This article is formatted as an argument between a “lesser-evilist” Democratic Party voter (in bold) and a Socialist Alternative member (in regular text).
Q: “Progressives have to be strategic, not ideological purists. Though not ideal, we need to vote for Democrats because they are more progressive than Republicans and can implement reforms that move us in a positive direction.”
The Democratic Party hasn’t been delivering reforms. Promises aside, all the recent Democratic administrations have marched the country down a path of right-wing corporatism, imperialism and environmental devastation.
Obama is no exception. He received record-setting levels of campaign contributions from banks and big business in 2008, and it is their interests he has represented, supporting the Wall Street bailouts while leaving working people and the poor to fend for themselves. His 2011 bipartisan budget deal represented the largest-ever drop in U.S. domestic spending, seriously impacting education, health, and labor.
Obama has increased military spending, intensified the war in Afghanistan, and carried out more drone strikes than ever before in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia (countries the U.S. is not even at war with).
He opened the eastern and Arctic coasts for offshore oil drilling while expanding fossil fuel production, fracking and nuclear power. He gave the thumbs-up on the initial phases of the Keystone XL pipeline, putting off the final decision until 2013, safely after the elections.
Guantanamo? Still open. Card-check system for union registration? Scrapped and forgotten, along with the rest of the Employee Free Choice Act. Transparency? Obama has punished more government whistleblowers than any president in history.
Q: “Obama can’t take all the blame; he’s boxed in by Republicans and the corporate establishment. That’s why progressives need to have a dual-pronged strategy of electing Democrats while working to change the party for the better.”
True enough that there’s plenty of blame to go around. But the fact is none of the major reforms throughout U.S. history have been won through a strategy of supporting Democrats; on the contrary, the Democratic Party has consistently been an obstacle to far-reaching reforms, selling out social movements at the first available opportunity and putting corporate interests first.
For example, supposed “friend of labor” Franklin Delano Roosevelt not only spoke out openly against public employee unions’ right to strike, calling it “unthinkable and intolerable,” but actively participated in violent strikebreaking against private-sector workers using federal troops.
There is a similar story for every other major reform: women’s suffrage, the weekend, the eight-hour day, civil rights, and so on – every one of these was won in the context of a politically independent mass struggle imbued with a strong current of revolutionary activism. These struggles were won not by working with the Democrats, but by creating a situation where the politicians of the ruling class recognized that they had to grant concessions to avoid an all-out revolt.
Q: “If you’re serious about racial equality and LGBT and women’s rights, then a pragmatic vote for the Democrats is necessary to keep out the sexist, racist, homophobic Republicans.”
A serious approach to these issues means the point is not just to defeat the Republicans as individuals, but to defeat the whole right-wing, divide-and-rule corporate agenda that epitomizes the Republicans – something at which the Democratic Party is notoriously ineffective. The right-wing agenda has continued in full force under Obama’s administration.
The right has gained strength because the Democrats have failed to offer a real solution to the economic crisis, which has left open the space for the rise of right-wing populism with all its bigoted scapegoating. The only effective counter to the far right is for the left to build its own independent fighting force that articulates a class-based solution, uniting across race, sexuality, gender, and nationality to fight the real enemy – the big banks and corporations and their system of capitalism.
Let’s be concrete: Has racial equality improved since Obama took office? Quite the opposite: Unemployment in the black community has increased faster than for any other racial group, while the racist “War on Drugs” and the mass incarceration of African Americans have raged on unimpeded. Meanwhile, Obama has deported immigrants at a faster rate than any U.S. president in history.
On women’s rights, the Democrats have proven to be singularly unsuccessful at stopping the faster-than-ever right-wing assault across the country. A record-setting 135 attacks on women’s rights passed in 36 states in 2011 alone.
On LGBT rights, Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was certainly positive, but this was a reform hard-won through popular pressure from below, including the 200,000- strong National Equality March in October 2009, which went much further to demand full, federally mandated, legal equality. Obama merely tried to appease the movement in the most convenient way possible – by repealing an untenable policy that 75% of Americans opposed and that he could use to shore up his progressive credentials just after selling out on the issue of tax cuts.
Similarly, Obama has given lip service to support for gay marriage as an election-season press stunt, but from the other side of his mouth has parroted the right-wing “states’ rights” excuse to avoid fighting for it.
Q: “The stakes are too high this time. War with Iran, stacking the Supreme Court, demolishing unions with ‘right-to-work’ legislation, privatizing social security… Romney and Ryan would do lasting, irreversible damage to our society.”
Stopping the right wing is an urgent necessity, and progressives must do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. But history has shown that, in terms of actual policy, the balance of class forces and social movements in society is much more decisive than who is sitting in office.
For example, compare the Nixon administration to the Clinton administration.
Richard Nixon, a Republican, carried out what today would be considered an extremely liberal set of policies. He established the EPA and OSHA to federally protect the environment and workers’ safety, ended U.S. combat operations in Vietnam, expanded Affirmative Action and the federal welfare program, and enforced desegregation in public schools.
The Democrat Clinton, on the other hand, bombed the Balkans, got NAFTA passed, dismantled the federal welfare program, cracked down on undocumented workers, and signed the anti-gay Defense Of Marriage Act into law.
Clearly, this wasn’t because the infamously corrupt Nixon was such a good guy compared to Clinton. It’s because the political climate and the balance of class forces was different, largely due to the huge struggles taking place in Nixon’s day against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. Clinton’s presidency, immediately following the fall of the USSR, occurred during one of the all-time low points of social struggle.
So that is why it is crucial to make electoral choices that will help build the strongest social movements. Support for the Democrats often spells death for progressive movements because the logic of selling the lesser-evil candidate to the public during election season means covering up or justifying their betrayals and putting protests on hiatus to avoid embarrassing them.
That is why it is vital to build an all-out fight against the ongoing bipartisan rightward shift by posing a clear alternative that people can rally to.
It is precisely because the stakes are so high that we need to do this now.
Q: “Independent and third-party candidates have no chance of winning; why should I throw away my vote?”
It’s worth asking oneself why anti-corporate challengers don’t stand a chance in the current system. One major reason is because the domination of corporate cash stacks the deck against them from the beginning – all the more reason not to vote for the parties who maintain this status quo.
But the biggest reason is that the very social movement organizations that do have the collective power and resources to overcome these obstacles and build such a challenge into a viable force have failed to do so. Why? Because they are still tied to the Democrats.
In 2008, the union movement alone gave $400 million to Obama and the Democrats, a figure which they aim to top this year. What’s more, the AFL-CIO is unleashing 400,000 volunteers this year to get out the vote for Obama. This is easily enough to build a credible third party that represents workers’ interests and takes no corporate money.
The space is there. There are issues with majority support that neither party actually fights for, like single-payer health care, taxing the rich, slashing military spending, and a real jobs program. A whopping 72% of Americans say if there was a third party that represented them on most issues, they would consider voting for it. 22% say they definitely would vote for it (ABC News/ Washington Post, 1/12-15/12).
If a party based out of the progressive social movements and representing the interests of the working-class majority were created, it would fundamentally change the political landscape in this country and massively strengthen these movements. The effect would reverberate far beyond the numeric vote totals alone.
In Canada, for instance, single-payer health care was won through a combination of a bottom-up workers’ struggle and a strong electoral challenge by the anti-corporate, left-reformist New Democratic Party (NDP), which made single-payer health care their key platform issue. Despite never entering government, the NDP was able to get publicly funded insurance in every province of Canada by getting enough votes to frighten the other parties into implementing their key demand.
Far from being a waste, political independence from the corporate parties is the more effective strategy in both the long and short term – both in terms of movements building their own challenge for power and in terms of putting pressure on the ruling institutions.
As Lawrence O’Donnell, former staff director for the Senate Finance Committee and current MSNBC pundit, put it back in 2006: “If you don’t show them that you are capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you. I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn’t listen or have to listen to anything on the left … because the left had nowhere to go.”