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
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
My subsequent experience with a labor-community coalition fighting
Over the next five years, I worked as a staff organizer for a union representing professional and technical employees in the
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;
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
* Our first and foremost question with respect to an election must be, Which position best meets the needs of the progressive movements?
* Under current
* 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
* Nader drew 97,000
* 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
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.