Don’t Buy the “Lesser of Two Evils” Argument

The newspapers, TV and other mass media outlets have begun a barrage of articles and commentaries with the message that there are only two real candidates for President this year, Gore and Bush, and anyone else running is either a spoiler or not worth wasting your vote on. From the Al Gore camp comes the message that Al Gore is the champion of working people, and that a vote for Nader will hand the Presidency to George Bush, Jr. Is there any truth to this?

The Democrats’ Broken Promises

Remember when Bill Clinton ran in 1992? He also called himself the champion of working families. He promised health care for every American and that his policies would be a “change” from those of the Reagan/Bush era. Well let’s check the record.

The Clinton/Gore program, which Gore defends so stridently, has massively increased the wealth of the rich at the expense of working people and the poor. Never has the gap between the rich and poor expanded so quickly as under Clinton/Gore. During the first four years of Clinton’s presidency, the wealthiest five percent of the population’s share of the total national income grew from 18.6% to 21.7%. The Economist magazine describes this as “an unprecedented rate of increase.” This makes Al Gore a better friend of the rich than the Republicans he so likes to attack.

During this period of economic boom, overall living standards for working people have declined. According to the State of Working America 1997-98: “American families are working harder to stay in the same place and have seen little of the gains in the overall economy.” Due to the end of welfare, 2.6 million people, of whom 1.1 million are children, have been thrown into poverty. Another 14 million people on welfare have three years before they will be dropped from the program – probably just in time to be hit by the next economic recession.

What about the environment? Despite speeches to the contrary, Al Gore has close ties to the oil industry, just like George Bush, Jr. Occidental Petroleum, an oil company responsible for spills totaling 1.8 billion gallons – eight times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster – is a major source of funds for Al Gore. Charles Lewis, from the campaign finance watchdog group Center for Public Integrity, said: “There’s probably no company in America today that is as close personally and financially to the Vice President than Occidental Petroleum.” The Clinton/Gore administration sold the coveted Elks Hills oil reserves in California to Occidental. Lewis says: “Despite his public reputation as a staunch environmentalist, Gore recommended that the President approve giving oil companies access to this publicly owned land.”

As a congressman, Gore endorsed the most reactionary Reagan-era erosions of the right of women to choose an abortion, and repeatedly voted against federal funding of abortions for poor women. In 1993, he tried to gut affirmative action at the federal level. His position on the death penalty is indistinguishable from that of Bush. Gore’s biographer, Bill Turque, discloses in his book that Gore, a born-again Christian, has referred to homosexuals as “abnormal.”

Two Parties – One System

The corporations that fund and control the Democratic and Republican Parties dictate their policies. The present policies, followed by every president since the mid-1970s, were drawn up by big business in response to the end of the huge economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s. Facing a possible squeeze on their profits, the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of the major corporations formed the Business Roundtable to address this. The Business Roundtable was made up exclusively of these CEO’s-no politicians, members of the press, or other individuals could attend these meetings.

In its October 12th, 1974 issue, Business Week clearly spelled it all out: “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more…Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must be done to make people accept this reality.”

The ‘selling job’ for these policies was done by the 1,700 newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio and 1,000 television stations, 2,500 book publishers and 7 movie studios in the US. In 1995, 17 huge corporations owned 75% of all media outlets. For example, General Electric owns NBC, Walt Disney Corporation, the largest entertainment corporation in the country, owns ABC, and billionaire Rupert Murdoch owns Fox.

Imagine how quickly mass movements would develop if there were only one political party to push through the agenda of the ruling class. That’s why they devised this system of two almost identical parties, both of which it finances and controls. These two parties share power to give an illusion of choice to the public.

Since the ruling class controls the media, the universities and all major political offices in the country, any time a crisis hits, it can blame the party in power. Then, in comes the ‘alternative party’ to make the necessary concessions to prevent the movement from mounting a serious challenge to the power of the ruling class.

In the 25 years since the Business Roundtable was founded, we have seen a massive shift of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich, the enactment of free trade legislation, the slashing of funding for public housing, the intervention of US military forces overseas, and the continued destruction of the environment. BOTH political parties have carried out these processes. Between 1976 and 2000, except for the years 1992 to 1994 when no important new legislation was passed, power has been shared between the two major parties.

So… What Are the Democrats?

Leaders of the labor, women’s, civil rights and environmental movements have continually attempted to present the Democrats as friends of working people and the oppressed. However, in their class interests and essential program they are identical to the Republicans. It has been mass movements that have forced concessions from big business. It is only because the Democrats were in power when many of these concessions were forced through that they are perceived as more progressive.

Consider the 1930s. Republican President Herbert Hoover was replaced by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 elections as a result of the Great Depression. Roosevelt made no mention of the New Deal during his campaign. However, once Roosevelt was elected he was immediately faced with the collapse of the banking system and the threat of the economy spiraling into a deeper depression. Only then did he put forward New Deal policies.

These New Deal policies came from the realization that something was needed to defend the system from a more radical challenge. Faced with a mass movement from the trade unions, the political system was forced to give further concessions. What is seldom remembered is that the National Guard was used against labor more times under Roosevelt than under any other president. The first engagement of US troops in the 1940s was not against Japanese or German troops, but against union members in California.

When the civil rights movement exploded in the 1950s, both political parties responded with repression. Democratic administrations in the South launched vicious attacks using water hoses and dogs. However, the spectacle of police beating peaceful African American protesters was an international embarrassment to US business, so a change in policy was demanded. Once again, it was the Democrats who happened to be in the White House when big business was forced to give reforms by a mass movement. There were no promises of such reforms in Kennedy’s campaign speeches before he was elected.

Social and Political Movements Decide Politics

Every real gain we have won has been achieved through struggle outside of the two party system, whether through political campaigns, strikes or mass movements on the streets. The right to public education, the end of child labor, the right to organize unions, the 8-hour day, unemployment benefits, the right to health care at work or through federal programs, pensions, the right to abortion, the ending of slavery, the repeal of racist Jim Crow laws in the South, and the end of the Vietnam war were all achieved through struggle.

Liberals always point to the Democrats as friends of working people, minorities and the poor, and Republicans as their enemies. If you look at their policies you would see that Republican president Richard Nixon was more liberal than Bill Clinton! In the late 1960s and early 1970s Nixon enacted civil rights reforms, a family assistance plan for the poor, indexed social security to inflation, introduced the federal food stamps program, and introduced a national health insurance program, which was blocked by Congress. The Nixon Administration passed more laws benefiting women and the environment than any other recent president. Coincidentally, both the women’s movement and the environmental movement peaked during Nixon’s presidency.

For any fundamental change to occur, a political movement must be built that is independent of the two parties. We support any serious campaign outside the two parties, as long as it is a left-wing movement, that fights for social justice, improvements for workers etc. The key issue is that it be separate from the two parties. It is for this reason that Socialist Alternative is campaigning for Ralph Nader.

Combating the “Lesser of Two Evils” Argument

The chief defensive weapon of the bipartisan system is the “lesser of two evils” argument. With this argument, there are only two reasonable choices in the election. Every other politician is an extremist. Al Gore is a great champion of working people; he is a practical candidate. To vote for Ralph Nader would let in the right wing under the guise of George Bush.

With Nader polling 8% of the vote, the “lesser of two evils” attack has already begun, on a limited scale. This argument will build in intensity as we get closer to November. We have to confront this argument with the whole history of the two party system, reminding voters that the only way to make fundamental change in society is to build a new political movement. A good turnout for Nader will do more to shift the political debate to the left than all the millions of votes Gore will get.

The best way to weaken the effects of the “lesser of two evils” argument is to build the Nader campaign. A powerful visible campaign can demonstrate the hugely positive role of Nader in helping to build a new movement. That will give those voters flirting with Nader the confidence not to hold their nose in November and vote for Al Gore.

Justice #21, September-October 2000