SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 204 Dec/Jan 2016/17

The disastrous failure of ‘lesser evilism’

A majority of those who voted for Hillary Clinton held their noses as they cast their ballots on 8 November, motivated more by fear of Donald Trump. A Pew Research Foundation poll had previously found that 55% of voters said they were ‘disgusted’ with the presidential election, and only 12% said they would be ‘excited’ if Clinton won (CNN, 21 September). The more voters learned about Clinton and her aggressive corporate agenda, the more they disliked her.

Liberal commentators focus on Trump’s bigoted hard-core base which, while significant, remains a distinct minority of voters. Fatally missing from most of their analysis is that the main fuel powering Trump’s campaign was popular rage at the corruption of the political establishment. Clinton’s corporate campaign was incapable of tapping into this mass desire for change. Unfortunately, the failure of trade union and progressive leaders to offer an independent, anti-establishment challenge to Trump gave the right-wing an open field to exploit the anger.

Using popular opposition to Trump as a veil, most trade union and progressive leaders argued for a dangerous and self-defeating ‘lesser-evil’ strategy. By spending hundreds of millions of dollars and bending social movement priorities around the singular goal of electing the Democratic Party, and by clinging to the false hope of one day ‘reclaiming’ the party from big-business domination, the left is undermining its ability to defend people of colour, women, immigrants and working people generally from right-wing attacks.

Clinton’s campaign spent millions of dollars denouncing voting for a third-party candidate as a vote for Trump, enlisting progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s website profiled SEIU union president, Mary Kay Henry, saying: "Hillary Clinton has proven she will fight, deliver, and win for working families. SEIU members… are part of a growing movement to build a better future for their families, and Hillary Clinton will support and stand with them".

In private, most left leaders will acknowledge the corporate character of the Democratic Party. Some will even agree that a new left party is needed. Yet the whole logic of backing Clinton – turning out the vote among the angry, betrayed and disillusioned base of the Democratic Party – compelled these leaders to argue against political independence and instead actively cover up for her criminally corporate record.

Bernie Sanders, who won mass support for exposing Clinton, is a living demonstration of the corrosive logic of lesser evilism. Once Bernie started heaping praise on Clinton, his credibility waned and attendance at his rallies dropped dramatically. The once-enthusiastic movement behind Bernie is now largely confused, demoralised and scattered, no longer able to act as a cohesive force pulling society leftward.

The policy of covering up for the corporate character of the Democratic Party remains a central strategic failure of the unions and progressive leadership in America. When Barack Obama took power amid the 2008 financial crisis, his first act was to bail out Wall Street. These banks showered him with campaign contributions as millions lost their homes. Trade union and progressive leaders, fearful of embarrassing the Democrats, failed to mobilise the enormous anger at Wall Street into a left opposition movement. That paved the way for the Tea Party and its sweeping electoral victories in the 2010 elections for Congress and state legislatures.

Lecturing backers of Jill Stein’s Green Party presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders and others argued that ‘this is not the year for a protest vote’. While Trump is in some ways a uniquely dangerous Republican nominee, this is the same mantra we hear every four years. It’s a political race to the bottom that never ends. When exactly is the right year? 2020? 2024? 2040? In truth, since entering Congress, Bernie has always backed Democrats for president and argued against supporting independent left challengers.

Socialist Alternative gathered over 125,000 signatures urging Bernie to run all the way through November and use his massive base of support to build a new party for the 99%. When Sanders endorsed Clinton, we urged a vote for Stein in all 50 states to register the strongest possible protest vote against racism and corporate politics, and to help popularise the need for independent politics.

Many on the left talk about ‘reclaiming’ the Democratic Party from big business, but it has never been a party for working people or the left. The Democrats were originally the party of slavery, and brought the US into the Vietnam war. Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms were forced on his administration by mass strikes and protests, and FDR called out the national guard to suppress strikes more than any US president in history. More recently, the Democrats united with the Republican establishment in 2008 to bail out Wall Street, while expanding NSA domestic spying and drone bombings.

Historically, the stability of the two-party system was fundamentally rooted in the enormous and expanding economic strength of US capitalism. This cut across support for socialist ideas and provided a material basis for the ‘American dream’ for big sections of the working class. However, the last two generations are only staying above water on the basis of an expanding debt burden.

Since the 1980s, neoliberal policies have hollowed out the American economy, producing unprecedented inequality, and ushering in a new era of political upheaval. Especially since the 2008 economic crisis, the American dream has unravelled. The meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right reflects the mounting anger and frustration. This political instability and polarisation will only increase, both in the US and globally.

Bernie Sanders’ historic campaign raised $220 million from over two million ordinary people. Calling himself a democratic socialist and framing his campaign as a ‘political revolution against the billionaire class’, Sanders won overwhelming support among young voters and established himself as the most popular politician in the US. Even within the rigged Democratic Party primary, Sanders won 45% of the delegates. These numbers demonstrate the viability of launching a new mass party of the 99%, completely independent of corporate cash.

The outline for such a party could be created on the initiative of the more left-wing unions that backed Bernie, like National Nurses United, and bring together activists from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Greens, socialists, and other leftward moving social movements. To demarcate it from the establishment parties, it should reject corporate cash and, like Kshama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative city councillor in Seattle, its public representatives should take only the average wage of the working people they represent while donating the rest towards building social justice movements.

The voting base of the Democrats is far to the left of the party leadership. Even many working-class Republican voters – and those who don’t feel they have anyone to vote for – could be drawn to a bold fighting programme to take on the corrupted political establishment. We can’t afford more elections with the right-wing as the only political force capturing the anger in US society. It is urgent we begin building a powerful new party of the 99%, uniting all the social movements in society into a common political challenge to corporate politicians and the right.

Patrick Ayers and Ty Moore, Socialist Alternative

Extracts from a longer article, see:

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