With the presidential race entering the final lap, panic is setting in as Hillary Clinton fails to pull ahead of Donald Trump in the polls. In a viral video, an exasperated Clinton asks “why am I not 50 points ahead?” Even the mainstream media talking heads – including those who previously dismissed polls consistently showing Bernie outpacing Hillary against Trump – are recognizing the huge challenge of motivating working people to vote for an establishment, Wall Street candidate.
Originally published at CounterPunch.org.
The truth is, a majority of those planning to vote for Clinton will be holding their noses as they cast their ballots on November 8, motivated by fear of Donald Trump rather than positive support for Hillary. A Pew Research Foundation poll found that 55% of voters say they are “disgusted” with the presidential election, with only 12% saying they would be “excited” if Clinton won (CNN, 9/21/16). Even with the historic prospect of electing the first woman president, less than half of all women approve of Clinton (Washington Post, 8/31/16). Asked about the presidential debate, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick summed it up well: “It’s embarrassing… both are proven liars.”
As the Financial Times pointed out: “It is little short of astonishing that this close to midnight [Clinton] feels obliged to launch another drive to explain to voters why she wants to be president. What exactly was the past year about? Or the past decade? As the song says, ‘If you don’t know me by now …’” The problem is, the more voters learn about Clinton and her legacy of promoting an aggressive corporate agenda, the more they dislike her. The FT continues: “It should be no surprise that voters are sceptical of her honesty. If this is a contest over who is least unpopular, Mrs Clinton is capable of losing it” (9/18/16).
Liberal commentators have focused on Trump’s bigoted hard-core base which, while significant, remains a distinct minority of voters. Fatally missing from most liberal analysis (and political strategy) is that the main fuel powering Trump’s campaign is popular rage at the corporate corruption of the political establishment. Clinton’s corporate campaign is incapable of tapping into this mass desire for change. Unfortunately, the failure of union and progressive leaders to offer an independent, anti-establishment challenge to Trump leaves the right-wing an open field to exploit the popular anger.
Even if Trump loses this election, the left’s subservience to the Democratic Party is paving the way for future, stronger Trumps. Polls show Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, remains the most popular politician in America, and it remains clear he would be a far stronger candidate against Trump than Clinton. But as the Democratic National Committee’s fierce backing of Clinton proved, the Democratic Party tops are more firmly committed to maintaining their alliance with Wall Street and big business than they are to defeating Trump and the right-wing.
Faced with the horrifying prospect of a Trump White House, it is understandable that millions of ordinary people who completely oppose Clinton’s Wall Street politics will nonetheless cast a vote for her on November 8th. At the same time, using popular opposition to Trump as a veil, most union and progressive leaders are arguing for a dangerous and self-defeating “lesser-evil” strategy that endlessly reduces our movements into pressure campaigns on the corporate controlled Democratic Party.
By spending hundreds of millions of dollars to whip up support for corporate Democrats, by 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 Democratic Party from big business domination, the left is undermining its ability to defend people of color, women, immigrants, and working people generally from right-wing attacks.
Covering up for Clinton
“Unnerved” by strong polling numbers for third party candidates, the New York Times reports Clinton’s campaign and affiliated Democratic groups are “shifting their focus to those voters, many of them millennials, who recoil at Mr. Trump, her Republican opponent, but now favor the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, or the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein” (9/15/16). A representative of Clinton’s Wall Street funded Super PAC reported: “We’ll be launching a multimillion-dollar digital campaign that talks about what’s at stake and how a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Donald Trump.”
Enlisted to deliver the Super PAC’s focus-grouped messaging will be progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, alongside social movement and trade union leaders. Many readers will have already seen this sophisticated, multi-pronged campaign rolled out over their social media feeds. In private, most left leaders will acknowledge the corporate character of the Democratic Party, and some will even agree that a new left party is needed. Yet the whole logic of backing Hillary – of turning out the vote among the angry, betrayed, and disillusioned base of the Democratic Party – compels these leaders to argue against political independence and instead actively cover up for Clinton’s criminally corporate record.
For example, Clinton’s website profiles SEIU 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.”
Bernie Sanders himself, who won mass support for exposing Clinton’s deep corporate corruption, is a living demonstration of the corrosive logic of lesser evilism. Since Bernie started heaping praises on Clinton in order to turn out the vote against Trump, his credibility has waned and attendance at his rallies has dramatically dropped off. The once-enthusiastic movement behind Bernie is now largely confused, demoralized, 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.
This strategy also paved the way for the Tea Party and their sweeping electoral victories in the 2010 elections for Congress and state legislatures. When Obama took power amid the 2008 financial crisis, his first act was to bail out the Wall Street banks. These banks showered him with campaign contributions as millions lost their homes. However the union and progressive leaders were fearful of embarrassing the Democrats. They failed to mobilize the enormous anger at Wall Street into a left opposition movement, leaving Tea Party Republicans an open field.
Wherever the left fails to organize a bold, fighting, working-class challenge to corporate politics-as-usual, popular rage at the failures of capitalism will be channeled behind right-wing “anti-establishment” figures like Trump. The more the left ties itself to the Democratic Party, the more left leaders undermine their own credibility by covering up for big business politicians, the more political space they create for Trump or other brands of right populist bigotry to flourish.
As Bernie Sanders demonstrated during the primaries, the most effective way to cut across support for Trump is to combine a full-throated denunciation of bigotry with a fighting, anti-establishment message to unite workers in common struggle against Wall Street and big business.
“Not the Year for a Protest Vote?”
Lecturing backers of Jill Stein’s Green Party presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders and others argue that “this is not the year for a protest vote.” While Donald 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%. But now that Sanders endorsed Clinton, we are urging a vote for Stein in all fifty states to register the strongest possible protest vote against racism and corporate politics, and to help popularize the need for independent politics.
To those left leaders who say they agree that the Democratic Party is hopelessly corrupted by corporate cash, but propose a “strategic” vote for Clinton “just this year,” we should ask: Why not at least urge a vote for Jill Stein in the majority of the country that are considered “safe states” like New York, where Clinton is up by 18%? Given the Electoral College system, the election will really be decided in a small number of swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
If their concern is purely blocking Trump from entering the White House, then such an approach would allow them to achieve that, while helping to lay the groundwork for a broad-based left political alternative. The left’s failure to back a strong left alternative, even in “safe states,” reveals that behind talk of “strategic” support for Clinton “this year,” there is no real strategy to break out of their dependence on the Democratic Party.
If the unions and the wider left organized a strong working class challenge to Clinton and Trump, they would be far more effective at peeling away Trump’s soft supporters, those who are not hardened bigots but rather working class people looking to “kick out the bums” overseeing our corrupt political establishment. We understand why people will vote for Clinton in swing states to block Trump. But Socialist Alternative is campaigning for Jill Stein throughout the country as the best way, in this period of heightened political debate, to strengthen support for what’s most needed: political independence for our movements and a new party of the 99%.
Movements & the Democratic Party
Some voices on the left, like the Democratic Socialists of America, argue that under Democrats our social movements have more room to grow into offensive struggles, whereas under Republicans we are often forced onto the defensive. While there is a grain of truth to this, the argument is typically linked to the illusion that by backing corporate Democrats we get “a seat at the table” and from there can pull our political “allies” leftward from the inside.
What they ignore is how, today and throughout history, hitching our struggles to the Democratic Party – even its more liberal wing – actually undermines the strength of our movements. In a society so deeply divided along class lines, no political party can serve two masters. Clinton and the Democrats may give lip service to supporting the interests of workers, people of color, women, and LGBTQ people, but in the final analysis they serve their big business backers. In the end, the promise of a “seat at the table” turns out to be a tool for big business to co-opt our movement leaders and to tamp down our demands and expectations.
This false strategy is what led most union leaders to scandalously back Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primary, even though Bernie Sanders could have won with solid labor backing. History is replete with examples of movement leaders amplifying the false promises of corporate Democrats, only to have their causes betrayed once the election is over. The hard lesson is this: no movement can navigate a path to serious victories without being crystal clear on who their friends and enemies are. The apparent logic of backing Democrats inevitably leads to confusion and betrayals.
Historically, what matters most in determining a movement’s success is not whether a Democrat is president, but the size and fighting capacity of the movement itself. Compare the presidency of Republican Richard Nixon to that of Democrat Bill Clinton. Nixon was one of the most conservative Republicans of his time, but under his administration, movements won the end to the Vietnam War, abortion rights, the expansion of civil rights and poverty-reducing programs and environmental and workplace regulations. Nixon was forced to grant significant concessions because there were millions of people in the streets and for fear that these movements would become even more radical.
Yet when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 with the support of the AFL-CIO and most progressive leaders, there were no mass movements organized. Clinton delivered one of the most right wing agendas in living memory. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, “ended welfare as we know it,” deregulated Wall Street, supported the anti-LGBTQ “Defense of Marriage Act,” and oversaw the curtailing of abortion rights and a doubling of the prison population.
The End of the “American Dream”
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 Jim Crow and the party that brought the U.S. into the Vietnam War. Many paint Franklin D Roosevelt as a champion for workers, but the “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 president in history. More recently, the Democrats united with the Republican establishment in 2008 to bail out Wall Street. The Democrats promoted the militarization of police departments across the US, “tough on crime” policies that doubled the prison population, while expanding NSA domestic spying and drone bombings.
Bernie Sanders has popularized the idea that the U.S. should be more like European countries that provide everyone with free higher education, childcare, paid family leave, and health care. He repeatedly pointed out how the U.S. was the only major country on the planet without a universal public healthcare system, but Bernie left out that we are also the only major country to have never established a viable mass workers party. All the gains won in Europe in the mid-twentieth century were the result of working people building their own mass socialist parties. The ruling class feared the potential of the mobilized, independent power of the working class to challenge the capitalist parties for control of society and demand fundamental change.
Yet, in the United States, the unions and progressives never succeeded in creating a mass independent party of our own and have instead supported the Democrats, a liberal big business party. This is not primarily because of some superior design of the U.S. political system. Historically, the stability of the two party system was fundamentally rooted in the enormous and expanding economic strength of U.S. capitalism. Up through the 1980s, every American generation lived better than their parents, cutting across support for socialist ideas and providing a material basis for the “American Dream” for big sections of the working class.
However, the last two generations are living worse than their parents, only staying above water on the basis of an expanding debt burden. Since the 1980s, neo-liberal policies have hollowed out the American economy, producing unprecedented inequality, eroding the social safety net, and ushering in a new era of political upheaval.
Especially since the 2008 economic crisis, the “American Dream” has unravelled and opened up unprecedented space for building the socialist movement and launching a new mass party of the left. Capitalism is mired in an ongoing global crisis, and there is no prospect for a return to the previous era of generous social welfare states without mass struggle and a socialist transformation of society.
A New Party of the 99% Needed
That is the historic backdrop to the collapsing popular support for the American political establishment and both capitalist parties. The meteoric rise of Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right reflects the anger and frustration of a society searching for a way forward as decaying U.S. capitalism proves itself incapable of resolving any of the fundamental problems we face. Whatever the results of the 2016 elections, the political instability and polarization we’ve seen this year will only increase, both in the U.S. and globally. This underscores both the historic opportunity, and the urgent need, for the left to build a new mass party of, by, and for working people. Because if the left continues to fail this challenge history places before us, the right will continue to strengthen its position, with terrible consequences.
Bernie Sanders’ historic campaign raised nearly $230 million from over two million ordinary people, with the average donation just $27. 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 America. Even within the rigged Democratic Party primary, which skewed heavily toward older, wealthier party loyalists, Sanders won 46% of the delegates. These numbers demonstrate the immediate viability of launching a new mass party of the 99%, completely independent of corporate cash.
The outline for a new party could be created on the initiative of the more left-wing unions that backed Bernie like the National Nurses United, and bring together activists from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Greens, socialists, and other leftward moving social movements. A starting point could be joining together through democratic conferences to discuss a plan for running independent candidates and debating a platform and structures for a new nationwide party.
To be effective, a genuine left party could not just limit itself to electoral initiatives. Change comes primarily through mass struggle and a new party should act as an organizing center for building movements and solidarity between various struggles. To demarcate it from the establishment parties, a new party should reject corporate cash and, like Kshama Sawant, its public representatives should take only the average wage of the working people they represent while donating the rest of their salary 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 program to take on the corrupted political establishment. The ruling establishment of both capitalist parties, seeking to cut across the vote of a new left party, would be under pressure to make concessions. Almost everywhere local government is completely controlled by just one of the two major parties, and a new party fighting for positions on city councils and state houses could make rapid gains.
We can’t afford more elections with the right-wing as the only political force capturing the anger in U.S. 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.