The majority of Americans find nothing to like in either major-party presidential candidate this year, and many are asking themselves how we got to such a low point. By not taking a critical look at our undemocratic political system and doing something about it earlier, I’d say. It’s never too late, however. Lance Selfa’s article “From political revolution to lesser-evilism” in the current issue of International Socialist Review (isreview.org) has some good analysis of the contest “between the billionaire blowhard Donald Trump and the hawkish neoliberal Democrat Hillary Clinton.” As he says, “It’s worth pondering how we got here and what that history might portend for the future of American politics…
In the first post-Obama election in which the reverberations of the Great Recession are still being felt, the base voters of both major parties delivered black eyes to their respective party establishments. The gaping economic chasm between rich and poor, which the 2007–2008 recession accentuated, fuels a growing political polarization,” though almost everyone agrees “that there’s too much money in politics, and that money buys special favors for special interests in Washington.” Rather than thinking about how to regulate political contributions, this leads many voters – who also see how little Congress has gotten done lately – to reject “the bipartisan Washington political establishment.” Striking a “pose as someone too rich to be bought, Trump tweaks Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill for turning their Clinton Foundation into an influence-peddling hedge fund for foreign investors,” while Bernie Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ focused on “getting money out of politics and limiting the influence of Wall Street and ‘millionaires and billionaires.’” Sanders, Selfa notes, directed “popular resentment toward its true sources – corporate America and its political servants, while Trump directed it at scapegoats like immigrants, Muslims, and foreign governments.
Their success speaks to something about the shifting political coalitions the two capitalist parties represent. For more than a generation, the GOP has depended on solid support based in twenty states of the South, the Plains, and the mountain West. The Republican mantra of tax-cutting economic conservatism and support for conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion, generally held the various GOP interest groups and voters together. The conservative political positions that the Republicans promote regularly garner the support of only about a quarter to a third of the US electorate. But our fundamentally undemocratic system of government – in which states can restrict voting rights in ways that disproportionately affect racial minorities and the poor; where the US Senate delivers the same representation to conservative Wyoming as to more liberal California, with almost eighty times Wyoming’s population; and where corporate money largely governs who gets elected – is tailor-made for an unpopular minority to set the country’s political agenda.”
The appeal of that agenda is decreasing, Selfa says, noting that the “average GOP voter is a middle-aged affluent white person (probably male) in a country that’s increasingly less affluent, less white, and less religious, where the majority of the population and electorate are women…The GOP relies on mobilizing a shrinking base, which has led its key political operatives to turn every election into a death match against nefarious forces ‘taking away’ the idealized 1950s version of the United States conservatives uphold. Trump and his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, played different versions of this hand during the primaries, and Trump succeeded because he openly tapped into two ever-giving founts of the US right – racism and xenophobia – and used them not only to win votes, but also to batter a GOP establishment he branded as ‘losers.’ Trump’s victory signifies the ‘chickens coming home to roost’ in a Republican Party whose operatives and media infrastructure have fed their most committed partisans a steady stream of nonsense about the president’s birth certificate and Obamacare ‘death panels’ for years…
In contrast, Sanders ran into a brick wall of Democratic Party officialdom that never wavered in its support for Hillary Clinton. That Sanders came as close as he did was testament to his enunciation of a number of themes, from economic inequality to health care for all to political reform, that the most committed Democrats believed their party should have championed but hasn’t. In the past, the Democrats could run on the memory of reforms like Social Security and Medicare that benefitted millions. Today’s Democrats present themselves as efficient and ‘inclusive’ managers of a neoliberal order that’s delivered next to nothing to the party’s base for a generation. The Sanders phenomenon was the latest in a series of political expressions of discontent with that economic and political status quo – from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter – in the wake of the Great Recession. Sanders found his greatest support among voters younger than forty-five, who’ve known nothing but declining living standards, the last eight of them under a Democratic administration of which Clinton was a part.”
Here Selfa brings up a May Nation roundtable discussion, in which historian Rick Perlstein asked, “What are the prospects for a realignment of American politics? On the Democratic side, practically nil. The presidential front-runner – the one with the endorsements of 15 out of 18 sitting Democratic governors, 40 out of 44 senators, and 161 out of 188 House members – is running a campaign explicitly opposed to fundamental transformation…If, by some miracle, Bernie Sanders entered the White House in January, he would do so naked and alone – in command of a party apparatus less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any other time in its history.”
Selfa agrees: “If the Democrats were unwilling to chart a fundamentally different course in 2009 when, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in generations, the electorate delivered them the legislative and executive branch, they won’t attempt to enact anything approaching Sanders’s New Dealish program…the central contradiction of Sanders’s campaign – popularizing ‘socialism’ but imprisoning that sentiment inside one of the two main capitalist parties – will make that goal more difficult to achieve…The mobilization for Sanders was not, as he and many of his supporters claimed, a ‘movement.’ It was, as were Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s before it, an electoral campaign waged inside one of the two main political parties of American capitalism. Now, as the Democratic Party moves to capture Sanders’s social media and contributors’ lists, the very real possibility exists that the Sanders campaign will live on as little more than this year’s model of MoveOn.org or Democracy for America.”
Selfa notes that in responding to the Sanders campaign “most of the left – including long-time supporters of political action independent of the capitalist parties – abandoned Marx and Engels’ basic admonition that socialists should seek to build in every country an independent working-class alternative to capitalist parties…Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, contends that ‘Sanders Democrats’ can reform the Democratic Party through ‘a long struggle inside and outside the Party.’ Why should we draw an iron wall between voting and movement building? It only takes five minutes to vote, what harm can it do? Why not cover all our bases, on the electoral and movement fronts? But voting isn’t such a simple act. The short time it takes to vote requires a set of political calculations and rationalizations that affect our political strategy, depending on whom we vote for. The Democratic Party is known as ‘the graveyard of social movements’ because it’s repeatedly succeeded in absorbing [and defanging] grassroots movements. [Because of lack of perceived alternatives,] the Democratic Party has also repeatedly gained working-class and Black votes without wavering from its role as one half of the corporate duopoly ruling in the sole interest of US capital. Any vote cast in favor of Democratic candidates acts to strengthen its rule; and any postponing of the building of viable independent-left alternatives in the name of ‘transforming’ the party from within feeds continued illusions and puts independent politics perpetually out of reach.”
What about the strategy of voting for a real alternative like Green Party candidate Jill Stein – but just in so-called “safe” states to avoid helping Trump? The Greens tried this with candidate David Cobb in 2004 “when George W. Bush faced off against John Kerry in the midst of the Iraq war…Stung since 2000 when liberals accused Green candidate Ralph Nader of ‘spoiling’ the election and allowing Bush to sneak into the White House while losing the national popular vote, the Greens were determined to avoid a repeat. By succumbing to this pressure, the Green Party surrendered the possibility of confronting Bush and Kerry on issues upon which they agreed: continuing the war, occupying Iraq, and shredding civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act. By pledging not to campaign, the Green ticket declared its own irrelevance to the national debate.
Nader and his running mate, Green Peter Camejo, mounted an underfunded and understaffed independent campaign that year to offer a left alternative for people who wanted to vote against the war and occupation, against the USA PATRIOT Act, and for gay marriage and national health care. Despite vicious baiting from people on the left and a full-court press by Democrats determined to keep Nader off ballots around the country, the Nader-Camejo ticket won 465,150 votes nationwide, compared to 119,856 for Cobb. Because of Cobb’s non-campaign, the Greens lost their ballot status, including recognition as a political party, in at least seven states. Yet another attempt to build an alternative to the two-party duopoly had succumbed to the siren song of lesser evilism…The safe-state strategy confines independent political action to places where it won’t make a difference – it’s a backdoor way of supporting the Democrats as a lesser evil to the Republicans.
Lesser evilism will reach a fever pitch this fall.” The choice, framed as fascism vs. democracy, will put enormous pressure on anyone opposed to Clinton because of her ties to Wall Street, her hawkishness in defense of imperialism, and so on…Clinton’s long record has shown her to be an enthusiastic servant of the rich and advocate for US empire. Beyond campaign rhetoric, she’s not really a champion of either immigrant rights or civil rights. And while Clinton will appeal for voters to break the glass ceiling and elect the first woman president, her record on women’s rights is hardly inspiring…
At the current writing (June 2016), opinion polls suggest that Trump’s unpopularity runs at historic levels among groups like Latinos and women. Because of that, most liberals and many establishment Republicans think Trump will go down to an historic defeat in November. That may be the case, but it’s less likely that even an anti-Trump landslide will shift US politics in a major way. The main reason is that Republicans currently hold their largest congressional and state-level majorities since the 1920s. It would take a true political earthquake – whose tremors are hard to detect at this time – to reverse that. But even if the GOP melts down, that’s no guarantee that the 2017 political environment will see an end to neoliberal dominance in US politics,” well represented by Hillary Clinton. (“A June Fortune 500 poll found a majority of corporate CEOs, most of them Republicans, saying they planned to support Clinton in November.”)
If the left signs up with Clinton’s national unity campaign against Trump, it will not only be endorsing the lesser evil, but it will be endorsing what the radical Black Agenda Report has tagged the “more effective evil.” Danny Haiphong points this out in arguing ‘Why A United Front Strategy Against Trump is Dangerous Territory for the Left’: ‘Trump has called Mexicans rapists and proposed that a wall be built along the US-Mexican border to prevent migration. In less than eight years, the Obama Administration has deported more migrants than any other president and further militarized the US-Mexican border. Trump has called for a system to identify Muslims in America while the Obama Administration has waged war on Muslims domestically and conducted an extensive drone program against Muslims abroad that’s killed thousands of people, including two US citizens. Few have protested the Obama Administration over these policies, but thousands have come out against Trump’s rhetoric. Trump is indeed evil, but Obama and the Democratic Party remain the far more effective evil.’
The increased space the left has secured to raise real questions about the character of US society will be wasted if Trump is allowed to scare the left back under the Democratic Party umbrella. The true test in the 2016 elections is not whether Trump can be defeated by a united front but whether radical forces in the US can find a way to defeat the plague of lesser evil politics. Building a political alternative to the two parties of capitalism and a social movement that can reverse decades of inequality will remain central tasks for the left, no matter what happens in the 2016 elections.”
So, vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein wherever you live!