The Us Left And Presidential Elections: What Can We Learn?

Introduction… and Conclusion!

The first election I was eligible to vote in was 1968. In that election, and in every national election cycle since, the US Left has struggled to come up with a productive strategy for dealing with electoral politics. Has something happened this year we can learn from to become more successful going forward?

Let me summarize what has happened over the past eight months:

More than 13 million Americans voted for a candidate to be their President who labelled himself a democratic socialist, called for a political revolution, and financed his campaign exclusively with small contributions averaging $27 from over 230 thousand donors. Compared to how the left fared in any of the twelve previous presidential elections I have been eligible to vote in, this stands out as a MONSTROUS SUCCESS! Nobody in their wildest dreams, including the candidate and his team of advisors, imagined this would happen when they began.

Of course the level of popular disgust with the political establishment this year has much to do with why the Sanders campaign has been so successful. Nevertheless, let me state my most important conclusion before I present my case: The conclusion that is staring us in the face, and should be obvious to anyone not wrapped up in obsolete debates about the Left and electoral politics, is that whatever the US Left did in the previous twelve presidential election campaigns was a pathetic failure compared to what the Sanders campaign accomplished in this one. So from now on when the US Left looks for a productive electoral strategy the Sanders campaign is the positive example to build on. All the other strategies we tried in the previous twelve presidential elections should be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history!

The Least Politically Sophisticated Populace on Earth

America may be richer, more technologically advanced, and certainly more powerful militarily than other countries, but the US populace is one of the least politically engaged and sophisticated in the world. Most peasants in underdeveloped countries are more politically savvy than most middle class Americans. Moreover, what little attention the average American does devote to politics occurs during a few months every four years leading up to a presidential election. Which is why it is important for the US Left to have a successful strategy for addressing presidential election campaigns. If you need to engage more Americans – which any Leftist in the US with an ounce of sense knows we must – it is very helpful if you have a plan for how to do so when Americans are most willing to pay attention! It is pointless to wish this were not the case and lament political apathy. It is pointless to belittle presidential campaigns as circuses – which they are — and denounce the media for covering “the horse race” and not “the issues” – which the media certainly does. But taking the political stage during the three and half years when the hall is empty, and refusing to step up on the stage during the six months when the hall is packed is a recipe for continued marginalization.

This is not to say that a successful electoral strategy is all we need. Far from it. The Left needs a successful strategy to broaden and deepen mass progressive movements of different kinds. The Left needs a successful strategy to build real world experiments in the economics of equitable cooperation to contrast with the business-as-usual economics of competition and greed. The Left needs to develop better answers to problems we will confront when we replace market competition with a system of participatory, democratic planning. And eventually the US Left will need to develop a strategy to foil attempts by privileged elites to thwart the will of a progressive majority of the populace. Nonetheless, finding a way to participate in the presidential election game that helps us break out of our Left ghetto, and add content to the phrase “democratic socialism” and meaning to the phrase “political revolution” so that “socialism” and “revolution” cease to be buzz kill, is extremely helpful. Does this sound anything like the Sanders campaign?

Thank You Great Britain!

Twenty-first century electoral politics in many countries is structured quite differently than it is in the US where we inherited a winner-take-all version of democracy from our colonial overlords who call it “first-past-the-post.” Under proportional representation it is much easier for third parties to grow to prominence. In winner-take-all systems third parties inevitably face the spoiler problem: As long as the party I most prefer is not one of the two most popular, the result of voting my first choice is likely to elect my third choice over my second choice. In the Republic of Ireland, where the instinct to negate anything English is particularly acute, the much more democratic alternative system of proportional representation is perhaps most evolved. However, until we replace winner-take-all with proportional representation here in the US, it is foolish to model an electoral strategy on positive examples like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain where they have proportional representation. In both Greece and Spain as popular disgust with the center-right and center-left establishment parties who administered inhumane and counterproductive austerity measures mushroomed over the past six years it proved possible to grow a new, more radical, anti-austerity party by whittling away at the legislative majorities of the two dominant parties in a succession of elections. It is highly unlikely this would have happened as fast or easily under a winner-take-all electoral system.

Consider the case of Greece which has a 300 seat parliament where parties receive seats in proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive, with the exception that 50 “bonus” seats are awarded to the party which receives the most total votes to facilitate forming governments after elections. Syriza was founded in 2004, won 5% of the vote and 14 seats in 2007, 27% of the vote and 71 seats in 2012, and 36% of the vote and 149 seats in 2014 — which allowed it to formed an anti-austerity coalition government with its leader Alex Tsipras as Prime Minister in January 2015. At the same time this is what happened to the two increasingly unpopular establishment political parties, center-right New Democracy, and center-left Pasok: New Democracy went from 42% and 152 seats in 2007, to 30% and 129 seats in 2012, to 28% and 76 seats in 2014. Pasok shrank even further from 38% and 102 seats in 2007, to 12% and 33 seats in 2012, to 5% and 13 seats in 2014. This is electoral democracy at work, where voter preferences are translated into seats in parliament.

Now ask yourself if this would have happened under a winner take all system in which the same vote totals would have won Syriza zero seats in 2007 and very few seats in 2012, but instead significantly increased the number of seats for New Democracy at the expense of Pasok. Would angry Greek voters have abandoned Pasok for administering austerity “with regrets” to vote for Syriza in those two elections knowing the result would be to increase the parliamentary majority of New Democracy who administered austerity “with relish?” Arguably not. In a winner-take-all system Syriza might never have gotten off the ground to ride the growing wave of disgust with establishment parties in Greece to form a radical, anti-austerity government in 2015.

Thank you Supreme Court!

I don’t need to belabor the point that money has completely polluted politics in the US. While Citizens United is the most extreme and absurd way in which we now allow this to occur, the problem preceded Citizens United, and the problem exists in other countries where the absurd illogic of Citizens United is unthinkable. The US Left is unanimous in calling for overturning Citizens United. The US Left is unanimous in calling for other important electoral reforms. The contentious issue is how much energy to devote to playing on fields that remain uneven, and how much energy to devote to electoral reform campaigns? Whether it be overturning Citizens United, deeper campaign finance reform, fights against voter suppression, changing DNC rules for primaries and debates, or abandoning the eighteenth century winner-take-all version of political democracy and embracing a twenty-first century proportional representation version of political democracy; devoting time and energy to electoral reform vs. participating in elections is an important strategic choice.

Before the Sanders campaign, I thought more emphasis on leveling the playing field and less time and energy on playing a rigged game made sense. However, the Sanders campaign proved that a viable candidate in the Democratic primaries can command significant media coverage, and that using the internet to raise substantial amounts through small donor contributions can compete against big money pollution. In short, it turns out we can compete well even though the US presidential election game is arguably one of the most rigged election games in the world.

Run to Win vs. Run to Raise Issues

The anti-establishment sentiment that permitted Trump to rout establishment challengers like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries and go on to win the Republican nomination was destined to fall short of propelling Sanders far enough to defeat Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment for one simple reason: A populist takeover of the Democratic Party is impossible if the most progressive constituency in the party, African Americans, overwhelmingly support the establishment candidate.

Nothing is more important than analyzing why this happened in 2016, and what can be done to prevent this from happening in the future. And I eagerly await thoughtful commentary on this issue. But the fact is that Bernie’s life-long isolation in White Vermont, his old-left class focus that gives too little weight to racial oppression, an unfortunate early run-in with Black Lives Matter in Seattle, an early “Super Tuesday” in the South that allowed Clinton to recover from early setbacks, and most importantly, strong Clinton ties to establishment Black politicians proved impossible to overcome. When African Americans in key northern states like Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania continued to vote not as overwhelmingly as in the South, but nonetheless solidly Clinton over Sanders, the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt.

Some campaigns are designed and run to raise issues while conceding, even if not explicitly, that the candidate will not win the election. Others are designed and run to win the election even if they begin as under dogs. The Sanders campaign is an outstanding example of the latter. But if you run to win and you lose, doesn’t that mean the campaign was a failure? The answer is that it depends. And in the case of the Sanders campaign, the answer is clearly: Not at all!

If we ever needed evidence that running to win can do more to raise issues than conceding defeat and running to raise issues, the Sanders campaign provides it. Of course if you run to win by jettisoning progressive causes whenever a poll indicates they are unpopular, if you run to win by foreswearing your past as a democratic socialist; then when you lose you will have accomplished little. But a week before the South Carolina primary Sanders chose to give a speech at Georgetown University in Washington DC of all places, explaining “Why I am a Democratic Socialist”– which was clearly not designed to maximize his vote total in South Carolina! He chose to give substance to “democratic socialism,” explaining how its concrete content is both good and popular. He chose to explain how and why the US political system is rigged to serve the 1%, and therefore why a “political revolution” is necessary. In that key moment Bernie guaranteed that his campaign would accomplish an immense amount even if he did not win the Democratic Party nomination. And in the process Bernie showed us how running to win – which includes pitching a hissy fit against foul play in Nevada and fighting for every last vote and delegate in the California primary even after Clinton had secured the nomination – can be consistent with sticking to our principles.

In contrast, during my lifetime no third party Nader campaign, no non-Nader Green Party campaign, and no campaign for the presidency by a leader of a socialist party has done nearly as much to raise anti-corporate consciousness, much less the status of “socialism.” In short, I think the Sanders campaign provides strong evidence that there are overwhelming advantages to running to win if done in a principled way. But notice what this implies regarding US presidential elections and the question of whether to run in the Democratic primaries or in the general election.

Where to Run: Democratic Primaries or the General Election?

Until there is a third party candidate whose campaign can approach the “political weight” of the Republican and Democratic campaigns, no third party candidate can run to win in the general election for president. That is a simple fact for the time being. It would have applied to Bernie Sanders had he chosen to run as a third party candidate in the general election this year instead of running in the Democratic primaries. Bernie and his advisors thought long and hard about that choice, and it turns out it was the first of many good decisions they made!

Ross Perot and the Reform Party hoped they could become a legitimate contender in 1992. But the practical consequence of Perot’s third party candidacy was that Bill Clinton won the general election over George Bush, the Republican incumbent. At risk of opening Pandora’s Box: Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the 2000 election because he didn’t get enough votes. Had Nader gotten more votes in battle ground states than he did, he might have cost Gore the election. But he didn’t, and instead Al Gore cost himself the election by running a poor campaign, and then refusing to contest election fraud and claim a victory he actually won! In any case, if Sanders had chosen to run as a third party candidate in the general election this year he could not have run to win. Whether he would have acknowledged this fact explicitly or not, the public would have known that he was a “protest candidate,” running to “raise issues,” with no chance of winning the general election. In which case it is very hard to believe that his message would have reached even a fraction of the ears who have heard it over the past eight months. In fact, I will not be surprised if the Sanders message haunts the general election campaign this fall more as a non-candidate than it would have had he run as a third party candidate instead of in the Democratic primaries.

Safe-State or All-State Campaigns

If the Left does run in the general election how should we do it? I was a member of the Southern Maryland Greens, a chapter in the Maryland Green Party, when I lived in St. Mary’s County Maryland from 2001 to 2006. So I am a veteran of the heated debates about whether a Green Party presidential candidate should run a “safe-state” or an “all-state” campaign. This debate should have been settled long ago: All evidence points to the logic of running a safe-state campaign.

(1) The electoral college and a highly predictable distribution of political tendencies in different states create the conditions which make a safe-state strategy possible. Right now unless there is a landslide victory by either major party – in which case voting Green in any state cannot affect the outcome – if you live in a solid blue state the Democrat will win even if you vote Green, and if you live in a solid red state the Republican will win even if you vote Green. Since roughly 40 states are solid blue or red, that leaves roughly 10 states as “battle ground states” where a vote for the Green candidate might tip the election to the Republican.

(2) The Green Party does not have enough resources to mount a productive campaign in all 50 states. It doesn’t even have enough to run full throttle in 30 states, much less the 40 states that are safe states in a general presidential election. So we don’t need to run in battle ground states in order to do the most we can do to “raise our issues.” Besides, we can campaign and raise issues in battle ground states as long as we are clear that we are not asking people to vote for us there – for reasons they will fully understand! Insisting on asking people to vote for the Green Party candidate in battle ground states is a text book example of acting like the proverbial “dog in the manger.” In short, if we are honest with ourselves, we give up literally nothing when we run a safe-state campaign. To those who say: “But if we don’t ask people to vote for us in every state we signal that we are not serious about winning, that we are merely in it to “raise issues.” I say: “Who do you think we are kidding!? The public knows when we can’t win – and if we are honest with ourselves we know it too!”

(3) Of course the issue is if there is a lesser evil. If there is truly no predictable significant difference between how unfavorable the political fallout will be from the Republican winning the presidency instead of the Democrat, then there is no reason to run a safe-state campaign. However, let me point out that merely because both major parties are subservient to and dominated by corporate interests, and both major parties are subservient to the military industrial establishment and committed to conducting an imperial foreign policy in slightly different ways, does not mean the political fallout from one winning the White House will not be significantly worse than if the other wins.

(4) It is important to make the case that there is a significant difference between the political ramifications of whether a Democratic or Republican candidate wins the White House, and admittedly I am not going to do that here. But in my experience and my opinion there have generally been differences that are significant enough to warrant a safe-state campaign – particularly since it costs us nothing! In some years those differences are greater and in some they are less. However, anyone who cannot see that there is a significant difference this year between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is woefully ill-informed, very politically naïve, or completely unfamiliar with what the face of fascism looks like and the dangers fascism hold. And apparently that means you, Jill Stein!

(5) In every one of the twelve presidential elections I have been eligible to vote in I have voted according to the logic of a safe-state strategy – long before there was a Green Party debating its merits. If I lived in a blue state I voted for whatever third party candidate to the left of the Democratic Party was running the best campaign. If I lived in a red state I did the same. And if I lived in a battle-ground state where my vote might affect the outcome, I sucked it up, held my nose, and voted for the lesser evil because as a libertarian socialist I knew that is what was most likely to move the world toward our goals. I live in blue Oregon now, where I am free to vote for Jill Stein knowing that Hillary will still win all 7 of Oregon’s electoral college votes. But Jill, guess what? I am so angry and outraged that you have decided to run an all-state campaign this year, that you are asking people to vote for you in battle ground states, that you are telling people that if this means electing Trump it is worth it!! — that I am going to vote for Hillary as a protest vote against the Green Party candidate who after all these years has learned absolutely nothing about how the US Left should participate in presidential elections.


  1. John Vincent August 2, 2016 11:01 pm 

    Thanks for a thoughtful and intelligent analysis of the 2016 election, one that avoids the usual clichés and cynical refrains to layout a realistic approach to the coming and future presidential elections.

    I too was disappointed that Blacks overwhelmingly voted for Clinton, but I think other factors played just as strong a role: a DNC dead set on a Clinton victory and a liberal media (NYT, Washington Post) dead set against Sanders.

    Trump is worse than Clinton, but she seems to be going out of her way to close the gap, such as her recent interview on Fox News where her unsubstantiated claim that Putin was responsible for the DNC hack and that Trump is backing and supporting him is nearly on par with Trump’s bashing of Muslims. Muslim bashing is blatantly racist, but her infantile attacks on Putin translate into an attack on all Russians and can be seen as worrisome warmongering.

    The immediate prospects are bleak; it is imperative that the Sanders’ “revolution” continue is some relevant form and grow in strength.

    • avatar
      Robin Hahnel August 3, 2016 9:26 pm 

      Unfortunately it is likely that Hillary will now run to the center, and in particular try to woo Republicans disgusted by Trump’s excesses at the expense of appealing to those of us who voted for Bernie in the primaries. In short, the 2016 election will be significantly more disgusting than usual. But that does not diminish how significant the difference is between who wins this year, which is what we all must remember. I agree with your last comment wholeheartedly. The Sanders campaign was a great advance on how the Left can participate effectively in presidential elections, and figuring out how to continue that process is of critical importance.

  2. Chris Reed August 2, 2016 8:11 pm 

    Most of the safe state talks seems to emanate from Blue State liberal strong holds. In West Virginia, Sanders won by a landslide. West Virginia will most likely return the lowest percentage for Clinton, who will likely win. The lower the percentage for Clinton, the greater our leverage. For those on the Left in Wva., forming a broader anti-establishment coalition makes more sense than be associated with the hated Democrat candidate. With the chaos at Fox and the decline in the ratings for talk radio, there is an opportunity to craft a progressive opposition out of the general disgust for corporate DEMOCRATS.

    • avatar
      Robin Hahnel August 3, 2016 9:32 pm 

      As you explain, West Virginia is a safe state in this year’s presidential election because Hillary will lose by a landslide there. So there is no reason to vote for Clinton in WVa. Not burdening yourselves with support for an unpopular candidate in WVa while organizing the dispossessed there to move forward makes all the sense in the world to me.

  3. Ernst Andersson August 2, 2016 7:44 pm 

    Follow your principles and vote for Jill Stein i Oregon.

    From a European perspective it is difficult to see any big differences between Killery and Trump.

    • Kelvin Yearwood August 3, 2016 9:56 am 

      “From a European perspective it is difficult to see any big differences between Killery and Trump”

      I think the difficulty with that position in general is that we do not know what we are getting with Trump. His policies are unstable and/or unworkable; and how much commitment does he actually have, for example, to the much abused manufacturing base of America. We don’t know.

      Hillary has had her hands on the levers of power, war criminality, murderous militarism and watched the extra-judicial killing of Bin laden live. She is the devil we know. In that sense Trump was right about her.

      But Trump is the cliched devil we don’t know. If he actually warmed relations with Russia and maybe withdrew NATO and US missiles from its borders then that would be good for Europe and the world in general, but who knows what he or his administration/advisors would do if he got into the White House.

      • Ernst Andersson August 3, 2016 6:21 pm 

        I think it is quit correct to say “we do not know what we are getting with Trump”. But we are pretty sure of what we get with Killery. How can we then evaluate who is the lesser evil?

        • Kelvin Yearwood August 4, 2016 11:03 am 

          He is aligned with the republican party, which is off the scale in its hatred, for example, for Iran, and is off the scale in the extreme constituency it now represents, such as rabid, fundamentalist christian, ultra-Zionist, rapture freaks keen to end the world as we know it.

        • Kelvin Yearwood August 4, 2016 11:59 am 

          But I saw a good comment about Hillary recently:

          “Trying to get progressives to vote for Hillary is trying to give meat to a vegetarian.”

          I’m not even American and able to vote, but I have that kind of visceral disgust for her as a human being, which would take me well beyond holding my nose while I (in a parallel universe) voted for her. I’d have to somehow block every human sensory experience my body/mind affords me.

    • avatar
      Robin Hahnel August 3, 2016 9:39 pm 

      As I said in my article, it is important to make the case that there are significant differences between Hillary and Trump, which I did not attempt to do. Climate change is only one issue. If you email me at robinhahnel@comcast.net I will send you a brief comparison of the Democratic and Republican Party positions on that issue. Then you can decide for yourself if there is a significant difference on at least that issue.

      • avatar
        Paul D August 4, 2016 3:55 am 


        I hear this “Hillary is at least as bad or worse than Trump” quite frequently from Stein-or-bust followers who can engage is some nasty personal attacks toward those proposing strategic voting as Counterpunch’s Jefferey St. Clair did a month ago here:


        So, rather than send an e-mail – can you consider publishing something about it here on ZNet?


        • avatar
          Robin Hahnel August 4, 2016 3:33 pm 

          Dear Paul,

          Today. Michael Albert and Steve Shalom have posted an excellent piece comparing Trump and Clinton on all the major issues. It is very useful when talking with anyone who thinks there is no difference between them, or that Hillary is worse than Trump.

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