentially catastrophic confrontations with capital and the state, and as a way of channeling popular resistance back into the Democratic Party where it can be disoriented and derailed.

Paradoxically, because this approach systematically undermines the social movements and the organizations through which they find expression, it ends up weakening the middle-class leaders themselves. With the power of their organizations in decline, they are ever more dependent upon the Democrats but ever less able to influence them.

The historical outcome has been that, since the onset of the long economic downturn in the late 1960s and the repression of rank-and-file labor and especially Black rebellions of those years, the Democratic Party has moved ever further to the right under the hammer blows of capital and the right, and in the wake of the decline of the movements, especially the trade unions.

Employers have carried on an ever more vicious offensive against labor to restore profitability.  Meanwhile, extremist pro- capitalist forces have increasingly dominated the Republican Party. In response, the labor officialdom and middle-class leaders of the social movements have failed to nurture what major outbreaks of mass resistance have occurred in recent years, as exemplified in the Detroit newspaper strike and recent Southern California grocery strike.

As collective resistance has weakened, better off sections of the working class have tended to pursue what they perceive to be their interests by, in effect, allying with capital against worse off and oppressed sections — above all in the tax revolt, but also in anti-busing, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, anti-crime, pro-incarceration and pro-death penalty political action.

All of this has accelerated the shift to the right nationally, manifested inside the Democratic Party in the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council.

What follows strategically is that it is suicidal for mass movements — such as the movement for global justice or to end the occupation of Iraq — to enter or try to use the Democratic Party in order to further their goals, because the forces that control the Party see it as their top priority to crush them.

Furthermore, electing a Democrat in the 2004 election can in no way be counted on to cut short the continuing drift to the right. Just the opposite. As long as the balance of political forces continues to shift toward capital and the right, the Democrats will follow.

The Democrats’ nomination of the pro-war DLC representative John Kerry expresses this rightward drift.  Progressive change can only be achieved by shifting the balance of class forces back in a more favorable direction. And this can only be accomplished by building militant mass movements and pressuring the two parties “from the outside,” as in the 1930s and 1960s. Today, this means, above all, reviving the working-class movement.

II. Tactics

Unfortunately embracing a strategy of building the mass social movements and maintaining their political independence from the Democratic Party does not resolve a narrow, but critical, tactical question: what political stand progressives and socialists should take with respect to voting, given the winner take all electoral system.

The problem for us is that this system makes it very difficult for the left to represent its politics within the national government at all, let alone in proportion to its strength. This is because the winner-take-all system determines that every vote cast for a party to the left of the Democrats is one less vote for the Democrats and thus the equivalent of one more vote for the Republicans.

Revolutionaries and radicals face the same problem in Britain. The dilemma that faces the left in both countries is as follows: (1) either call for voting for a party that opposes everything the left stands for, yet in office will be significantly less bad for workers and the oppressed than its great evil twin, or (2) call for voting for further left third parties that, since World War II, have stood little chance of making an impact, not just because of the left’s weakness, but because a vote for such a party is seen, in electoral terms, as counter-productive.

It seems to us that a rational decision as to whether to go for a third party or call for a vote for the lesser evil depends on the answer to the following question: Can the benefits of winning votes for the third party more than compensate for the costs of taking away votes from the lesser evil, thereby opening the way to the greater evil winning?

The Left’s Dilemma

If the consequences of a Republican victory were roughly the same as that of Democratic victory, or only a little worse — if the choice was really between the proverbial tweedledee and tweedledum — whether or not to support a third party would pose no special dilemma. It would simply be a question of determining whether the potential gains were worth the resources.

But this is emphatically not the case. Despite the long-term plunge to the right of the Democrats, Republicans are clearly significantly worse. Because the Democrats are electorally dependent on trade unionists, African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays and lesbians to campaign and vote for them, the Democratic Party cannot serve as the vehicle of the employers and the far right as well as can the Republican Party.

This means that those who call for a vote for Ralph Nader must be able to argue that the benefits for working people and the oppressed from voting for Nader, and attempting to build something to the left of the Democratic Party, at this juncture will outweigh the costs of a Republican victory.

The Democrats are the Lesser Evil

After his victory in 2000, one could conceivably have expected Bush to be only marginally worse than Gore. After all, Bush ran as a moderate and lost the popular vote to Gore. But even then such a conclusion would have been without foundation, since, for the first time in decades, the Republicans not only had the White House but both houses of Congress.

In 1994, when the Republicans first got their majority in both houses, they tried to impose a major break in a pro-capitalist far-right direction with their Contract for a New America. Had the President at that point been a Republican, that program would have been implemented.

As it was, Clinton was able to defeat it and win re-election by publicly exposing its extremism. (Of course, Clinton implemented his own further right program, but it fell far short of the Republicans’ ultra-right agenda).

With the likes of Tom De Lay, Dick Armey, and Trent Lott gaining control of Congress and Bush Jr. taking the White House in 2000, we should only have expected a renewal and stepping up of the same far right-wing offensive.

After the experience of 2001-2004, we can no longer doubt the significance of the Bush victory over Gore. When, in the middle of 2001, James Jeffords renounced his membership in the Republican delegation in the Senate, the difference between the two parties was clearly revealed. With this single defection, the majority in the Senate shifted to the Democrats, and the Republicans were forced to shelve their program for the time being.
However, when the Republicans won narrow majorities in both houses in November 2002, they were once again able to take up their agenda.

The Republican Party, as everyone knows, is built on white racial supremacy. It seeks with a realistic chance of success to eliminate the right of abortion. It would, if it could, eliminate the rights of gays and lesbians. It has also unleashed a powerful attack on civil liberties with Patriot I, as well as the government’s claim to imprison without show of cause at the will of the President.

In addition, the Bush administration openly aims to “roll back the 20th century” — to return, as Karl Rove has put it, to the glory days of McKinley, before progressive taxation and the welfare state.

In just four years, it has already taken very major steps toward fulfilling all these goals over strong, and sometimes successful, Democratic opposition — imposing enormous tax cuts for the very rich and announcing the goal of eliminating the income tax, initiating the privatization of Medicare, calling for the privatization of social security, and going a good distance toward dismantling the whole structure of protective regulation — at the workplace, of consumer goods, and of the environment, not to mention trade unions.

Last but not least, Bush invaded and occupied Iraq, something it is unlikely that a Gore administration would have undertaken.

Nader Alternative: Little to Offer

Since most on the left admit that a victory for the Republicans over the Democrats would come at significant cost to workers and oppressed groups, they must be able to argue, in order to have a sound basis for supporting Nader, that the benefits of a strong Nader campaign and vote can more than compensate for the consequences of a Bush victory.

In reality, however, it is hard to see what a Nader campaign can accomplish in 2004 beyond registering a protest and educating for left ideas.

Some still believe that Nader can push the Democrats to the left by causing their defeat. But this notion has already been disproved. Nader did cost the Democrats the election in 2000, but in the interim the Democrats have moved not further left but further right and, in choosing Kerry, clearly ignored Nader in their electoral calculations.

Nor can the Nader campaign claim with any credibility to be building an alternative to the capitalist parties in a slow and steady way over the long term. If it could, this might be enough to justify it. After all, the left is often forced to give priority to longer term goals over short-term needs, in view of its meager resources.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to build a third party through a gradual, molecular process, getting ever more votes, election by election. This is because, to the degree a third party increases its votes, to that extent it strengthens the Republicans.

Since most on the left realize that the Republicans are significantly more harmful than the Democrats, few would tolerate such a process going on for very long. They would stop voting for the third party, preventing it from gradually building its strength.

This logic was played out to the limit in 2000. Had Gore either got a slim majority of Nader’s 97,000 votes in Florida, where he lost by 537, or a strong majority of Nader’s 22,000 votes in New Hampshire, where he lost by 7,211, Gore would have won that state and won the election. Had it not been for Nader, Gore would have won the election.

The huge costs to working people, people of color, women, gays, civil liberties and, almost certainly, the people of Iraq, were self-evident to all but those who can convince themselves that Gore’s DLC administration would have been as bad as Bush’s far right Republican one. As a result, Nader can expect to get fewer votes in this election than in 2000.

Some have argued that it is a mistake to blame Nader for Gore’s defeat when Gore himself caused it. Had Gore not run such a totally incompetent campaign, they assert, he would have won, despite Nader.

It is perhaps true that Gore could, through his own actions, have avoided defeat. But the undeniable fact is that Nader caused Gore’s defeat in the sense that, had everything else happened as it did and had there been no Nader candidacy, Gore would have won. We, the left, have no control over what the Democratic Party candidate does, but we are responsible for what we want and what we do.

The fact is that third party campaigns can in no way be counted upon to further our central strategy of building mass social movements. Running election campaigns is not like building the movements. They do not require, or usually involve, strengthening the collective self-organization of the working class and oppressed, let alone confronting capital and the state.

Because their raison d’etre is to win — or to register as much electoral strength as possible — they must be, more or less single-mindedly, devoted to securing votes for the candidate/party. They are therefore usually consumed by candidates’ appearances and speeches and organizers’ canvassing to get out the vote.

Despite the wishful thinking of many leftists, most third party efforts neither build power, nor win reforms, nor change consciousness…unlike, for example, union organizing campaigns or mass antiwar movements. On the contrary, they can at best, provide the maximum expression of already-existing consciousness.

As more than a century of U.S. history has taught us, progressive third party efforts have a hope of succeeding only on the basis of major social struggles and movements that they themselves cannot create — as with the huge explosions of working-class resistance of the 1890s- 1900s and of the 1930s, as well as of the historic Black and antiwar struggles of the 1960s.

The lesson is that the only way to create a viable third party is to rebuild the movements, especially the labor movement.

In 2000, it was reasonable to justify supporting Nader in terms of the contribution he could — and did — make to the then-vibrant movement for global justice.  But the same cannot be said today. This is in part because, in contrast to 2000, the left wing of the movement against the Iraq war and occupation has concluded that defeating Bush is more important than a good showing for Nader, because a victory for Bush would be so demoralizing for that movement, both at home and abroad.

The Green Party has reached the same conclusion. Can we really disagree? And even if we do, what will a Nader campaign, with little of the organic connection to the antiwar, anti-occupation movement and cut off from any potentially viable third party in the United States really, be able to build?

With little or no base among organized workers, Blacks, Latinos, women, lesbians or gays, what consciousness will he change and what new power will he create …especially given his refusal to help build the Greens, or any comparable vehicle, between elections?

III. Critical Support

Our call for a vote for the Democratic Party — while continuing to put the main political emphasis on building the social movements and simultaneously exposing the Democrats as politically reactionary and anathema to the social movements — is an application of an aspect of the united front method, sometimes called “critical support.”

Critical support entails radicals or revolutionaries offering electoral backing to hostile political forces to their right (virtually always pro-capitalist), with the strict proviso that they retain the right and recognize the necessity to organize independently and put forward their own politics, including the ruthless exposure of those they are supporting or allying with.

The underlying premise is an unfavorable balance of political forces in which revolutionaries are too weak to act in their own name so as to win gains in the interests of working people and the oppressed. Unfortunately, given the winner take all system, this situation has been chronic in the United States for most of its history.

Critical electoral support is therefore justified as a way to achieve political results less detrimental to the working class and the oppressed, to avoid the demoralization that comes with the victory of the even more right wing party, and as a way to expose the lesser-evil party.

A Question of Principle?

Some radicals and revolutionaries have argued that, given what we know about the pro-capitalist, imperialist, and racist character of the Democratic Party, calling for a vote for it would be “unprincipled.”

But it is more than doubtful that they can consistently hold such a position. For almost certainly, they have — or would have — agreed with the near universal call by revolutionary socialists, through most of the twentieth century, to vote for Socialist, Social Democratic, or Labor Parties in preference to Christian Democratic or further right parties, despite the fact that all such parties, without exception, have been unequivocally pro-capitalist, racist, and imperialist…indeed counter-revolutionary up to and including the physical destruction of revolutionary movements.

If it is unprincipled to call for a vote for parties that are explicitly pro-capitalist, racist, imperialist and counterrevolutionary, then most of the revolutionary left has been consistently unprincipled.

Some have argued that it is unprincipled to extend to the Democratic Party the critical support that revolutionaries routinely give to reformist parties, because, in contrast to most reformist parties historically, the Democratic Party is directly dominated by capitalists.

That difference is undeniable, but it is essentially irrelevant. Despite the difference in their sociological character from the Democrats, reformist parties can be expected, with 100 per cent certainty, to act systematically in pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist, racist and anti-working class ways.

Indeed, in terms of what they have done — the harm they have caused to workers and oppressed groups — parties like the British Labour Party have been, for at least half a century, barely distinguishable from the Democrats. At best, it is a question of degree, not of kind.

How then can revolutionaries give reformist parties critical support, when they know how much damage they will do? They do so because they have no viable alternative to the left of the reformist party …and because a victory for the reformists’ right wing opponents would be even more unfavorable to the interests of the working class and the oppressed.
In 2004, trade unionists, African Americans and Latinos, and women, gays and lesbians will once again vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats for the same reason, despite how poorly Democrats in and out of office have defended their interests.

A Slippery Slope?

Some have argued that if, as we propose, the left were to call on people to vote Democrat, we would be unable to argue against militants taking the further step of forsaking movement organizing in order to campaign for the Democrats, or even join them.

We would simply note in response that radicals and revolutionaries have, time and again, called for voting for reformist parties, while finding no need to forsake organizing the movements and building their own organizations.


In fact, movement militants who see both the need to defeat Bush at the polls and the necessity of building mass struggles to stop Democrats from taking the country further to the right, can best do these things by adopting the strategy and tactics we propose.
The only way to reverse the reactionary political tide that any Democratic administration is bound to continue is to strengthen the movement against the occupation of Iraq, the movement for global justice, the labor movement, and so forth.

Strengthening these movements is also the best way to get out the Stop Bush electoral message, because leftists organized collectively in mass movements — through meetings, demonstrations, and so forth — can get out that message far more effectively than they can going door to door individually for Kerry. To prevent people from leaving the movements, we should emphasize that to both counter the Democrats and to defeat the Republicans at the polls, movement building is the path to follow.

The bottom line is this: It is understandable that many leftists are revolted by the thought of calling for a vote for the Democrats.  But we appeal to them also to consider the anguish that the tens of millions of people around the world who have taken up the struggle against U.S. imperialism over the past four years will feel should Bush win again…and the fury if Nader once more enables it to happen.

ATC 112, September-October 2004