Socialists and the 2020 Election

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Linda Thompson and Steve Bloom

PROSPECTS FOR SOCIALISM are off in the future. The 2020 presidential election is here and now, and confronts us with a right-wing menace unlike any that has been faced before.

When asked what our goals are in the 2020 elections the majority of left activists in the USA will say: “to defeat Donald Trump.” Many are even more specific: “We are Bernie or Bust.”

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we must acknowledge that many of these will also end up urging people to vote for the eventual Democratic nominee. We would like to suggest an alternative: Support the positive choice of the Green Party candidate for president in 2020.

How We Got Here

In almost every election cycle, going back to 1960 at least, it would have been reasonable to say (and many did): “Prospects for socialism are off in the future. The presidential election is here and now, and confronts us with a right-wing menace unlike any that has been faced before.” Because this is the entire analysis that most on the left have offered during these decades we are where we are today, trapped in a cycle of settling for the “lesser evil.”

There have been relatively small and mostly sporadic left electoral alternatives. The Peace and Freedom Party, one consistent effort, first fielded a presidential candidate in 1968. Its largest vote on the national level (almost 740,000) was achieved when Ralph Nader ran for President in 2008 — the only year PFP tallied more than 100,000 nationwide. But the party was never a meaningful presence outside California.

There have also been formations like Raza Unida, the Black Panther Party, the National Black Independent Political Party, Labor Party Advocates, and others. Each had a relatively brief lifespan, however, and aside from the Panthers, mobilized only a small fraction of the constituency it was hoping to rally.

Small left parties — such as Workers World, the Socialist Workers Party, or the Socialist Party — reached even smaller audiences with their campaigns. And most of the left has, for all these decades, focused its attention on the Democratic Party, or else just stood aside from electoral politics.

Let’s consider some of the reasons why. Integrated links exist between the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party machine. This deeply affects the outlook of the entire labor movement. Also, imperialism abroad grants the organized section of U.S. labor (and others) privileges in relation to the world working class, leading to support for — or at least acquiescence in — U.S. foreign policy by many.

In recent years currents have arisen (among nurses and teachers most clearly) which begin to understand that the interests of organized labor can be effectively defended only when the interests of the entire class are defended as well. So far, however, this has not extended to a generalized independent participation in the electoral arena.

The Democratic Party also has a hold on the Black community. Articles in Black Agenda Report and talks by Glenn Ford ( help us understand why. Ford points out that the two-party system traps Blacks into voting for the lesser evil against the overtly white-supremacist Republicans.

The belief that this is some kind of protection has been disproved, however, by poverty, poor schools and housing, police brutality and killings even in cities where the Democrats rule. And while the DP allows Black electoral representation, it expects those who win office under its banner to promote a ruling-class agenda over the needs of the Black community. Similar analyses are needed about Latinx and Puerto Rican communities (although this is beyond what we can offer in this article).

The “Spoiler” Argument

When workers, Blacks, Latinxs, and others have no alternative except to vote for the Democrats their votes can be taken for granted. The political rhetoric and policies of the DP become free to shift consistently rightward in an effort to capture votes from others. The Republicans shift rightward too.

The Bernie Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon represents a momentary counter-current. How much staying power will it have? How much can it achieve? These things are unknown. Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have already limited themselves in ways that ought to raise warning flags for their supporters. They have to limit themselves if their goal is to remain in and influence the Democratic Party.

Allowing electoral politics to be monopolized by parties which represent the interests of the rich and powerful is a serious default on the part of the U.S. left. The result has been that political protest movements consistently invest significant energy in pursuit of electoral solutions which, in the final analysis, reach a complete dead end.

Another factor that causes electoral politics to remain the same is, of course, the winner-take-all two-party system itself. As with the Black community, this consistently puts left and progressive movements in a position of supporting what they consider the “lesser evil.” Alternative candidates are pejoratively characterized as “spoilers.”

Instead of pointing to Democratic voters who switched to Trump, or the pathetic record of the Democratic Party on social justice which demobilizes voters (or has them looking to Republicans for answers), or the Republicans themselves, or the 46% of Americans who don’t vote, the ruling class, along with the two major parties and the media, encourage everyone to blame the defeat of any Democrat on the Green Party or other independent campaigns. But this “spoiler argument” is largely a myth.

In the Florida 2000 election, for example, Bush won by 537 votes if we accept the official count. Eight third-party candidates tallied more than that number. (Somehow only Ralph Nader is singled out in the public discourse as “the spoiler.”) At the same time, however, it is estimated that 378,000 Democrats in Florida voted for Bush — almost four times more votes than Nader received. Clearly, what matters most here is not what Nader did but what the Democrats themselves did (or failed to do).

Likewise in 2016. The relatively poor mobilization of those who traditionally vote Democratic, and who would have been expected to cast ballots for Hillary Clinton, was surely caused not by the presence of the Green Party on the ballot but by the uninspiring campaign that Clinton herself actually ran.

Trump’s base of support, by contrast, came out in large numbers. That was the source of Clinton’s defeat, not any so-called “spoiler” effect from the Green candidate.

Exit polls tell us that the overwhelming majority of Green voters would probably have just stayed home if a Green candidate weren’t on the ballot. They wouldn’t go to the polls to vote for the Democrat. So the Green Party actually brings more citizens into the electoral arena, allowing them to express their preference for a left platform.

If Greens denied these voters that choice by deciding not to run, the result would be completely undemocratic. Everyone should have the opportunity to vote their conscience.

The Green Party has been instrumental in promoting something called “ranked choice voting” which would totally eliminate any possibility of a spoiler effect. RCV has now been adopted in the state of Maine and for primaries in New York City. A massive campaign is underway in Massachusetts. Every leftist in this country should join in the fight for this critical electoral reform.

Defeating Donald Trump

Yes, the overt racism of Donald Trump is a problem. But the covert racism of the Democratic Party includes the racism of U.S. foreign policy which imposes an imperial reality on the rest of the world, predominantly made up of people of color, maintaining a global military presence and engaging in military campaigns, always on a bipartisan basis. A victory for covert racism is not a defeat for overt racism, except in form.

It is, of course, still important for Donald Trump to be defeated in 2020. How then might that be achieved?

The 2020 Presidential race, from a very practical point of view, will primarily be shaped by the U.S. ruling class which owns and controls the means of mass public communication in this country. What candidate(s) they decide to back, to what degree and with what methods, will make far more of a difference than anything the left decides to do.

True, a large section of the capitalist class opposed Trump in 2016, making an attempt to discredit him at a decisive moment through the publication of information that would have derailed any other candidacy. What was missing from the calculation, however, was that Trump’s base of support was willing to ignore his lying, alleged sexual assaults, and financial manipulations and probably crimes.

So the tactic failed. But we can reasonably expect more sophisticated methods to derail a 2020 Trump campaign — if the ruling class is actually convinced that this is something it needs to do. That suggests organizing in ways that might convince the ruling class that another four years of Trump will be a disaster for them.

Rather than door-knocking for Demo­crats, we need a meaningful effort to generate both substantial mobilizations for social justice and specific forms of organization that the ruling class cannot control. Part of that should include building and strengthening a meaningful electoral alternative in the form of the Green Party — which has maintained a principled antiwar and anti-racist stand for over two decades.

“Bernie or Bust”

 Those who tout Bernie Sanders as the alternative also need to confront the question of covert racism posed above. The groundswell for Bernie results from the fact that he advocates a more equitable share of this nation’s wealth going to working people, a consistent social democratic politics. And yet that entire policy depends on maintaining the source of this wealth, which is the imperial system of U.S. world domination.

It’s a system Sanders has consistently voted to maintain/defend throughout his years in Washington. If that’s true, what effect does it have when socialists offer Sanders their unconditional support?

Then there is the other difficulty: that most of the “Bernie or Bust” advocates will, in fact, follow Bernie himself by campaigning for the eventual Democratic nominee. Ocasio-Cortez will do the same, as will most of her supporters.

This points to the limits of what left-wing Democrats can achieve in their current, and seemingly sincere, efforts to pull the DP to the left. In the end, as has happened repeatedly in the last 50 years, they create a trap for those who want the more leftist rhetoric to actually turn into policy. Their movement will have nowhere to go except becoming a left tail on the right-wing dog of the Democratic establishment — unless it’s prepared to break with the Democrats and join the Green Party or create some new, genuinely independent, formation.

Leftists such as in DSA who tell us that they support an “inside/outside strategy” can only reasonably make that assertion if there is an outside electoral vehicle that’s able to attract genuinely anticapitalist forces away from the dead end of the Democratic Party.

The Green Party

The Green Party today is faced with tremendous opportunities. There is rising mass ferment and growing disaffection from the Democratic party. A Gallup poll taken in 2016 reported that 61% of Americans thought there should be a third party, up from 57% in 2015. This includes according to Gallup: 77% of independents (up four points), 52% of Democrats (up nine points), and 49% of Republicans (down two points).

True, the Green Party is confronted by considerable challenges — a media blackout, undemocratic ballot laws, the loss of the equal time provision for candidates, internet trolls, and the smears of Democrats — and will not win the 2020 Presidential elections. It isn’t necessary, however, for the Green Party to win in order for it to have a significant effect, helping to pull politics in this country to the left.

It’s sufficient for the party to field a credible candidate who can effectively challenge racism (overt and covert), imperialism, and other reactionary policies of the Democrats and Republicans, generating enough active support for others to take notice.

And helping to shift the political discourse in this country to the left has, in fact, been one practical effect of past Green Party campaigns.

Consider two issues that are currently part of the mainstream discourse: “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal.” Both of these ideas were promoted first by the Green Party and its candidates, only later adopted by left and even some mainstream Democrats.

The presence of the Green Party as a strong advocate was at least a significant factor in popularizing these issues and impelling some Democrats to adopt them. Now that they have been adopted we must deal with a different problem: that the “green new deal” being promoted by Democrats does not even begin to solve the global climate crisis. (On this point, see Howie Hawkins’ analysis in the previous issue of Against the Current, November-December 2019.)

So the Green Party’s continued political presence and ongoing critique remains critical in the 2020 election.

In 2008 Jill Stein became the most successful female presidential candidate in U.S. history, winning 469,501 votes. The GP that year tallied more than 11 times more votes than any other national progressive party. It won federal matching funds for the first time, raising over $1 million. The GP hit a high point in ballot access: 38 states comprising 82% of voters. There was a surge in GP registration, volunteer lists, local candidates, and state organizations.

In 2016 the Green Party campaign of Stein and Ajamu Baraka won 3.1 times more votes (1,457,216 )than it did in 2012, 21 times more than any other progressive alternative party.

This was also the highest tally of any independent left presidential candidate in the last 100 years — with the exception of Ralph Nader’s 2,883,105 in 2000.

Stein/Baraka did this with a lot less name recognition than Ralph Nader. Their campaign won federal matching funds two months earlier than in 2012 raising over $3.4 million — triple the 2012 total. Another high point was reached in ballot access: 45 states comprising 89% of voters.

Jill and Ajamu utilized their campaign to mobilize people for the women’s march, the climate march in NYC, against police brutality, and were the only candidates speaking out against imperialist war. All Green Party campaigns are activist campaigns urging voters to not only vote but to become engaged in ongoing struggles for social justice.

This helps us understand why the GP runs candidates for President, and why socialists should support them. The party can achieve a growth in volunteers, in donors, in state and local party activity, in registered voters, coalition partners, visibility in conventional and social media, trained staff and the recruitment of other candidates. Running for President is also a requirement for gaining ballot access in many states, which is only one way a national campaign supports independent state/local efforts.

The number of people who heard about Jill Stein’s campaign in 2016 surely numbered in the tens of millions. She convinced enough of those who heard her message that almost a million and a half cast their votes for the Green Party. Imagine how many more Stein might have influenced had the U.S. left united around her campaign?


The stronger an alternative like the Green Party becomes, the more votes it has the potential to win, the greater the possibility that the U.S. ruling class will at some point be faced with a truly mass political force to the left of the Democrats which it cannot control. This is the most important element in any ruling-class calculation about what needs to happen in the electoral arena.

If the Democratic Party sees voters leaving the fold it will be forced to move its rhetoric (at least) to the left, and perhaps some if its actual political agenda as well. Campaigning for left-wing Democrats, on the other hand, is much less effective, because in the end all that political energy will be folded into the candidacy of the establishment Democratic nominee. That’s no threat at all to politics-as-usual in the USA.

The orientation we propose is rooted in an understanding that every choice socialists make in immediate campaigns — struggles like those around immigrant rights, against climate change, for prison abolition, a labor strike, or the 2020 elections — should at least attempt to advance two tasks simultaneously: a) winning some immediate goal or objective while b) also getting us closer to the prospect of a revolutionary transformation in the USA.

Under no circumstances can we develop a strategy to gain immediate objectives at the expense of our longer-term goals.

By helping to maintain the power of the Democratic Party and the imperial world system it supports, any effort to promote the Democratic nominee for president in 2020 will undermine these longer-term objectives. It needs to be excluded as a “tactic” on that ground alone.

Support for Bernie Sanders likewise means urging people to get involved in Democratic Party politics, and for many actually backing the eventual Democratic nominee. It therefore raises precisely the same difficulty.

By supporting and building the Green Party, however, we can pursue both our immediate goal of keeping the overt racist from another four years in the White House while also working to bring our longer-term objectives closer.

A stronger Green Party creates a deeper threat to ruling-class politics-as-usual, which can cause those who have far greater power than we do to take more resolute steps to ensure the defeat of Donald Trump.

By supporting the Green Party we also help to promote the self-mobilization and self-organization of the mass movement. Supporting the Green Party is, therefore, by far the best electoral strategy available to the U.S. left in the 2020 Presidential campaign.

January-February 2020, ATC 204

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