“Opportunities for the left have been created which never existed before.”
US leftists, broadly defined, agree with the above statement by Eric Lee (Solidarity 410). But that is where agreement ends. The social-democratic and Stalinist left, the identarian left, the non-profit left, as well as most of the labour left are united in supporting Hillary Clinton as the only way to stop Donald Trump. However, in my view, and that of most revolutionary socialists, this is the best opportunity that we have had since at least 1968, if not 1936, to lay foundations for launching a genuinely independent progressive party.
The Sanders campaign cohered a mass base especially of young people, and showed that it is possible to connect with broad sections of the working class who desperately want a break from neoliberal policies and the two party system. But the impact of the Sanders phenomena will be limited to the degree that it fails to find organisational expression in a movement for a new political party.
Winning the biggest possible vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein/Ajamu Baraka campaign, enabling the Greens to make a breakthrough in the 2016 presidential election, and building an ongoing independent electoral infrastructure is the task of the political moment which can further the building of a movement for a broad party of the left. In this election, the best expression at the national level of what supporters of Sanders’ “political revolution” have been fighting for is the Stein campaign.
Stein’s agenda reflects many of the domestic policies of the Sanders campaign: income equality, climate justice, free public higher education, Medicare for All, immigrant rights, racial justice, and an end to mass incarceration, but it goes much further in calling for the cancellation of student debt, full public financing of elections, the creation of public banks, and a foreign policy based on diplomacy, international law, and human rights. This political season has confounded neoliberal Democrats, the corporate media, as well as the social-democratic commentariat. First the Sanders campaign, and now the surging support for Jill Stein have gone much further than the “experts” would have predicted.
Since Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton, the Stein campaign has been flooded with Sanderistas looking for a political home, as well as thousands of grassroots activists who weren’t involved in the campaign, but who are looking for a radical alternative. Stein is also an effective campaigner able to instill in her supporters that this need not be another marginal protest campaign (like previous Green Party national campaigns), as well as a sense of urgency: “The clock is ticking — on the next Wall Street collapse, the climate meltdown, the expanding wars, the slide towards fascism, nuclear confrontation and more. This is the time to stand up with the courage of our convictions, while we still can. Forget the lesser evil. Fight for the greater good — like our lives depend on it, because they do. The corporate parties will not fix this for us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Of course, Stein is also attracting support because people are repulsed by this “sordid race between the cynical corporate centrism of Hillary Clinton and the ugly, racist economic nationalism of Donald Trump” (Solidarity). In this election Clinton is definitely the neoliberal candidate, and Trump the “sociopath and opportunist who is all too readily prepared to curry favour with the most dangerous tendencies in American politics” (Adolph Reed). There is no doubt that Clinton is the preferred candidate of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the corporate media, the military and foreign policy establishment, as well as a growing list of Republican funders.
She played a key role in moving the Democratic Party away from the remnants of its New Deal legacy to more openly embracing corporate power. Even the Clinton-supporting New York Times describes Clinton as more hawkish than Obama. Her record on promoting fracking as part of an all-of-the-above energy policy as well as the large contributions she is receiving from the fossil fuel industry makes it clear that she will be an obstacle to meaningful climate action. Poor people, black people, and immigrants, along with the working class as a whole, have suffered real losses under Obama, and this is likely to worsen under Clinton, especially if she’s given a blank check by the left in this election.
Perhaps the biggest factor in this new political reconfiguration is described by Stein: “Young people don’t have the sort of historical attachment to the Democratic Party, because in their lifetimes, they’ve seen the Democrats in control, as they been swamped by debt and deprived of jobs and subject to the corporate trade agreements that are taking our jobs overseas and these massive expanding wars and the prison state. So they don’t see the Democrats as the heroes that those of us who grew up in the civil rights era did. This is a constituency that is sort of moving out into the sunset.”
Out of the gate, Stein is already polling at 16% among voters under the age of 30. We are seeing the beginning of a youth radicalisation. As always, liberals and the soft left are saying that Trump is so dangerous that 2016 is “not the time” to advance political independence. The same thing was said in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and for a very long time before that. Hal Draper explained the lessons of the 1964 Johnson vs. Goldwater election for the left, “Who was the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups in which the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.”
Stein’s stump speeches always take on the lesser-evil argument: “The politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of. We can list all the reasons people are told to silence themselves and vote for a lesser evil candidate: we were afraid of jobs going overseas, the climate meltdown, expanding wars, the attack on our civil liberties and on immigrant rights, expansion of the prison state, etc. Look around. This is exactly what we’ve gotten--much of it under a Democratic White House…. So the politics of fear delivers what we’re afraid of. The lesser evil is not the solution. It merely paves the way to the greater evil.”
With the Republicans becoming more extreme, and the Democrats following in their wake, continuing acceptance of lesser-evil politics means perpetual political enslavement to the rightward-moving Democratic Party. Stein correctly argues that, “The groundswell for Donald Trump was created by the economic misery of NAFTA and Wall Street deregulation — policies promoted by both Clintons. The neoliberal economic policies of the Democratic Party, which are sure to continue under a Clinton presidency, caused the rise of Trump.”
If the left is unwilling or unable to provide a credible oppositional alternative, the right will thrive on their claim to be the true anti-establishment alternative. There is also a radicalisation on the right. Eight years of a neoliberal Clinton administration could result in a much larger, more organised populist right with another more dangerous candidate.
Let’s be blunt. It is necessary to harm the Democrats. In order to build a mass progressive third party we must not only win support from non-voters, who overwhelmingly include the poor and working class, especially minorities, but must also split away the bulk of the Democrat’s base. So Democratic candidates may lose, and Republicans may win. An effective effort to build a new party means accepting the short term likelihood of electing Republicans. Creating situations that cause the Democrats pain are also the only way that we are going to be able to win meaningful electoral reforms like proportional representation, ranked choice voting, or instant runoff voting (IRV).
Rebellious Sanderistas are being counseled that they need to “accept reality,” that they should throw themselves into reforming the Democratic Party or build a “party within the party’ as the Working Families Party current thinks it is doing. This debate needs to be had, but not in this article.
Revolutionary socialists know that trying to transform the Democrats is a futile, disastrously time-wasting, and demobilising strategy as the left can not effectively compete with corporate power and financing for influence inside the party. The Democrats are a structurally capitalist party, not an organization of voters and supporters whose preferences determine its policies. What about Labor?
All this said, we shouldn’t let “optimism of the will” run roughshod over “pessimism of the intellect.” The Green Party cannot grow without significant institutional support into the mass working class party that we need, one that can really contend for power on a national scale, without becoming grounded in the labour movement. To begin to grasp the challenge, consider that following the 2000 election AFL-CIO president John Sweeney called Nader’s Green Party campaign “reprehensible.”
The Democratic offensive to destroy Nader, aided by the labour bureaucracy and liberal punditry, also undermined support for the fledgling Labor Party movement. And since 2000, according to Labor Party national organiser Mark Dudzic, the national unions have “reverted to a survival mode that precluded the embrace of transformative efforts like the Labor Party.” So in this election cycle, in what became a a self-fulfilling prophecy, many unions endorsed Clinton in the primaries on the premise that Sanders couldn’t win. Unions regularly support anti-worker candidates like Clinton, practicing a narrow transactionalism whereby officials cut a deal with the candidate, exchanging their support for concessions to their individual union.
Most significantly, many union officials believe that they are “players” part of the ruling Democratic establishment. What is left of the US labour movement is suffering the consequences of decades of this self-defeating approach. So there must be a political fight within the labour movement to liberate it from enslavement to the Democrats. One of the promising parts of the Bernie phenomena was the creation of Labor for Bernie, a network of tens of thousands of members and leaders who took on the labour establishment, and who can be a base for subsequent, longer-term organising.
Still, indicative of the challenges, Rand Wilson, a founder and spokesperson for Labor for Bernie describes himself as #DemEnter, “I joined the Democratic Party to elect Bernie. But I also joined to stop Donald Trump.” The reality is that millions of working class people who we should work with in a respectful manner will vote for Clinton as a lesser-evil. They have compelling reasons to do so, and should not be chastised and reprimanded for their decision.
There are of course outliers like the feisty but tiny United Electrical Workers and RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United who argues “Labor is out of touch with its base. My advice is we should see ourselves as representatives of the working class—not the executive class, not the neo-liberals. Members are where Bernie was. Labor should have listened to Bernie.”
While the working class is bigger than ever, and is broadly supportive of a progressive populist agenda, Trump is making inroads into former union strongholds. A new poll has Clinton ahead over all, but trailing Trump by 13 points among whites without a college education and by 21 points among men in that group. Many working-class whites are embittered by their declining economic fortunes under Obama. Arun Gupta writes that, “These whites are America’s Brexit voters, battered workers distrustful of politicians, media, and business leaders who have hoodwinked them for decades about the benefits of globalization and empire, even if their anger is nursed on a diet of bigotry and bizarre conspiracies.”
Trump is opportunistically peeling workers away from Clinton by harping about bad trade deals, promising to stop the TPP, bringing good jobs back, etc. — all of which has traction as it is widely believed that once elected Clinton will flip back to supporting TPP. Inevitably, the labour bureaucracy’s lining up for Clinton means muting criticism of her anti-working class policies, systematically lowering expectations, and lying to members. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says organised labour is with Clinton because the Democratic agenda “is our agenda!”
Skeptics are right in insisting that there are real limitations to what can be accomplished by a national Green Party campaign in 2016, especially given the pre-existing weaknesses of the Green Party’s infrastructure. How far the unprecedented spontaneous support for Jill Stein’s campaign can go beyond being a one-time protest vote to building solid independent political organisation is not knowable. The Greens can be small cogs in a big undertaking. Jill Stein herself understands this which is reflected in her orientation to Sanders’ base. Adolph Reed is correct in insisting that: “Everything now hinges on how we can build on the momentum the (Sanders) campaign generated, deepen and broaden contacts in unions, workplaces, communities, campuses… we should see ourselves now really as at the beginning of a long organising drive… locating serious activists, organisers, bringing them together.”
The Stein campaign may also help bring together elements of the fractured revolutionary left and more broadly a new left. Stein attracted 700 participants when she spoke at the Socialist Convergence in Philadelphia during the DNC. She is also promoting left Elect which is organising a national conference in March 2017 to gather candidates, individuals, and organisations committed to a left political alliance in opposition to the two-party system. Party of a New Type It’s going to be a long road, and there isn’t a clear formula for creating a mass working class party in the United States that can be the voice of the labour and social movements.
While winning a strong vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein/Ajamu Baraka ticket in 2016 would help build a movement for the party we need, it should not be a candidate-centred operation that concentrates exclusively on getting votes, like the two bosses’ parties. We should be building the embryo of a movement-type party filled with activists, democratically controlled by its membership, oriented to rooting itself in the militant minority within the unions, and black organisations as well as within the climate justice, women’s, immigrant, antiwar, and LGBT movements. It should campaign for its views through demonstrations, its own media, mass popular education, and forums of all kinds — not just electoral campaigns. It should provide a political voice that would speak for the labour and social movements, enable them to be more than pressure groups, and bring them together connecting our many issue and organisational silos.
• The author is a trade union activist and organiser for the Sanders campaign.