In 1991, former Klansman and American Nazi Party functionary David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana and made the runoff election against Democrat Edwin Edwards, the popular but scandal-plagued three-term former governor. Duke had made the runoff between the two top vote-getters since no one received a majority in the first primary. Duke had received just over 31% of the vote in the first primary, and Edwards had just over 33% in a twelve-person field.
The stage was set for a bitter, intense campaign between a Republican with a history of open advocacy of virulent racism and nativism and a deeply flawed corporate Democrat. The many different dangers that a Duke victory augured for the state provided the basis for a broad and bipartisan business-center-left electoral alliance that condensed around a least common denominator slogan that no doubt every Louisianan who was sentient at the time recalls: “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important.” Edwards won, with more than 61% of the vote, and a potential political and economic disaster for the state was avoided. (In 2001 Edwards, who had boasted during an earlier investigation that the only way Louisianans would turn on him would be if he were “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy,” was convicted of racketeering and spent the next decade in prison.)
"To the extent that for some people Bernie v. Hillary became a Manichaean morality play, it simply repeated the wrongheaded good guys/bad guys understanding of politics that has underlain feckless left electoralism for more than a generation."
I assume readers get the allegorical point of that story. Just to drive it home, here’s another, more dramatic one that Harold Meyerson adduced last month in The American Prospect: in the early 1930s, as the National Socialists gained strength, Ernst Thälmann, the Chairman of the German Communist Party held to the line that the Social Democrats were a greater threat to the working class and to the possibility of revolution than were the Nazis. The Communists’ conflict with the Social Democrats was both not without justification and mutual. Some Communists believed that the elements of the working class who were drawn to the Nazis, e.g., those in Ernst Röhm’s Brown Shirts, could be won from them. In 1931 some sought to collaborate with the Nazis to bring down the weak Social Democrat government. In expressing the conviction that the Social Democrats were the main danger in German politics, Thälmann uttered the quip that has long outlived him as a cautionary device: “After Hitler, our turn.” His point was that a Nazi victory would expose them as fraudulent with no program for the working class. What Thälmann didn’t count on was their success at criminalizing and liquidating all opposition. He died in a concentration camp.
Some may dismiss the Thälmann comparison as overblown and object that it treats Trump as more dangerous than he actually is. I confess that a Nazi reference appeals partly as an attention-grabber. True, this is not the 1930s, and Trump therefore is not Hitler. Now and again I reassure myself that American capitalism is far from the sort of crisis that would make a strongman attractive or necessary and that Trump has no national organization and is such a pure narcissist that he wouldn’t be interested in or capable of developing one. Nevertheless, I do find myself occasionally reaching for those reassurances. And I do not assume that Ernst Thälmann was necessarily less politically astute than I am.
Still, a Trump presidency would almost certainly not be a replay of 1930s Germany. But what would it be, especially if accompanied by Republican control of Congress? That is the real question that confronts us in this election year, and, while the precise answers are unknown—not least because, good con artist that he is, Trump insists that he’s saving the details of his program until after his election—it is reasonable to assume that the generic answer is that it would be a nightmare. That is the frame of reference that should govern leftists’ approach to the presidential election.
From that perspective, it’s a little disappointing to notice how common the “never Hillary” line seems to be and the appeal that Jill Stein’s quixotic campaign seems to have for more than enough people on the left, including more than enough who are politically experienced and otherwise sophisticated themselves. I know the argument against lesser evilism as well as anyone and am not unsympathetic to it in principle. This will be the thirteenth presidential election in which I’ve been eligible to vote. In the previous twelve, I voted for the Democrat five times, beginning with McGovern, twice for third-party candidates and five times not at all. I have always been registered as a Democrat for the mundane reason that I’ve known that’s where most of my voting would be. I laid out my voting history up to that point in a column for The Progressive in 2000 on Ralph Nader’s candidacy, which I supported, not least because Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman, who had led me in 1988 to cast my only vote ever for a Republican, as his running mate indicated where his commitments lay. Since then, I boycotted the presidential elections in 2004 and 2008 and in 2012 voted for Obama out of concern with the damage a Republican administration would inflict.
I mention my voting history to make two points. First, I am hardly a slavish supporter of Democrats. Not only have I consistently criticized the Democratic party’s more than thirty-year march rightward. I’ve also argued that the party has never been an adequate home for left and working-class interests and spent fifteen years or more deeply engaged in an effort to build a serious working-class alternative. I also recognize and have criticized Democratic apologists’ breathless insistence that each election singularly threatens the destruction of the world and that blind support of whatever worthless Democrat—no matter what she or he stands for—is necessary to prevent cataclysm. Moreover, as recently as 2014 I challenged both Meyerson’s and Michelle Goldberg’s contentions that left political aspirations should be constrained by the Realpolitik defined by a fundamentally neoliberal Democratic party and their insistence on the fantasy that the left has a significant voice within it. So those “never Hillary” types who want to find Democratic hacks to dismiss should look in other zip codes than mine.
Second, I want to stress that voting is an instrumental act, not a domain for pronouncement of essential principles. How one votes ought to be determined by factors at play in any given election, including the political stakes surrounding each one. I have argued that calculations about what to do in any election should include consideration of possible long-term as well as short-term consequences of electoral outcomes. Specifically regarding 2008, I proposed that it would make sense at least to consider the longer-term implications of an Obama presidency that would further consolidate Democratic neoliberalism as the boundary of a thinkable left. The most likely calculation almost certainly still would have been that supporting him was the right thing to do, but at least the election could have been an occasion for serious strategic discussion within the left. One reason I decided not to vote was that there were no signs of any such discussion, and leftists simply climbed onto the campaign’s bandwagon and rehearsed all the Obamistas’ false hopes and empty, vacuous promises. And here we are, eight years later.
In 2012 I voted for Obama, not because he had changed and was more open to left agendas than he had been four years earlier. If anything, he was worse. What had changed was the character of the Republican opposition, which had become more dangerous, more aggressive and more powerful, in part because the Obama administration had done little to mobilize against them. I voted for Obama, that is, as I’ve voted for most candidates, as a lesser evil. Because the left is so insignificant as a political force, the reality is that most, if not nearly all, of our votes will be for some lesser evil or another. I understand the frustration that fact can engender. But that frustration also reflects a tendency to overestimate what should be expected from electoral politics in the absence of an organically rooted and dynamic political movement.
Elections are much more likely to be effective as vehicles for consolidating victories won on the plane of social movement organizing than as shortcuts or catalysts to jumpstart movements. In this respect one of the most interesting features of the Sanders campaign was that its objective was partly to encourage movement-building. The Labor for Bernie initiative, for example, has constructed a loose network of many thousands of union activists around the country and is undertaking discussions of next steps between now and November and beyond. The campaign demonstrated that a potential national constituency exists for a clear-headed working-class program. That constituency is one that must be cultivated, and the campaign’s most important accomplishment may turn out to be its bringing together activists in the trade unions and elsewhere who are committed to cultivating and expanding it. The Sanders campaign was tremendously successful at what it could do. Its real payoff will come as the movement-building initiatives bear fruit over the next several years. Meanwhile, the overriding electoral objective now should be to maintain or expand political space for organizing, and a Trump presidency and Republican Congress would almost certainly undercut that objective in multiple ways, including intensified attacks on the rights of workers and the political power of their unions, on public goods and services, civil rights and liberties. That is, the primary national electoral objective for this November has to be defeating Trump. Period.
"Elections are much more likely to be effective as vehicles for consolidating victories won on the plane of social movement organizing than as shortcuts or catalysts to jumpstart movements."
By contrast, Jill Stein and Greens typically proceed from a quite different view of electoral politics, one that has much more in common with bearing witness or taking a personal stand on principle than with seeing it as an essentially instrumental activity. The Greens’ approach generally, and Stein has shown that she is no exception, is that all that is necessary to make a substantial electoral impact is to have a strong and coherent progressive program and to lay it out in public. That view is fundamentally anti-political; it seeks to provide voters an opportunity to be righteous rather than to try to build deep alliances or even short-term coalitions. It’s naïve in the sense that its notion of organizing support reduces in effect to saying “It’s simple: if we all would just…” without stopping to consider why the simple solutions haven’t already been adopted. This is a politics that appeals to the technicistic inclinations of the professional-managerial strata, a politics, that is, in which class and other contradictions and their entailments disappear into what seems to be the universally smart program, and it has little prospect for reaching more broadly into the society. And Stein and her followers have demonstrated that this sort of politics is tone-deaf to what a Trump victory would mean, the many ways it could seriously deepen the hole we are already in. I get the point that Clinton and Trump are both evil, but voting isn’t about determining who goes to Heaven or choosing between good people and bad people. Indeed, that personalistic, ultimately soap-operatic take on electoral politics is what set so many people up to be suckered by Obama. (And does anyone really believe that a President Trump, who routinely spews multiple, contradictory lies in a single compound sentence, would actually block the Trans Pacific Partnership or retract the imperialist war machine?)
Often enough, the “never Hillary” stance is blinded by a demonization of Clinton that frankly seems irrational. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that it is often not at least tinted with sexism. From the standpoint of fealty to Wall Street and corporate interests, or for that matter imperialist bloodlust, she’s no worse than Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton. Some of that tendency to demonize her reflects the high emotions generated during the campaign among some of the Sanders faithful, as well as perhaps a reaction to having their outsized dreams dashed. It is understandable that in the high intensity of the campaign activists could be swept up in exuberance about possibilities. But even though winning the nomination and then the presidency was the primary objective all along, from the very beginning it was a longshot because the deck was stacked against the insurgent campaign. That’s what challenging entrenched power means. Making the race as close as it became was an important victory, one that encourages optimism about movement-building possibilities. I fear, however, that some of the exuberance tended to slide into seeing the campaign as a messianic crusade, or to see it as a social movement itself. (That’s the reason I never much cared for the “political revolution” slogan; it too easily left room for the impression that struggling to advance the campaign was tantamount to making a revolution. It wasn’t; it wasn’t even close to generating a revolutionary movement. It did create conditions that, with considerable focus and effort, could facilitate the sustained political organizing and action necessary to influence the terms of national political debate.)
To the extent that for some people Bernie v. Hillary became a Manichaean morality play, it simply repeated the wrongheaded good guys/bad guys understanding of politics that has underlain feckless left electoralism for more than a generation. And this points up an important limitation of the critique of lesser evilism. There is a significant difference between, on the one hand, making pragmatic choices in given instances among a range of more or less undesirable options that are available and, on the other, defining, as a matter of course, what we want only in terms of what we think can get. The former is what we have to do in life generally, across the board, as an artifact of living in a society in which we as individuals cannot define the matrix of options solely to suit our preferences or desires. The latter bespeaks a defeatist orientation, a politics with no rudder and one that flies in the face of what it should mean to be a left. Lesser evilism, that is to say, is a structural problem not an individual one. It is a pathology of opinion-shaping institutions—unions and others—that refrain from attempting to intervene in shaping the matrix of options and the terms of political debate. Only if one accepts, as many Greens do, a civics-text version of democracy in which it is the actions of free-agent citizens that determine the political agenda is it possible to assume that individual electoral statements can have any impact on the drift of lesser evil politics. An analogy with environmentalism may sharpen this distinction. My scrupulous attention to closing the refrigerator door or turning off lights whenever I leave a room may permit me to feel righteous in my commitment to curtail environmental degradation. They have absolutely no substantive impact on the phenomenon, however. Worse, as Andrew Szasz has argued forcefully in Shopping Our Way to Safety, my righteous behavior, especially if I convince others to adopt it, can fuel the dangerous illusion that I am doing something meaningful and relax my sense of urgency to demand structural reform.
Finally, I recognize that some, perhaps many among the “never Hillary” element are just expressing frustrations for now and blowing off steam and will, when push comes to shove, vote to stop Trump. I recognize as well that some of those who were also Bernie or Bust-ers are basically Green types or nonvoters and would not have been likely to vote for a Democrat, if at all, anyway. Moreover, some of the concern about the dangers posed by a mass of “never Hillary” voters is bogus, the product of neoliberal Democrat hacks who are still intent on discrediting the Sanders forces as infantile and irresponsible. I know very well, though, that there are more than enough politically serious people who, for whatever complex of reasons, have fixated on Hillary Clinton as embodying a particular Evil that they as moral individuals cannot abide. To those people, among whom are not a few I count as friends and comrades, I offer the following suggestion. Get over it; if you’ve voted for any Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 at least, you’ve done at least as bad, maybe even worse, depending on which ones you’ve voted for. And, to help salve the discomfort of feeling morally compromised, I propose that we take a page from Louisiana voters beset with a comparable quandary and organize around the following slogan: VOTE FOR THE LYING NEOLIBERAL WARMONGER: IT’S IMPORTANT!