My Trek to Lesser-Evil Electoral Politics


When I became a socialist in the mid-1970s, my electoral perspective was shaped by the Trotskyist milieu of the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP rejected any support for the Democratic Party and viewed elections primarily as opportunities to lay bare the ‘shell game’ of the twin capitalist parties. I remember when the party’s organ, The Militant, carried a big debate between Peter Camejo and Michael Harrington during the 1976 presidential race, Harrington arguing for a Carter vote and Camejo offering himself as the SWP protest candidate. I found Camejo the more persuasive of the two, as well more entertaining, with his now-very- familiar joke about lesser-evilism–if they want us to vote for Mussolini, they’ll run Hitler against him.


 


I remained a principled opponent of lesser-evilism when I joined the Los Angeles branch of Solidarity in 1990. Rather than run its own candidates as did the SWP, Solidarity emphasized support for progressive third parties such as the U.S. Labor Party, the California Peace & Freedom Party, and the Greens. In 1992, I worked on Ron Daniels’ ‘Campaign for Tomorrow’ presidential candidacy, which ran on the Peace & Freedom ticket in California. I had rarely been involved in electoral work, believing (as I still do) in the primacy of non- electoral organizing. However, I responded to the appeal of other comrades involved in the campaign, who saw an opportunity to help build Peace & Freedom. The California Daniels campaign was a desultory effort by what had become a tiny left party, the only highlight being a lively nominating convention where Daniels beat out cultist Lenore Fulani to win the Peace & Freedom nomination. After the November election, I had no interest in continuing work with Peace & Freedom, which I saw as going nowhere, and I questioned the time I had devoted.


 


I had never heard a revolutionary socialist speak in favor of voting Democrat until the Solidarity branch meeting following the 1992 election. A respected comrade and teachers’ union activist admitted at the meeting that he had voted for Clinton. His action, a violation of one of Solidarity’s founding principles, led to permanent animosities in the branch and flamed tensions in the organization nationally. After my lackluster experience in the Daniels campaign, I was of mixed mind on the electoral question and was ready to hear a meaty theoretical debate. But the follow-up exchanges in the branch and in the organization’s national discussion bulletin lacked theoretical depth. I remained aligned with the third-partyists, though doubts had been raised. Notably: if a third party has no broad movement support and no viability in the foreseeable future–as I had witnessed in Peace & Freedom–what does socialist participation really achieve?


 


My subsequent experience with a labor-community coalition fighting Los Angeles County budget cuts only raised further electoral questions in my mind. In 1994, with clinic doors closing and the enormous L.A. County- USC Medical Center on the chopping block due to funding shortfall, Republican governor Pete Wilson bluntly told the county, ‘It’s not the state’s problem.’ The county employees’ union, SEIU, then turned to the Clinton administration, which ponied up a $364-million bailout. I understood that Democrats and Republicans alike had helped create the conditions underlying the county budget crisis. Nonetheless, the contrasting attitudes of Clinton and Wilson, that one had been subject to union pressure while the other was immune, pressed home to me the impact of party difference.


 


Over the next five years, I worked as a staff organizer for a union representing professional and technical employees in the University of California system. There I saw, time and again, state Democrats, and in some cases federal Democrats, help the university unions–in pressuring the university to settle contracts, in obtaining union recognition for 9,000 graduate student employees, in fighting hospital privatization, in stopping the university’s widespread use of permanent ‘casual’ workers. After Democrat Gray Davis’s election to governor in 1998, I saw my union’s resources and organizing capacity vastly increase as a result of a bill signed by Davis that allowed the university unions to collect ‘fair share’ fees from non-members. The new law, transforming California higher education from open shop to agency shop, never would have passed under a Republican governor.


 


There were other important differences between Davis and his Republican predecessors. For example, Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure passed by California voters that would have denied welfare, school, and non- emergency public health services to undocumented immigrants, had been blocked in the courts pending a decision on its constitutionality. Both Pete Wilson and his attorney general Dan Lungren (Lungren lost to Davis in the 1998 gubernatorial race) supported Prop 187 and aggressively pursued its defense in the courts; Davis, however, opposed the measure and dropped the state’s court appeal seven months into his governorship.


 


It was in the 1998 election that I finally changed my electoral philosophy, voting for Davis rather than the Solidarity-endorsed Green candidate, Dan Hamburg. In January 2000, I announced my new political stance within Solidarity by writing a discussion bulletin article critiquing the organization’s electoral principle. My paper included a first-year assessment on how labor had fared under California‘s Democratic-controlled government. In a comparison of voting records on 19 labor-related bills, I found that Democratic legislators had individually voted pro-labor 98 percent of the time, while Republicans had voted against labor 96 percent of the time (see www.howardryan.net/dems.htm). My paper challenged the prevailing electoral wisdom of revolutionary socialists, reasoning that:


 


* Our first and foremost question with respect to an election must be, Which position best meets the needs of the progressive movements?


 


* Under current U.S. conditions, a lesser-evil stance generally better serves the movements than does supporting a marginal protest candidate (relying here on my California empirical evidence as cited above).


 


* Third-party projects should be launched when the movements are strong, not when they are weak as they are today.


 


My paper incited a debate in the discussion bulletin, at branch meetings, at a national convention. Over the course of this exchange, it became clearer to me that the organization’s rigid third-partyism was in fundamental conflict with the socialism-from-below conception that had attracted me to Solidarity. I encountered arguments, for example, that the movements must be willing to make short-term sacrifices–i.e., to risk victory of greater-evil candidates–in order to build third parties that can achieve political independence for the long term. Such logic, pitting long-term socialist goals against the immediate needs of the movements, struck me as highly sectarian. Somehow we revolutionaries were supposed to build the movements and advance their interests while working against the immediate political/legislative needs of those movements.


 


Eventually, I tired of my theoretical battle inside Solidarity and resigned my membership after ten years in the organization. In summer 2002, I published a critique of the Greens in the socialist journal, New Politics, where I also developed some theory on the relationship between movement work and electoral work (see www.howardryan.net/greenparty.htm).


 


Whatever readers may think of my version of lesser-evil politics, I hope that we all will embrace critical thinking and the merits of reflecting upon our experiences. I must be honest in my assessment that wide parts of the American far left have lost the art of critical thought and been hamstrung by an electoral ideology. As a case in point, let’s return to the intensely relevant debate over whether Nader held any blame for the Bush victory in 2000. Consider these facts:


 


* Bush took Florida, and hence the election, by 537 votes.


 


* Nader drew 97,000 Florida votes.


 


* According to an AP national poll, Nader drew about twice as heavily from the likely Gore voters than likely Bush voters had Nader not been a candidate.


 


It is more than obvious that Gore would have taken Florida and the election had Nader not run. Greens and third-party leftists, however, widely deny Nader’s spoiler role, claiming that other factors were more important in Gore’s loss–e.g., Gore’s own incompetent campaign; Florida’s purging of thousands of blacks from the voter rolls; the Supreme Court’s decision to halt the Florida recount. As legitimate as these other factors are, what matters most about an election from a left standpoint is how we influenced it. The left had no control over how Gore ran his campaign, or how Florida kept blacks from the polls, or how the Supreme Court stopped the recount. On the other hand, the Greens did have control over, and the wider left had influence upon, the Green decision to run Nader. Most Greens today are still unwilling to accept responsibility for the consequences of their political action in 2000, about which they had been widely warned. It is regrettable that many good socialists who should know better have joined the Greens in this grand denial. Worse, they may commit the same error this year.


 


The socialist left continues, correctly, to see elections as an educational opportunity. But what are we teaching? And do we also see elections as a learning opportunity for the left? In their portside article, ‘The Left and the Elections,’ <http://lists.portside.org/mailman/htdig/portside/Week-of-Mon-20040510/005900.html> Solidarity members Christopher Phelps, Johanna Brenner, and Stephanie Luce consider the elections to be a ‘teachable moment,’ and that is fine. Yet, the last four years should have been a ‘teachable moment’ for Phelps et al. It apparently was not so for these comrades, who ‘reject the recent liberal smear campaign to blame Nader for the failure of Gore.’ Socialists who approach elections as learners as well as educators would study, much more carefully than Phelps et al. appear to do, what is at stake for the progressive movements and why those movements opt for lesser evil.


 


Sure, we know that Kerry sucks. He’s a DLCer, pro-war, pro-corporate. Does he represent a significant lesser evil to Bush? I believe he does. I’ll offer but one item of concern as a labor organizer: the prospect of the National Right to Work Act making it through Congress under a Bush second term. Bush’s express support for a law that would make the entire country open shop– undermining union power and weakening all future organizing efforts–was among the concerns of labor back in 2000. Although the law has substantial Republican backing in Congress, it has fortunately not moved forward under the Bush administration. In fact, Bush has refrained from launching an all-out attack on labor but instead struck where convenient, such as weakening collective bargaining rights for 170,000 federal workers as part of the Homeland Security Act. Some labor veterans speculate that Bush could become much more ambitious against labor–such as on national right-to- work–in a second term, when he need no longer worry about reelection. Kerry, by contrast, opposes national right-to-work and supports measures to strengthen the right to organize.


 


Finally, one of the more dangerous notions promulgated by the third-party left is that, since both major parties favor global empire and rich over poor, the elections are ultimately unimportant. The only thing that matters, they say, is how we organize in the streets. Wrong. Mass organizing is more important than elections. But elections are nonetheless very important, impacting local and world politics–including the conditions under which we do mass organizing. We who align with ‘socialism from below,’ as Hal Draper named our tradition in the 1960s, have still very far to go in the development of our theory and practice. I hope that some development occurs between now and this November’s election. The world may not survive another four Bush years.

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