#BernieOrBust? Against the Politics of Lesser Evilism

by Alex Richardson-Price

21 August 2016

The Democratic National Convention has laid bare the fault lines of working class politics in the U.S.A. The Sanders campaign, whose fighting talk brought huge numbers of ordinary people into politics – united behind a clarion call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” – now has to face the fact that it has narrowly lost the battle for the democratic nomination. The question for Sanders supporters is – what now?

Sanders’ own answer is clear: they should show full support for Hillary Clinton as the progressive candidate. Some have decried this as a sell-out on Bernie’s part. This is a mistake, partly because loyalty to the Democratic Party is the strategy he has always openly cleaved to, and more pertinently because Sander’s  own opinions are not especially important. Contrary to those commentators who regard the idea of the movement having agency without Sanders at the helm as ‘laughable’, the hundreds of thousands who poured into the rallies are quite capable of thinking about what to do for themselves, as the storms of boos and walkouts at the DNC showed.

There are, as I see it, three possible routes for the left to take on this question; three possible suggestions it can give to the masses of newly-enthused working class people that the Sanders movement rallied to action:

  1. The Sanders route: full support for Hillary Clinton, public endorsement of her candidacy, and active campaigning for her. This can either be on the basis of dressing her up as a genuinely progressive candidate, or on the basis that everything possible must be done to prevent Donald Trump from taking power.
  2. Public criticism of Clinton from the left, no endorsement or campaigning for her, but nonetheless a call to hold your nose and vote for her on polling day, because in the real world, at this moment, it is a choice between her and Donald Trump. Proponents of this route typically argue that voting for anyone other than Clinton, given the above, is an inexcusable indulgence that will throw muslims and minorities in the US under a bus for the sake of an abstract purism. It is the position of many, from Noam Chomsky to the Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who accuses his critics on this question of being ‘beyond parody’ and ‘playing a game of how radical you can look’.
  3. Vote for a third party – in practice, Jill Stein and the Greens.

Let’s examine these options in turn.


Option one

The first iteration of option one – a public defence of Clinton’s progressive credentials – is a non-starter. We cannot be in the business of telling lies. Clinton has backed troop surges in Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, NATO war in Libya. She backed the shredding of welfare programs, fracking, the deregulation of the finance sector and the marketisation of education. She backed the 2009 coup in Honduras against a democratically elected government; the regime has gone on to commit horrific human rights abuses and murder its political opponents, creating a swell in political refugees heading towards the United States – and Hillary is in favour of deporting them, including unaccompanied children. A former board member of Walmart, she is a neoliberal and imperialist candidate supreme. To pour resources and time into a campaign for her – the AFL-CIO will spend millions campaigning for Clinton this year – is a criminal waste. As Lance Selfa points out, the same amount of activist-hours and dollars could be spent organising Wal-Mart workers into unions, “which would have a far greater impact on advancing organized labor’s agenda.”

The second version concedes all this, but holds that she is nonetheless a lot better than Donald Trump, and therefore she is de facto the left’s candidate to support in the election. On many issues this is clearly true; Trump is a candidate of white supremacism and hard-right populism on social issues, with a clear record of violence from his supporter base and even a refusal to condemn the KKK turning out to his rallies. There is nowhere near this level of explicit bigotry and menace from Hillary Clinton. On some issues, however, it’s not even unambiguous that Clinton is less evil. She is far more overtly neoliberal and considerably more hawkish in her foreign policy. While Trump has sometimes made non-interventionist noises about the stupidity or even criminality of various US wars, Clinton’s record is clear as crystal. She peddled lies in defence of the Iraq war, consistently agitated for NATO interventions (beginning with Bosnia but continuing throughout her political career), and threatened to ‘totally obliterate’ Iran if they launched a nuclear strike against Israel. Even by the metric of defence against Islamophobia, by which one might assume an “anyone but Trump” stance would be unavoidable, the issue is not clear cut. As Stan Malinowitz has pointed out, “Those of us who want to protect muslims in the US from Trump should also want to protect the muslims of the world from Clinton, who is a far greater danger and is responsible for massive death and destruction mostly in the Islamic world.”

In weighing the overall balance between the two, it seems clear that Trump is the worse of two horrible people who will do disastrous things as president. But to corral the energy and numbers of the Sanders campaign into mere lesser evilism, a campaign which fought heart and soul for policies that Clinton is in direct opposition to, is to demobilise and break the spirit of the grassroots movement in communities and workplaces – the only power that can hold reaction back in whichever guise the US opts to elect it. Opportunities to win large numbers of people to socialist politics do not come knocking often. Collapsing what has been achieved into enthusiastic support for a vicious candidate of the ruling class will slam the door on a rare and golden opportunity.


Option two

Option two is that we maintain vociferous public criticism of both candidates, while nonetheless calling on people to suck it up and vote Clinton, given that it’s effectively a binary choice. This argument is much more defensible than option one. It has its greatest impact when we zoom in to focus on polling day alone. In discussions of Owen Jones’ recent article advocating support for Clinton, those who agreed with him came back again and again to this line of argument, exhorting people to imagine themselves in the polling booth. Say what you want, but when push comes to shove and you’re at the ballot box, what are you gonna do?

Again, the hold-your-nose position feels compelling when we freeze the decision into a simple binary choice. To the desperate question “Clinton or Trump?!”, there can only be one answer. But for radicals, the issue of which way to vote cannot be narrowed down in that way. We have to think not only about who will get into office and what will happen on day one and two of their presidency, but what will happen to the broad sweep of US politics as a result of the way the vote goes. A strong vote for Clinton will keep Trump out, but it will also act as a shot in the arm for business-as-usual politics at a moment when it is seriously vulnerable. Denying a vote to a progressive third party – in this case Jill Stein and the Greens – simply kicks the can down the road, and perpetuates the conditions that allow lesser-evilism to thrive. It strangles the possibility of developing a working class alternative, ensuring that come the next election, we will face exactly the same problem, in the context of a rightward drift for politics as a whole.


Option three

A clean break with business as usual, and a vote for the third party. It’s important to concede two things here. First, it’s clear that Jill Stein will not win, or even come close to winning. Although there are encouraging signs of rising popularity for her in the polls, the pressure to vote Clinton will be enormous by election day, and she’ll probably only manage a few percentage points of the vote. Second, if the election is close, the split of the non-republican vote could conceivably weaken Clinton enough to let Trump in. But a vote for the greens should be encouraged even if we could know in advance that this scenario would come to pass.

We know that both Trump and Clinton would immediately go on the offensive if elected, and that they would succeed to the extent that the balance of class forces allowed. The question for us, then, is not which attacker we should choose, but how we can best bolster our side for the storm that’s coming. Building up a working class electoral alternative (whilst bearing in mind that elections are not the most important site of struggle) would represent a modest step forward in this direction. This is not speculation – we have historical experience in Britain to guide us on this. The Labour Party took over twenty years to reach power after it was formed; a lot longer if you include the previous efforts of the ILP. In that time, they took votes away from the Liberals, splitting the progressive vote and aiding the greater Tory evil. And let’s be clear, Trump is not in a different league to the Tories of this era. Winston Churchill, Tory chancellor during the 1920s, was an admirer of Mussolini, who he called the “Roman Genius… the greatest lawgiver among men”. He suggested using machine guns against workers during the 1926 General Strike, and using poison gas against “uncivilized tribes”.

Without this effort from the early pioneers of Labour, without breaking with the logic of lesser evilism, we would not have had a workers’ party in Britain. Though he wrote in a very different time and context, the following passage from Marx remains apposite:

“Even where there is no prospect of achieving their election the workers must put up their own candidates to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention. They must not be led astray by the empty phrases of the democrats, who will maintain that the workers’ candidates will split the democratic party and offer the forces of reaction the chance of victory. All such talk means, in the final analysis, that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantages resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.” 

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