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We Need A United Left


A major debate now rages in a manner likely to hurt progressive prospects. Each side attributes to other sides positions they do not hold. Each side attacks presumed views and assumed motives. We can do better.

The contending positions are:

Position 1: Vote for Clinton as Greater Good

Position 2: Vote for Clinton as Lesser Evil

Position 3: Vote Green or Don’t Vote

Position 4: Vote for the Best Attainable Overall Outcome

When disputants attack one another harshly, weirdly, and dismissively, healing ensuing splits becomes hard and we lose gains greater solidarity would facilitate. Can we do better?

  1. Progressives who say vote for Clinton as the greater good think Clinton as President is the best attainable success. To not aggressively support Clinton, they feel, would forego sober reason for progressive appearance.
  2. Progressives who say vote Clinton as the lesser evil think Clinton as President is the least bad attainable outcome. To not vote for Clinton, they too feel, would forego realistic reason for radical appearance.
  3. Progressives who say vote Green or don’t vote at all think Greens getting as many votes as possible, or major parties getting as few votes as possible, is the best attainable success. To balk, they feel, would sacrifice success for conformity.
  4. Progressives who say vote contextually are not indifferent. We are not seeking to support Clinton without appearing liberal, nor seeking to support Greens without appearing irrelevant, nor seeking to not vote but appear responsible. We just think we can have our cake and eat it too. We differ from positions one, two, and three mainly about what is the best conceivable success we can have.

Myself, I favor position four, vote contextually. But if I say those favoring position one or two want nothing beyond Clinton, if I say Clinton is so bad nothing is worse and those who cannot see that are in thrall to her lies, if I say anyone voting for Clinton is a shill for the Democratic Party and denies that it is a corporate vehicle of injustice, if I say anyone risking Trump by not voting Clinton in contested states doesn’t care about those who would suffer Trump’s damage, then I am wrong.

What I should say is, wait a minute. Clinton winning is much better than Trump winning. But Clinton in office does not auger a better future, only more of the same. Positive gains require powerful, informed, massive, and militant opposition. If we beat Trump in a manner that reduces activist opposition to less than we might have attained, we will not have achieved the greatest conceivable success we could have. More, nothing about wanting Clinton to beat Trump, and even nothing about liking some aspect or other about Clinton, precludes understanding the simple truth that anyone who wants real gains for the poor and oppressed should realize we need more than a winning vote tally.

Similarly, if I say people in position three are posturing, holier than thou, delusional about their prospects, denying their responsibility, or welcoming disaster, then I am wrong. What I should say is, yes, a large turnout for the Greens (and perhaps the abstention vote, too) can help inspire and even develop an organized, sustained opposition. But, to accumulate Green votes or abstentions and have Trump win would undo any benefits of the dissident tally under a mountain of debits due to Trump wielding state power. If we have lots of Green votes and lots of abstentions, but we get Trump in the Oval Office, we have not achieved the best possible outcome we could. More, nothing about wanting to develop a powerful, organized, sustained, left opposition is inconsistent with wanting Clinton to win the election itself. In fact, wanting Trump to lose is one aspect of wanting the most powerful left after the election.

I can’t stand Clinton. I can’t stand the Democratic Party. But my rejecting them for every moment for roughly a half century in no way obstructs my knowing that beating Trump is essential for avoiding disaster as well as for having the most positive and forward looking left emerge.

I want Clinton to beat Trump but I reject supporting Clinton by saying she or the Democratic Party is a path toward a better future. I reject saying we should vote the lesser evil, Clinton, everywhere. Clinton and the Democratic Party are evils, albeit in this case lesser evils. We should help Trump lose while helping opposition grow.

I want the Greens to do fantastically well and help build a lasting, growing opposition with clear, worthy, and inspiring aims. I want Sanders and all progressives to participate in creating massive, militant, steadfast, and positively oriented opposition to a Clinton administration. But I also want Trump to lose.

To everyone engaging in the current debate I would urge that we all stop posing the choice as either/or. Not every state is alike. It is false that every progressive needs to vote Clinton or Green or abstain to yield best outcomes. It is possible, desirable, and even essential for progressives as a whole group to simultaneously work to ensure that Trump loses and the left grows. But for that, different people will need to accomplish different tasks for the ten minutes we vote, depending on where we are.

We can beat Trump and build movement if progressives in states where Trump might win will vote Clinton, making absolutely clear, however, that they will oppose her without cease once Trump is off the stage. And if progressives in states where either Trump or Clinton is totally assured of winning, we vote as we choose, whether for Greens or not at all, and our vote will help build lasting opposition.

Suppose it is next October. Let’s say Trump’s campaign is a shambles. We know he will win virtually no state, or so few that he will get thoroughly beaten in the whole election. In that circumstance, no progressive would have any pressing reason to vote Clinton anywhere, and the disputes would disappear. Even so, if we have been attacking each other’s motives for months, the bad feelings may not disappear so fast.

Or suppose it is next October. Let’s say there are ten states contested and pivotal. Whoever wins most of those ten will win the election. Other states are not in doubt. So in every non contested state, progressives vote Green or don’t vote. In the ten contested states, progressives vote against Trump. They could even hold mass rallies on election night with the theme we hate Hillary and the Democratic Party, but we hate Donald much more – chock full of signs for Greens, and with Green Party speakers on hand, and, one hopes, with Sanders there too, taking the same stance. Even better would be if the signs and speakers were explicit about the program progressives will pursue against Clinton in office.

And so we come to Sanders. So far, in the chaotic context he has navigated, he has been quite close to position four. He has repeatedly said we need to beat Trump. He hasn’t said anything positive about Clinton. He has said the two party system and the Democrats need political revolution. He has put forth positive program and, most important, he has said over and over that what matters most is organizing and fighting for positive program at the grassroots.

Sanders may not persist on his current path, but so far he is navigating without degrading or misrepresenting others’ views or motives. The rest of us would do well to emulate that.

A potentially helpful debate about all these matters will become harmful if participants routinely call other participants shills for Clinton, insensitive to injustice, reality deniers, and worse. Such trash talk is needless and toxic. Let’s avoid it. Let’s not unify Democrats. Let’s unify a real left.

19 Comments

  1. Morton k. Brussel July 17, 2016 4:18 am 

    One thing that is missing in all this discussion is the stances of the candidates on war and peace, and belligerence to Russia and China. And imperialism more generally. Hillery is a hawk, a defender of Israel to the hilt, for militarism. Is Trump better. that is a big unknown, but it is an unknown, and there is some evidence that he is less belligerent. An accident could lead to nuclear catastrophe. These foreign policy issues are foremost in my mind. Millions already have been killed or displaced with Obama, successor to Bush in charge. It is surprising to me that these issues have been finessed in this discussion. As for me, I will vote my conscience, which cannot permit voting for either Clinton. I’ll vote Green/Stein.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert July 21, 2016 1:39 pm 

      I am curious what voting your conscience means to you. Also, who do you think won’t vote their conscience?

      As to Trump being worse than Clinton, or not – there is material all, over now, I think. Indeed, that is one of the problems. That is, the focus of the left shifting from trying to develop positiv e progam and to pursue it, versus spending all its energy trying to ward off the horror – Trump or Clinton.

      For the ten inutes in a voting booth, in a swing state, I recommend voting Clinton – and then opposing her administration, of course. Imagine the turn in popular focus and direction if Trump wins…that may bear on the choice for you.

  2. avatar
    Ted Morgan July 13, 2016 5:23 pm 

    I’ve only caught up with this dialogue after Bernie’s (in)famous endorsement of Clinton. While that action is disheartening and has obviously been the catalyst for a new round of denunciations of various kinds, I’d like to say here that I am in agreement with Michael’s proposal here –namely that it would be helpful if the left could unite around a strategy of voting Green (or not voting) in all states that are not critical and up-for-grabs, while putting one’s energy and resources into organizing the mass movement that keeps bubbling to the surface in different ways but is still extremely fragmented. Quite clearly, anyone on the left voting for Clinton would do so only on the lesser-of-two-evils grounds or on the grounds that a Clinton administration would produce some goods (along with the bad) that a Trump administration would not produce.

    I share the view that Trump would be a disaster –mainly because (a) I don’t for a second think there’s any real chance he would act to undermine the TPP, NAFTA, or the TTIP being negotiated now with the EU (that is, I don’t take anything “progressive” he says as likely to prove better than anything “progressive” Clinton says), and b) because he will reinforce the ideological divisions that have made it extremely difficult for the left to make headway reaching across to (many) angry white workers, small-town or small-business folks, retirees, etc. who have bought into the “Big Government”/fear-the-Other diatribes of the Right. Getting worse, in this sense, does not, in my view, make it easier for the left to make its case (or unite).

    But I would also add that I think there is a real possibility that this election could inflict significant damage on both parties –that Trump’s base may well prove narrowed to those who continue to buy into his bombast (mainly the Right), and Clinton’s base (minus some misguided liberal feminists and people of color) would be narrowed to the corporate center. This would leave a lot of voters potentially migrating to the other two options: Libertarians and Greens –which, in turn, might create room for the left to make its case with greater effect, even producing a possible ideological realignment of the electorate.

  3. avatar
    David Jones June 30, 2016 6:39 pm 

    I’ll take a page out of Michael’s playbook and quote Dylan: “There’s something goin on here but you don’t know what it is…” On both sides of the Atlantic , on both the Left and Right, frantic reassessment is the order of the day. Is it a Chomskian “democratic deficit” or a case of “manufactured consent”? Is the pubic xenophobic or just a debt-ridden 99%? Vote Green or get drunk?

    John Vincent points to Michael’s ” nuance ” above but the quick resort to Hitler seems anything but. How about Our Dear Chairman Mao? “Everything under heaven is chaos- the situation is excellent”. Perhaps had we “heightened the contradiction” when Humphrey, Clinton, Gore, Obama ran, we wouldn’t be in this place today (ht to Dave Mason). All we really know is it has been a long period of defeat. Michael believes this conditional Hillary vote is a way “to fight Trump and build the left” but every four years we hear this exact same rational, pragmatic formula- support the candidate then work against them- yet it never really works out that way. Hillary’s betrayals will demoralize and turn cynical yet another generation.

    Some here know my focus is climate, arguably the most pressing, existential question the Left faces, so let’s look at this Voting issue through the lens of atmospheric carbon, or to be more comprehensive, “metabolic rift” (as our ecosocialist friends describe it). Which candidate would put more greenhouse gas in the sky? Clinton will promote American GDP at all costs and placate progressives with promises of Green Capitalism and Carbon Markets. She will do this with the agreement of elites at the expense of lives, human rights and social justice.
    Trump, on the other hand, COULD reduce pollution and GDP through his opposition to trade deals, his buffoonish approach to globalisation and losing currency war with China. In other words, exactly the de-growth that Bernie could never dare mention.

    “Could” …if he could continue to defy elite consensus with actual policy by maintaining his nativist, nationalist movement, that is ( a la Brexit) . Would this humiliation of the Democrats and self-immolation of the Republicans be an opening for the Left-left? Could we drive the stake through the heart of libertarianism, conservatism AND American liberalism? Not tomorrow or even next week- but we have to start sometime.

    • avatar
      James July 1, 2016 1:37 am 

      “Could” …if he could continue to defy elite consensus with actual policy by maintaining his nativist, nationalist movement, that is ( a la Brexit)”

      Yeah, that’s the question… “could” he? I reckon the Big Daddy White Geezer Hegemonic Power Grid is a lot smarter than that. Shit the road to neoliberalism began post WW2 while everyone was lying back basking in the golden era of post war economic program. Trump doesn’t pull no strings.

      I hear ya Dave. An opening for the Left-left? the problem is by the time the Left-left gets through bickering and pulling each other’s hair, someone would have felt a draft and closed that friggin’ door.

    • John Vincent July 17, 2016 4:48 pm 

      David, it is disingenuous to attribute a reference to Hitler to someone that made no such reference. A search reveals that the only reference to Hitler was yours alone. Presumably this is done for dramatic effect to avoid the true meaning of what others are saying and leads nowhere.

  4. Tom Johnson June 27, 2016 11:55 pm 

    Michael:

    We are all making cases here and it is difficult to not repeat our positions. I will try to clarify without repeating so much, but I’m not big on “debating.” Rather, we put our positions out there and people will decide what they will. Changing minds and behavior, IMO, is a function of changing conditions. A function of building and exercising power.

    1) A vote for Clinton (or Trump) is a vote for continuing the Duopoly and the status quo when there is an historical chance to inflict severe damage on it.

    2) While every other presidential election in our memories (we are about the same age) has certainly been an extravaganza, this one IMO is qualitatively different because of the Sanders Moment, as filled with contradictions as it is.

    3) The Sanders Moment, following Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the SA victory in Seattle, the Battle of Seattle, etc. has given many people a language that we did not have before and we are better able to understand and communicate socialism with each other, if not what has constituted the U.S. Left since the 60s.

    4) While any vote, or almost any life action is a “lesser evil” experience, some lesser evils are positive and some not. Some just go away. In the case of a Clinton vote in the context of the Sanders Moment, the problem of who will become president is not as important as what potentials for movement building will be gained, damaged or lost.

    5) I argue that alot of new folks have been politicized by all of this and if they are separated from long-term left leaders and activists because they cannot see the lesser evilism as a positive, it is a huge negative. To me, that is a horror.

    6) While the evidence on Clinton is clear and consistent, the evidence on Trump is not. Best guess, we end up with the usual gang of Duopoly bureaucrats running the show for the billionaires either way.

    So my final response, in terms of this election, is that by voting Green – or left where the opportunity is available – is what we should do because that gives the newer folks platforms to connect and electorally organize on many levels like we haven’t seen in some time. Organize and vote for something and hurt the Duopoly. A twofer.

    Also, if the Greens get 10%, that presents another viable anti-Duopoly platform for people who see themselves as “democratic socialist” and “progressive” going forward.

    While I am fully aware that the electoral arena is never the main arena for organizing, in this election it is a special case, and if the traditional Left ignores that, many of the sacrifices they have made in the darkness of trying to keep the Left alive in the U.S. will be lost. That is really a bad thing.

    Anyway, I do repeat; so as to not to waste any more of your time, it is not me that you should be worrying about (I always go my own way anyway); , but it is very much the young people who were in the streets over the past couple of decades and really involved in the Sanders Moment. I hope that Z continues the amazing work it has for decades and finds ways to them. Because we both absolutely agree that We Need a United Left if we ever are to have enough power to do anything worthwhile.

    I’ll shut up for awhile.

    Tom

  5. avatar
    David Danforth June 27, 2016 10:11 pm 

    Michael:

    What I have read on ‘Z’ does not include an analysis supporting the position that a Clinton presidency would be better than a Trump presidency. If that analysis is available, please point me to it. I think much of the resistance that you and Noam receive regarding your ‘vote for Clinton’ admonishments is due to uncertainty over the question of whether or not Hillary would really be better than Trump.

    For example: Trump has been a xenophobic noise box regarding immigration, BUT no administration has actually deported more people than the Obama administration.

    The Clinton and Obama administrations have supported trade deals that have eliminated jobs (NAFTA, TPP et al) in favor of the needs of the ‘billionaires.’ I know… Hillary has disavowed TPP… and I have a bridge to Brooklyn on which I can make you such a great deal.

    The Clinton administration scapegoated the poor, eliminating AFDC in favor of TANF.

    When Bush left office, we had two wars, we now have five… and ISIL.

    The gap between rich and poor has increased. Banks are more powerful than they have ever been. Hillary is reportedly the best friend Goldman Sachs has ever had.

    The Democrats are as devious as the Republicans are disorganized.

    And so on.

    Please know that your thoughts regarding matters surrounding and beyond this election are clear and well received. But, in my view, your ideas are not really linked to the brand of pirate inhabiting the White House.

    I don’t live in Massachusetts; I live in Colorado, a swing state. And my ‘vote for Hillary,’ which is compulsory by your reasoning, would be much easier if I actually thought that she was a better alternative to the Donald.

    Trump is noisy and full of himself. He lacks political polish and he wears his heart on his sleeve. His “policies” are emotional outbursts, yet I believe that he says what he thinks, or, more often, feels. Hillary is a practiced politician with a record that runs from mediocre to destructive. She is duplicitous. And she has been bought.

    Again, please point me to an analysis. Thank you.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert June 28, 2016 5:18 pm 

      Please don’t take this wrong, but it never occurred to me that a relatively informed person, much less highly informed, would not realize, with very little offered that not only is Clinton less bad, but Trump would be a gigantic disaster, not least for left organizing – to do anything but try to hold off the right, as compared to win something positive. But, I hear what you are saying and will see if I can solicit such a piece from someone…

  6. Clive Ray June 27, 2016 6:56 pm 

    The US public needs to unite against the Centre – like the UK public just did. Hillary is the extreme Centre. The only way to change the system is to take it by surprise. The last thing the 1% expects or wants is a Trump presidency . Surprise them. The more ‘unelectable’ Trump actually is, the more it will destabilise the system if he actually wins.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert June 28, 2016 5:25 pm 

      What the UK public just did, sometimes out of fear, sometimes trying to send a message with no notion it might actually win, sometimes out of warranted anger at elites not just misplaced anger at immigrants – was to unleash a process that could literally not just empower right wing thugs in the moment, but literally entrench them in office in many places, including France… Calling this a victory, or a model to emulate is, well, I am sorry to say, a grievous mistake.

      Your logic, however, is not something new in history – it was quite widespread among leftists in Germany…before the victory of the Nazi. And then, tens of millions of lives lost, and at the end, not some giant step forward, but instead a return back to the starting place, and arguably much worse. Not only is the idea that one should invite disaster to galvanize resistance objectively callous toward those who will suffer the most, it also sacrifices positive resistance to a condition of defensiveness, if not massacre. If Trump were to win, the massive resistance we of course hope would arise would be about getting back to the status quo ante, not about winning a new society…

  7. Tom Johnson June 27, 2016 3:45 pm 

    I absolutely agree that what’s left of the U.S. Left (which is awfully hard to define) is facing more deep splits over this election.

    To me, here’s the crux of the problem:

    “…nothing about wanting to develop a powerful, organized, sustained, left opposition is inconsistent with wanting Clinton to win the election itself. In fact, wanting Trump to lose is one aspect of wanting the most powerful left after the election.”

    The Duopoly, especially the Dems, have consistently proved that they have the ability to co-opt populists, leftists, left parties and left movements. This, in fact, is their main role domestically.

    Why are we so afraid to break this sickening nightmare with yet another “lesser-evil” strategy when millions of people in the U.S., especially young people, have declared quite loudly and publicly that they are ready to consider the relevancy of a Real Left in the U.S.?

    If we reject the momentum of the of the Sanders moment by once again recertifying the Duopoly as the only relevant game in town then we will have missed a truly historical opportunity to greatly weaken both wings of the Duopoly.

    Worse, we will have crawled back under the rock of irrelevancy on a national level.

    • avatar
      Paul D June 28, 2016 9:18 pm 

      Tom,

      Can you define this word “Duopoly”? The abandonment of most of the interests of the working class by the Democrats notwithstanding, are you actually positing that there are no differences in the policy proposals between the Democratic and Republican Parties?

      And how exactly is the election of Trump (the unavoidable result of a refusal to consider strategic voting should the race in November be close) going to “greatly weaken both wings of the Duopoly”? It seems to me that the election of Trump will only move the Democrats and the Duopoly further right (as has happened every time the Democrats have lost seats or the presidency to Republicans), while any kind of the leftist organizing falls into disarray of recriminations – as is happening right now in the UK post-Brexit – which in many ways is a very close simulation of a Trump victory.

      • avatar
        Paul D June 28, 2016 9:35 pm 

        And furthermore, I really don’t see any contradiction between continuing and expanding the “Sanders Moment” (do you mean movement?) and having Clinton in the White House. This movement will face far greater challenges if Trump is elected for reason that Michael has argued earlier.

  8. avatar
    David Jones June 27, 2016 2:18 pm 

    Instead of a rambling thesis one could say: vote for whoever you want, just don’t badmouth your comrade.
    As for the “mass rallies on election night”, I don’t see much organizing potential in getting wrapped up in the Spectacle.
    Why not just say capitalist “politics/democracy” is a sham and time could be better spent in direct action?
    Why not step back and look at Party Politics on the global stage? Labour in UK, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, MAS in Latin America, PS in France, PRD or PRD in Mexico, etc ; all took the energy of movements and converted it into shit. All wasting precious years seeking votes while being corrupted. All thinking they could express the Will of the People while capitalism pulls the strings. The Democrats are posers compared to these masters of the Game.

    • John Vincent June 27, 2016 3:21 pm 

      “vote for whoever you want, just don’t badmouth your comrade”

      This is essentially the same advice Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, gave his fellow Republicans. Alternatively, I think Michael has articulated something much more nuanced; an appropriate strategy for reaching a common ground so we can survive intact and move forward after November.

      I don’t think anything Michael has said here dismisses or detracts from any direct action people engage in between now and November. Did I miss something?

      What is the takeaway of this last bit: establishment and progress political parties coop the energy of progressive and left movements and convert it into shit? Movement building is therefore a waste of time as long as we continue to live within a capitalist system? What alternatives are you proposing?

      • avatar
        David Jones June 30, 2016 4:03 pm 

        John, I did not say movement building is the waste of time, but Party politics. And it is true that Michael’s case doesn’t “dismiss” direct action, but it comes down to a question of capacity and priorities given limited resources, or, how best to spend your time. Voting takes an hour, but canvassing, raising money, campaigning sucks up lots of energy that could be better spent movement organizing. That is why I listed all the co-opted “progressive/social democratic” parties.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert June 27, 2016 4:02 pm 

      Tom, I realize your position is a postiion, an arguemnt, a case. What beffuddles me is why you offer it, but don’t contest the approach suggested. Why do you think risking Trump somehow leads to a greater effort, a more successful effort, at building a left. I proposed a way to fight Trump and build the left at the same time, indeed with more rther than less likelihood of success, and without risking consigning huge numbers to worse deprivations. I have to say, you really are not responding. You are offering your reasons for your own position, but you aren’t taking clear issue with anything in the piece.

      You are certainly not being at all nasty about it, but it isn’t debating…it isn’t hearing what is in this piece and replying to what it says.

      I might as well say, I find this happens over and over. People have a view. Someone writes something that differs from it, or even says it is wrong, or here is another view, that can accomplish more. Then people mostly ignore completely what is offered. Sometimes, however, they reply. But when they do, they just repeat what they have felt all along, they make no reference, no serious reference, to what they are replying to.

      Tell me why you think if people do as I suggest, or anything like it, they will necessarily, or even most likely, work less effectively at building a sustained and lasting left? Show me why anything I have written or suggested would interfere? Or, explain why getting a few more votes for Greens, or a few les for Clinton, in contested states, would somehow itself make some serious difference, other than, perhaps, getting Trump elected.

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