From "political revolution" to lesser-evilism

By the time this article appears in print, the fall political campaign will have begun in earnest. We will be facing a contest between the billionaire blowhard Donald Trump and the hawkish neoliberal Democrat Hillary Clinton. And we will be told that this is “the most important election of our lifetimes” and that we must save the republic from disaster. It’s worth pondering how we got here and what that history might portend for the future of American politics.

The main narrative of campaign 2016 has been that of “outsider” challenges to the “establishment” of both major parties. To many mainstream conservatives, Trump’s vanquishing of sixteen major candidates—including senators and governors with millions of dollars at their disposal—has the feel of a Vandal raid against the empire. On the Democratic side, Clinton won with the protection of a phalanx of Democratic officials while almost 43 percent of the primary vote went to the social democrat independent-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders.

The developments in both primaries demonstrate, each in their own way, the shallowness and unpopularity of the two main big-business parties. In the first post-Obama election in which the reverberations of the Great Recession are still being felt, the “base” voters of both major parties delivered black eyes to their respective party establishments. The gaping economic chasm between rich and poor, which the 2007–2008 recession accentuated, fuels a growing political polarization. Amidst that, however, liberals and conservatives agree, by wide margins, on two key propositions: first that there’s too much money in politics; and second, that money buys special favors for special interests in Washington.1 

These two positions combine well to mobilize a section of voters against the bipartisan Washington political establishment. Trump struck a pose as someone too rich to be bought. He tweaks Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill for turning their Clinton Foundation into an influence-peddling hedge fund for foreign investors. Meanwhile, getting money out of politics and limiting the influence of Wall Street and “millionaires and billionaires” was the essence of Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution.” And where Sanders focused popular resentment at its true sources—corporate America and its political servants—Trump directed it at scapegoats like immigrants, Muslims, and foreign governments. 

That’s where the superficial comparisons of Trump and Sanders as “populists” end. The relative success of each of them speaks to something particular about the shifting political coalitions the two capitalist parties represent. For more than a generation, the GOP has depended on solid support based in twenty states of the South, the Plains and the mountain West. The Republican trinity of tax-cutting economic conservatism, a bloated Pentagon, and support for conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion, generally held the various GOP interest groups and voters together.

The conservative political positions that the Republicans promote regularly garner the support of only about a quarter to a third of the US electorate. But the United States’s fundamentally undemocratic system of government—where states can restrict voting rights in ways that disproportionately affect racial minorities and the poor; where the US Senate delivers the same representation to conservative Wyoming as to more liberal California, with almost eighty times Wyoming’s population; and where corporate money largely governs who gets elected—is tailor-made for an unpopular majority to continue to set the country’s political agenda.

Nevertheless, this anti-popular agenda has had an increasingly limited appeal. The average GOP voter is a middle-aged affluent white person (mostly men) in a country that is increasingly less affluent, less white, less religious, and where the majority of the population and electorate are women. The Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six national presidential elections, while scoring their biggest gains during low turnout off-year elections.

The GOP relies on mobilizing a shrinking base, which has led its key political operatives to turn every election into a death match against nefarious forces who are “taking away” the idealized 1950s version of the United States that conservatives uphold. Both Trump and his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, played different versions of this hand during the primaries. Trump succeeded because he openly tapped into two ever-giving founts of the US right—racism and xenophobia—and used them not only to win votes, but also to batter a GOP establishment he branded as “losers.” To the extent that Trump has an economic agenda, it echoes protectionist “America First” policies that a section of the American right, from Charles Lindbergh in the 1920s to Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s, have espoused.

Trump’s victory signifies the “chickens coming home to roost” in a Republican Party whose operatives and media infrastructure have fed their most committed partisans a steady stream of nonsense about the president’s birth certificate and Obamacare “death panels” for years. Trump’s base is not the “white working class,”2 as the media have portrayed it, but it is that of the 2010 Tea Party, or “voters the [Tea Party] movement activated [who] are partial to candidates that buck the establishment, and thus extremely receptive to the billionaire’s appeals.”3 Trump exploited GOP fault lines, and turned his celebrity and media savvy into a presidential nomination. As Trump clinched the GOP nomination, dozens of Republican politicians—including ones who had vowed never to support him—jumped on the Trump train.

In contrast, Sanders ran into a brick wall of Democratic Party officialdom that never wavered in its support for Hillary Clinton. That Sanders came as close as he did was testament to his enunciation of a number of themes, from economic inequality to health care for all to political reform, that the most committed Democrats believed their party should have championed but hasn’t. 

In the past, the Democrats could run on the memory of reforms like Social Security and Medicare that benefitted millions. Today’s Democrats present themselves as efficient and “inclusive” managers of a neoliberal order that has delivered next to nothing to the party’s base for a generation. The Sanders phenomenon was the latest in a series of political expressions of discontent with that economic and political status quo—from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter—in the wake of the Great Recession. 

Nevertheless, Clinton still won almost four million more primary votes than Sanders, whose best states tended to be ones with weak Democratic Party infrastructures or where independent voters were allowed to vote in party primaries. Sanders bested Clinton in most states that chose their delegates through caucuses, where smaller numbers of committed activists could make a difference. In places like New York or Pennsylvania, where party machines mobilized only declared Democrats in primary elections, Clinton tended to win. This was especially notable in areas where a local Black Democratic establishment helped secure the vote for Clinton. Perhaps this was most starkly demonstrated in New York, where Sanders won most of the state’s rural counties and Clinton won the major cities—and crushed Sanders in the predominantly Black and Latino districts of New York City. A similar dynamic held in the June California primary, where a predicted surge of independent voters for Sanders didn’t materialize. Instead, Clinton, with the backing of the full party machine, romped with 56 percent of the vote based in the state’s main population centers.

Sanders found his greatest support among voters younger than forty-five, even rolling up supermajorities over Clinton among voters in their twenties and thirties. These voters have known nothing but declining living standards through their adult lives—the last eight of them under a Democratic administration of which Clinton was a part. For them, the 1990s Clinton administration holds no memories of “change” and “hope” from the Reagan-Bush dominated 1980s. For these reasons, it’s understandable that Clinton’s appeals to “realism” and “pragmatism” ring hollow to people for whom Sanders urged raised expectations.

Democratic operatives have long observed that younger voters, like those who flocked to Sanders’s rallies and his primary campaign, could hold the key to a future Democratic majority. After all, opinion polls show that the generation aged thirty and under is the most liberal and multiracial generation ever. But no one should mistake that desire to reap those votes with any desire from the Democratic leadership to shift its policy orientation from Clintonite neoliberalism to the quasi social-democratic positions that Sanders championed. Historian Rick Perlstein made this clear in a Nation roundtable discussion published in May, before the Democratic primaries ended:

What are the prospects for a realignment of American politics? On the Democratic side, practically nil. The presidential front-runner—the one with the endorsements of 15 out of 18 sitting Democratic governors, 40 out of 44 senators, and 161 out of 188 House members—is running a campaign explicitly opposed to fundamental transformation. Her signature campaign promise—no new taxes on households making $250,000 or less—renders serious change impossible. The chance for her opponent to win the nomination approaches mathematical impossibility. He is running as a “revolutionary.” But governing is a team sport. If, by some miracle, Bernie Sanders entered the White House in January, he would do so naked and alone—in command of a party apparatus less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any other time in its history.4

Perlstein is right. If the Democrats were unwilling to chart a fundamentally different course in 2009 when, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in generations, the electorate delivered them the legislative and executive branch, they will not attempt to enact anything approaching Sanders’s New Dealish program.

So where does this leave Sanders? Predictably, it leaves him where every other “insurgent” Democratic candidate, from Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kucinich, has landed. He will bring his followers under the Democratic tent (if he has not already done so by the time this article appears in print). Indeed, Sanders and his supporters may be given a special role: that of encouraging young people and older trade unionists in the upper Midwest—where Democrats fear Trump’s anti-NAFTA message may resonate—to join a crusade to defeat Trump.5 It remains to be seen whether this will include a formal endorsement of Clinton (which Sanders has promised many times) or simply a call to “do everything possible” to keep the orange-haired demagogue out of the White House. Either way, it’s hardly a desired end for a “political revolution” that started out to change politics, only to end up being pressed into service to preserve the status quo.

The paradox of the left

Like most sentient people on the left, the ISR has acknowledged that Sanders’s campaign gave expression to millions and reaffirmed a growing popular interest in “socialism.”6 No doubt, some of the many thousands for whom Sanders raised hopes will conclude that they can only fulfill their aspirations by joining a movement to fight for genuine socialism. But the central contradiction of Sanders’s campaign—popularizing “socialism” but imprisoning that sentiment inside one of the two main capitalist parties—will make that goal more difficult to achieve. Two points are worth elaborating here.

The first is the obvious one that the mobilization for Sanders was not, as he and many of his supporters claimed, a “movement.”7 It was, as were Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s before it, an electoral campaign waged inside one of the two main political parties of American capitalism. Campaign “insider” reports emerging near the end of the primary season noted that Sanders’s top command chose to spend much of its prodigious fundraising haul on expensive, old-school television ads rather than grassroots field organizing.8 If the Sanders campaign wasn’t willing (or able) to organize a “grassroots army” during its primary campaign, it’s unlikely that it will leave much of an infrastructure of activists behind. As the Democratic Party moves to capture Sanders’s social media and contributors’ lists,9 the very real possibility exists that the Sanders campaign will live on as little more than this year’s model of MoveOn.org or Democracy for America. In any event and despite whatever acrimony with the Clintonites developed over the course of the campaign, smart Democrats realize that Sanders has reinvigorated their party.

The second reason for a failure of the left to capitalize on the “Sanders moment” may be more contentious on the socialist left. And that has to do with the way the majority of the socialist left related to the Sanders campaign. Except for the most died-in-the-wool sectarians for whom no political development outside of their cloistered existence moves them, the entire socialist left recognized that Sanders was tapping into something larger than himself. The problem was that, for most of the left, the analysis stopped there. The question was how to relate to the thousands rallying for and voting for Sanders. But in the process, most of the left—including long-time supporters of political action independent of the capitalist parties—abandoned Marx and Engels’s most basic admonition that socialists should seek to build in every country an independent working-class alternative to the old capitalist parties. 

Veteran socialist and New Politics editor Dan La Botz was perhaps the most surprising supporter of Sanders on the socialist left. A long-time supporter of independent political action, La Botz became a prominent advocate for Sanders even in international circles.10 Although La Botz endorsed Green Party candidate Jill Stein after the Democratic primaries, earlier he had pledged to “work with the Sanders campaign in the primary period, hoping—like other Sanders supporters—that out of this experience we can build a new, stronger, left in America.” He argued that the Sanders campaign—inside the Democratic Party— “could contribute to the launching of a new period of social movements and upheavals with a higher level of political consciousness and if it does that, it will be a great contribution.”11 

This is the same author who only a few years earlier urged Occupy Wall Street activists to reject Democratic Party entreaties:

We should remember that this Democratic Party failed to bring an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rejected single-payer health care, increased the round-up and deportation of undocumented immigrants, bailed out the banks while letting the foreclosures continue and unemployment soar, and allowed the increase of police power and the loss of civil rights to continue. We should remember that this Democratic Party and Obama’s White House brought us Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, the man who proved to be the bankers’ best friend. This Democratic Party gave us Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the enemy of public schools and teachers’ unions. This is the Democratic Party that Occupy is asked to join, the one where hope dimmed and change never took place.12

Nothing about the Democratic Party has changed since La Botz wrote those words in 2011. Yet Sanders joined this party, and his 2016 campaign has had the effect of recruiting thousands of new voters to it.

The swoon of much of the left for Sanders—or the contention that to be with the Sanders campaign was to be in the midst of a social movement—meant that instead of challenging the minority of Sanders supporters who would have been open to a political argument about the necessity of building a genuine alternative to the Democrats (as La Botz had forcefully argued to Occupy activists), much of the left contributed to illusions that the Democratic Party could be transformed instead. Sanders, who had planned to run a campaign to pressure the eventual nominee to adopt more progressive positions—and who never wavered from his pledge to back the Democratic nominee—can’t be blamed for this. But the same can’t be said for Sanders’s supporters on the left.

Consider the opinion of Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin

Sanders’s socialism calls for a bold set of solutions that would expand the welfare state. The tenor of these plans couldn’t be more different from the tepid policy proposals—like Obamacare or cap-and- trade—that have flowed out of establishment liberalism for decades.

This all points to the emergence of a “Sanders Democrat,” a group that is disproportionately young and calling for massive redistributions of wealth and power. Even if Sanders fades in the coming months, this group is poised to continue a long struggle inside and outside the Democratic Party. It’s bad news for current Democratic leaders, but it’s good news for those on the radical left who have been struggling in isolation, with little social base for their politics, for decades.

Sunkara’s contention that “Sanders Democrats” can reform the Democratic Party through “a long struggle inside and outside the Democratic Party” seems like common sense to most people, including most of those on the left today. Why should we draw an iron wall between voting and movement building? It only takes five minutes to vote, what harm can it do? Why not cover all our bases, on the electoral and movement fronts? This can seem like a win-win strategy.

But voting isn’t quite such a simple act. The short time it takes to vote requires a set of political calculations and rationalizations that affect our political strategy, depending on whom we vote for. There is a good reason why the revolutionary left regards the Democratic Party as “the graveyard of social movements”—because it has time and again succeeded in absorbing grassroots movements into its apparatus. The Democratic Party has historically demonstrated an uncanny ability to gain working-class and Black votes without wavering from its role as one half of the corporate duopoly that rules in the sole interest of US capital. Any vote cast in favor of Democratic candidates acts to strengthen its role; and any postponing of the building of viable independent-left alternatives in the name of “transforming” the party from within feeds continued illusions in the party and puts independent politics perpetually out of reach.

True, Sanders wouldn’t have been given ballot access or a place in Democratic debates if he hadn’t agreed to work inside the Democratic Party’s confines. But coming inside the Democratic tent also limited his room for maneuver. He may win a few meaningless concessions on the Democratic platform that no one reads or follows. But the ultimate price of entrance was his pledge to campaign for Clinton, the candidate who represents everything his “political revolution” is supposed to reject. And while Sanders was readying his eventual endorsement for Clinton, she was busy hiring his staffers—like Sanders’s student organizer—for her fall campaign. This is how people who begin as “outsiders” end up as the next generation of insiders.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes the emergence of the Democratic Party’s Black political establishment in the early 1970s—which initially involved the contentious merger of Black radicals, reformers, and elected officials:

In search of resources, support, and perhaps legitimacy in the face of a cloudy future for the Black movement, activists entered the party believing they could use it for their own purposes. But instead of the left turning the party, many activists found themselves having to conform to Democratic Party objectives. In some cases, radicals and revolutionaries not only stayed in step with the narrow and conservative agenda of the Democratic Party, but jumped ship on liberalism altogether and defected to the right wing.13

The second major left delusion is one with a long pedigree: that of “realigning” the Democratic Party so that its main social base—and particularly organized labor—builds a “party within a party” until it is strong enough to drive out the Democrats’ corporate wing. Then, labor and other social movements will be left with the rudiments of a social democratic or labor party. Peter Olney of the International Longshore and Warehouse workers Union (ILWU) and Labor for Bernie, sketched out this vision: 

To continue supporting the political revolution and work constructively in broader coalition groups, the five national unions and over 90 local unions that have endorsed Bernie Sanders could form the core of a new and coherent union political formation. Once formed, other national unions and many locals would undoubtedly be attracted to it.

Most importantly, such a formation could play a leading role in the broader grouping that Sanders and the tens of millions of his supporters rightly expect to emerge from the campaign to carry on his vision and much needed change.14

Like the “inside-outside” strategy, this strategy sounds realistic. After all, doesn’t labor already provide much of the organizational heft in the Democratic Party? What if it decided to assert itself and to place its demands front-and-center? 

The left has been down this road before in the 1950s and 1960s, when conditions for labor and the left were much more favorable than they are today. In fact, socialists Max Shachtman and Michael Harrington, as leaders of the Independent Socialist League (ISL), offered this scenario when the ISL dissolved itself into the Socialist Party (SP) in 1959. This group asserted that the strength of the labor movement and the burgeoning civil rights movement, set within an international context of the disintegration of Communist Parties following USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech admitting Stalin’s crimes, could drive Dixiecrats and anti-labor politicians out of the Democratic Party. In proposing this scheme, oriented around a trade-union movement that was firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party, these socialists pulled the SP ever deeper into the Democratic orbit. Soon ISL/SP leaders like Shachtman, Harrington, and Bayard Rustin found themselves operating as top advisers to Democratic politicians. Rustin, the radical who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, became a leading figure urging the anti-segregation Mississippi Freedom Democrats to surrender their seats at the 1964 Democratic convention to the segregationist regulars. By 1968, he was serving as a floor leader at the Democratic convention, whipping up votes for the pro-Vietnam War vice president Hubert Humphrey. By the 1980s, he was an anti-communist supporter of President Ronald Reagan. 15

The point of this historical digression is two-fold: one, to illustrate that a “party within the party” strategy has been tried already; and two, to demonstrate that for those who engaged in it, it actually undermined the building of a political alternative to the Democrats’ left. The realignment strategy of the 1950s–1960s can be said to have succeeded in at least some of its objectives.16 The Dixiecrats did leave the Democrats, to become the new Southern base of the conservative Republican Party, but the Democrats didn’t shift leftward. In fact, at the same time as conservatives were using the “Southern Strategy” to capture the GOP, the Democrats were preparing to adopt neoliberalism themselves. And in carrying out this strategy, the socialists didn’t transform the Democratic Party so much as the Democratic Party transformed the socialists.

If the 1950s–1960s realignment strategy was predicated on the assumption of a strong labor movement and a mass civil rights movement, what chances do today’s proponents of such a strategy have when the labor movement is at its weakest since the 1920s, and the various social movements remain diffuse and fragmented? 

A final chimera that the pro-Sanders left has proposed is the idea of Sanders running as an independent after he loses to Clinton. Under the umbrella of #Movement4Bernie, Seattle city council and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant advocates that option for Sanders: “We can’t allow this tiny minority of primary voters, the corporate media, Wall Street PACs, and the party establishment to block Bernie before the real election even begins!” The most obvious problem with this position is that it bears no relationship to reality. Bernie Sanders, quite simply, has no intention of running as an independent, and “demanding” that he does only feeds an illusion.

But there’s also a catch to this plan to run Sanders as an independent or on a ticket with Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Realizing that many of the Sanders voters that  #Movement4Bernie is attempting to reach (not to mention Sanders himself) will feel pressure to cast a “lesser evil” vote for Clinton vs. Trump, Socialist Alternative makes a key concession: “There is no reason [Sanders] could not at least run in the 40+ states where it’s absolutely clear the Democratic or Republican candidate will win, while not putting his name on the 5 to 10 closely contested ‘swing states.’”17

This “safe state” strategy18 avoids the hard argument that socialists should be making: To build a genuine independent working class alternative, the left has to challenge—and be ready to defeat—both major capitalist parties. When the left adopts such a safe-state strategy, rather than exhibiting a clever tactical maneuver, it’s really confessing its irrelevance to the national debate. It’s accepting its marginality, while declaring its intention to help the Democrats win the election. Leaving aside the improbability—bordering on the fanciful—that Sanders would run as an independent against Clinton and Trump, what would be the impact of this safe state run? Here again, we have evidence of a strategy that has been tried before—as recently as 2004—and failed. 

In that year, when George W. Bush faced off against John “Reporting for Duty” Kerry in the presidential election held in the midst of the Iraq war, the Green Party accepted this safe state logic and nominated as its standard bearer the no-name lawyer David Cobb, who pledged to put it into effect. Stung since 2000 when liberals accused Green candidate Ralph Nader of “spoiling” the election and allowing Bush to sneak into the White House while losing the national popular vote, the Greens were determined to avoid a repeat in 2004. Not only did this opposition to Nader come from forces inside the Greens who were dedicated to a “fusion” strategy with liberal Democrats, but it also came from liberal Democrats outside the Greens who wanted to prevent any kind of challenge to the militaristic, hyper-cautious Kerry campaign. By succumbing to this pressure, the Green Party surrendered its possibility of aggressively confronting Bush and Kerry on issues the two largely agreed on: continuing the war, occupying Iraq, and shredding civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act. By pledging not to campaign, the Green ticket declared its own irrelevance to the national debate.

Nader and his running mate Peter Camejo (the Greens’ candidate for California governor in the 2003 recall election and longtime progressive) mounted an underfunded and understaffed independent campaign to offer a left alternative for people who wanted to vote against the war and occupation, against the USA PATRIOT Act, and for gay marriage and national health care. Despite vicious baiting from people on the left and a full-court press by Democrats determined to keep Nader off ballots around the country, the Nader-Camejo ticket won 465,150 votes nationwide, compared to 119,856 for Cobb. Even the far-right Constitutional Party outpolled Cobb. Because of Cobb’s non-campaign, the Greens lost their ballot status, including recognition as a political party, in at least seven states.36 Only four years after Nader’s 2000 campaign gave the Green Party an opening to millions of voters, the organization’s viability as an independent political force was put in question. Yet again, it appeared that another attempt to build an alternative to the two-party duopoly had succumbed to the siren song of lesser evilism.

Supporters of a safe state strategy for Sanders may not be as timorous as the Greens were in 2004, but they would face the same pressures. And what would it do for Sanders’s message? As the Greens’ Howie Hawkins, a sharp critic of his party’s 2004 strategy, explained, “Few voters or reporters would take a candidate seriously in a non-competitive safe state who didn’t believe his or her own third-party candidacy was important enough to carry into the competitive battleground states as well.”19 

The problem with all of these proposals—inside-outside, realignment, or safe-states—isn’t just that they’ve been tried before and failed. It’s that they involve forces on the left, who should be committed to building a political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, in various strategies that tie them either organizationally or politically, to the Democratic Party. If the inside-outside and realignment strategies specifically call for work inside the Democratic Party, the ostensibly independent safe-state approach leaves the left tied politically to Democrats. The safe-state strategy essentially confines independent political action to places where it won’t make a difference, and where it won’t offer an alternative to a leftward-moving Democratic base that is its presumed audience. In other words, it’s a backdoor way of supporting the Democrats as a lesser evil to the Republicans.

If a left that is committed to building an independent alternative to the Democrats has stifled itself, it will leave the field open to the appeal of lesser evilism, which will reach a fever pitch this fall. With a chance that Donald Trump could be the next president, the liberal establishment will pull out all stops to convince Democratic voters, and especially those who supported Sanders, that the fate of the republic hinges on keeping Trump out of the White House. Sanders, who told MSNBC’s Chris Jansing that “I think Hillary Clinton and I agree on this, that we will do everything we can to make sure that a Republican does not win the White House, and I will knock my brains out,”20 will be given a key role in shepherding his followers into this camp. In fact, some of Sanders’s institutional backers in the liberal world, such as MoveOn.org and Labor for Bernie, started in the spring to use the threat of a Trump presidency as their bridge back to the establishment fold.21 

The lesser evilists

Despite the long, strange trip of the 2016 election campaign since it began more than a year ago, for anyone left of center, the November presidential vote is shaping up to be the same as usual: Predominantly a choice between the lesser evil (Clinton) and the greater evil (Trump).

Clinton’s partisans will do everything they can to make choosing Clinton into a vote to save the republic from the “fascist” barbarian Trump. Liberal groups have mapped out a multilevel plan to create a “movement” to respond to Trump’s rise, which they characterize as a “five-alarm fire for our democracy.”22 When the choice is put this way—between fascism and democracy—there will be enormous pressure on anyone opposed to Clinton on the basis of her ties to Wall Street, her hawkishness in defense of imperialism, and so on. The tide of lesser evilism—the argument for voting for the Democrat to stop the Republican—will be huge.

Clinton’s long record has shown her to be an enthusiastic servant of the rich23 and advocate for US empire.24 Beyond campaign rhetoric, she’s not really a champion of either immigrant rights or civil rights. And while Clinton will appeal for voters to break the glass ceiling and elect the first woman president, her record on women’s rights is hardly inspiring, as Zoë Heller documented in the New York Review of Books.25 

Clinton partisans became apoplectic last spring when Sanders didn’t quietly fold his tent because his campaign continued to highlight all the reasons why millions weren’t “ready for Hillary.” But Clinton knows that in November, she will need the voters that Sanders mobilized in the Democratic primaries. What better way could be devised to win Sanders’s voters over than to have their champion endorse Clinton and to urge his supporters to vote for her in a great crusade to save democracy itself? This is what lesser evilism looks like in 2016.

Clinton will have her enablers on the left, too. Of course many liberals will support her enthusiastically. But ISR readers will be more attuned to leftists who will insist that the election is really a crusade against far-right revanchism, and that it’s not really about Hillary Clinton, the candidate for whom they urge a lesser-evil vote.26 And when these kinds of arguments for joining a “popular front” around Clinton fall flat, other radicals will step forward to insult anyone who can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton as asserting “their privilege” or indifference to the people of color who will be on the receiving end of Trump’s attacks—while maintaining a strict silence on Hillary’s contribution to racist mass incarceration, her years-long opposition to gay marriage, or her hawkish foreign policy. Indeed, these appeals have already been road-tested during the Democratic primary. Dustin Rowles called the position of Sanders supporter actress Susan Sarandon, who said she might not vote for Clinton, “assholery”: 

What I’m saying is, Susan Sarandon, you’re a brilliant actress, but your political ideology has shit for brains, and this whole Bernie or Bust movement is the self-serving, entitled bullshit of people who won’t have to worry about a Trump election because they’re not black, or Muslim, or a woman. Go home, Bernie or Bust people. You’re drunk. But please sober up and show up at the polls this November and vote for your version of the lesser of two evils, because that’s the goddamn American way.27

At the current writing (June 2016), opinion polls suggest that Trump’s unpopularity runs at historic levels among groups like Latinos and women. Because of that, most liberals and many establishment Republicans think Trump will go down to an historic defeat in November. That may be the case, but it’s less likely that even an anti-Trump landslide will shift US politics in a major way. The main reason is that Republicans currently hold their largest congressional and state-level majorities since the 1920s. It would take a true political earthquake—whose tremors are hard to detect at this time—to reverse that. But even if the GOP melts down, that’s no guarantee that the 2017 political environment will see an end to neoliberal dominance in US politics.

The reason why has everything to do with the official opposition Trump will face in November. He has thrived on the notion that he represents a challenge to the status quo. The billionaire blowhard may be nothing of the sort, but Clinton is nothing but a personification of that status quo. There’s a reason why, next to Trump, Clinton is the second most unpopular major party candidate for the presidency. 

If the Clinton campaign, with Sanders’s help, constructs a grand alliance stretching from anti-Trump Republicans to Sanders diehards, you can be assured that it will be crafted to appeal to moderate Republicans and not to liberal millennials. You can be assured that “change” will give way to “continuity.” No wonder a June Fortune 500 poll found a majority of corporate CEOs, most of them Republicans, saying they planned to support Clinton in November.28 In sum, Clinton’s candidacy will be crafted to project the need to preserve the status quo that so many Americans find intolerable.29 

Starting with her June partisan attack on Trump disguised as a speech on foreign policy, Clinton has sought to contrast her steady and experienced hand against an immature, unhinged Trump who can’t be trusted with the US nuclear arsenal. It’s a page from an old playbook. President Lyndon B. Johnson won a landslide in 1964 after successfully convincing voters, including moderate Republicans, that his opponent, right-wing GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater, was a dangerous—and possibly unstable—warmonger. Meanwhile, Johnson was secretly readying the buildup to US intervention in Vietnam. The socialist Hal Draper, in his classic “Who’s Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?” explained the lessons of the 1964 election:

In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater. . . . Many of them have realized that the spiked shoe was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for “actually carried out Goldwater’s policy.” . . . Who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups in which the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.30

This is the context in which we should understand Clinton’s campaign. She’ll keep the focus on the disaster that would befall the country if somehow the orange-wigged racist and con man made it to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, she’ll assure corporate boardrooms and the Pentagon that she intends to chart a steady course. She’ll leaven her appeal with bromides about “unity in our diversity” and “breaking the glass ceiling” as the first woman president. She might even endorse a few progressive demands like paid family leave or a boost in the minimum wage. But she has no intention of moving US politics in a fundamentally different direction. 

If the left signs up with Clinton’s national unity campaign against Trump, it will not only be endorsing the lesser evil, but it will be endorsing what the radical Black Agenda Report has tagged the “more effective evil.” Danny Haiphong points this out in arguing “Why A United Front Strategy Against Trump is Dangerous Territory for the left”:

Trump has called Mexicans rapists and proposed that a wall be built along the US-Mexican border to prevent migration. In less than eight years, the Obama Administration has deported more migrants than any other President and further militarized the US-Mexican border. Trump has called for a system to identify Muslims in America yet the Obama Administration has waged war on Muslims domestically and conducted an extensive drone program against Muslims abroad that has killed thousands of people, including two US citizens. Few have protested the Obama Administration over these policies, but thousands have come out against Trump’s rhetoric. Trump is indeed evil, but Obama and the Democratic Party remain the far more effective evil. . . .

 The increased space the left has secured to raise real questions about the character of US society will be wasted if Trump is allowed to scare the left back under the Democratic Party umbrella. The Democratic Party apparatus has been where movements go to die and capitalism turns to stabilize. The true test in the 2016 elections is not whether Trump can be defeated by a united front but whether radical forces in the US can find a way to defeat the plague of lesser evil politics.31

Building a political alternative to the two parties of capitalism and a social movement that can reverse decades of inequality will remain central tasks for the left, no matter what happens in the 2016 elections.

Thanks to Sharon Smith for her help in writing this article.


  1. Stanley B. Greenberg, America Ascendant (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 270 ff.
  2. Nate Silver, “The Myth of Trump’s Working Class Support,” FiveThirtyEight.com, May 3, 2016, http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-....
  3. Kate Aronoff, “Trump and the Tea Party,” Jacobin, March 26, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/tea-p....
  4. Rick Perlstein contribution to The Nation’s roundtable on “Is the American party system about to crack up?” May 23-20, 2016 http://www.thenation.com/article/is-the-....
  5. Amanda Becker and Luciana López, “Democrats Gird for Fight with Trump in U.S. Rust Belt States,” Reuters, May 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-el....
  6. See my “Socialism in the Air” in ISR 101 (Summer 2016), 1–9.
  7. Jamelle Bouie, “There is No Bernie Sanders Movement,” Slate, April 17, 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_p....
  8. On this, see the indispensable report by Jasper Craven, “Once an Organizational Army, Team Sanders now a Skeleton Crew,” Vermont Digger, May 16, 2016, http://vtdigger.org/2016/05/16/once-an-o....
  9. In fact, the Democratic Party may not have to scheme very much, since ActBlue, a nonprofit set up to channel funds to Democratic candidates, conducted Sanders’s prodigious online fundraising operation. “Sen. Sanders’s participation in building up the Democratic fundraising ecosystem will pay dividends for progressive candidates up and down the ballot for years to come,” Sanders’s digital director Kenneth Pennington told Politico. See Shane Goldmacher, “Bernie’s Legacy: One of the Most Valuable Donor Lists Ever,” Politico, June 6, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/be...
  10. See, for example, La Botz’s interview on the left-wing Spanish program La Klau, http://especiales.publico.es/publico-tv/....
  11. Dan La Botz, “Sanders for President: a Political Phenomenon that Challenges all Preconceptions,” New Politics, July 30, 2015, http://newpol.org/content/sanders-presid....
  12. Dan La Botz, “Occupy the Democratic Party: No Way!” New Politics, November 22, 2011, http://newpol.org/content/occupy-democra....
  13. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 92.
  14. Peter Olney, “Bernie and Beyond,” March 26, 2016, http://ernestlowe.com/?tag=peter-olney.
  15. See James Creegan, “The Rebel Who Came in from the Cold: The Tainted Career of Bayard Rustin,” Portside, March 12, 2016, http://portside.org/2016-03-17/rebel-who-came-cold-tainted-career-bayard-rustin. After endorsing Humphrey in 1968 and following the AFL-CIO hierarchy in remaining “neutral” between McGovern and Nixon in 1972, the SP transformed itself into “Social Democrats USA.” This hawkish Cold War formation was the original political home for a number of Democrats who became Reagan administration neoconservatives: for example, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Linda Chávez, Elliott Abrams, and Carl Gerschman. The “Debs caucus” on the left of the SP reconstituted the party as the Socialist Party USA and recommitted it to independent political action. See “A Century of Struggle: Socialist Party, 1901–2001” on the Socialist Party’s website.
  16. Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party,” Jacobin 20, February, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/democ....
  17. The quotes here come from Sawant’s petition to Sanders published http://movement4bernie.org/.
  18. Ty Moore and Philip Locker, “Sanders Campaign at a Crossroads,” Socialist Alternative, March 3, 2016, http://www.socialistalternative.org/2016....
  19. Howie Hawkins, “Safe States, Inside-Outside and Other Liberal Illusions,” Counterpunch, May 10, 2016, http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/10/s....
  20. Rebecca Savransky, “Sanders: I’ll Fight to Keep Republican out of White House if I’m not Nominee,” The Hill, April 27, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/pres....
  21. See Gabriel DeBenedetti, “Top Liberal Leaders Call for ‘Massive’ Anti-Trump Campaign,” Politico, March 15, 2016 http://www.politico.com/story/2016/03/top-liberal-leaders-call-for-massive-anti-trump-campaign-220760 and Amanda Becker and Luciana López, “Democrats Gird for Fight with Trump in US Rust Belt States,” Reuters, May 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-el....
  22. See DeBenedetti’s report.
  23. David Dayen, “Larry Fink and His BlackRock Team Poised to Take Over Hillary Clinton’s Treasury Department,” The Intercept, March 2, 2016.
  24. For this reason, leading neoconservatives announced their support for Clinton over Trump. See Michael Crowley, “GOP Hawks Declare War on Trump,” Politico, March 2, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/03/tr....
  25. Zöe Heller, “Hillary and Women,” New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016.
  26. Max Elbaum’s “Trump, Racism and the Left in 2016,” ZNet, May 10, 2016 is one example: “This election is not mainly about Hillary. It’s about whether or not the conservative bloc, with racism at its core, will renew its lease on hegemony or be thrown back.” In case anyone thinks this is a novel argument, consider Bill Fletcher, Jr and Carl Davidson’s case for a vote for Obama in 2012: “The 2012 Elections Have Little To Do With Obama’s Record . . . Which Is Why We Are Voting For Him,” ZNet, August 13, 2012.
  27. Dustin Rowles’ “‘Bernie or Bust’ is the Rallying Cry of Privileged Assholery,” March 30, 2016, http://www.pajiba.com/politics/bernie-or....
  28. Alan Murray, “Fortune 500 CEOs Prefer Clinton Over Trump,” Fortune, June 1, 2016, http://fortune.com/2016/06/01/ceo-survey....
  29. For a great article making this point, see Elizabeth Schulte’s “Hillary Thinks America’s Great. Why Don’t You?” Socialist Worker, May 12, 2016, https://socialistworker.org/2016/05/12/h....
  30. See Draper’s full article reprinted here: http://isreview.org/issues/32/draper.shtml.
  31. Read the full article here: http://www.blackagendareport.com/danger_....

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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