Not much of a choice

November 2, 2010

Every Election Day, voters in the U.S. face an incredibly narrow choice, limited to the two mainstream parties. Elizabeth Schulte argues that it's time for an alternative.

IN SEVERAL close elections on November 2, the Democratic Party has been going all out--for right-wing third party candidates.

In an article that exposed the incredible cynicism of the two-party system, the New York Times reported that Democrats are campaigning for conservative independent candidates in several races--sometimes in secret, sometimes putting their name to robo-call or ads--in hopes of taking votes away from the Republican candidate.

This story not only shows just how dirty the dirty tricks get at election time, but something more fundamental about elections and democracy in the U.S.--that the two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have firm control over the election process and view independent parties as a joke.

As long as there are only two choices on Election Day, progressive voters will be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils and give up on actually voting for what they believe in. And the Democrats and Republicans will do whatever they can to keep this two-party stranglehold in place.

Not much of a choice

Thus, on November 2, the most compelling reason for progressives to turn out the vote for Democrats is the fear of what Republicans will do if they take control of one or both houses of Congress. With Election Day approaching, one liberal voice after another proclaimed that Democrats were the only "realistic" choice--even though the Democrats failed to stand up to the Republican "greater evil" even when they had majorities in Congress and Obama in the White House.

It wasn't just establishment liberals demanding a vote for the Democrats. Here's longtime labor and international human rights activist and author Bill Fletcher Jr., writing on the Progressive Democrats of America Web site:

This is not the boy who cried wolf. In addition to the Democratic Congress as a whole being under assault from the Republicans, there are some liberal and progressive Democratic elected officials who are under siege, and about whom we should be concerned. There is an energized, right-wing army waiting to turn back the clock. So progressives should be enthused right now; enthused to defend our friends, but also to defeat our enemies.

In other words, people on the left, from liberals to radicals, need to hold their nose and vote for Democratic Party politicians who haven't delivered on their promises--because there's worse to come if the Republicans win.

As socialist Hal Draper argued almost half a century ago, referring to antiwar activists' support of Democrat Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the presidential election: "So 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 where the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice."

When the left accepts the constraints of the two-party vice-grip over electoral politics and supports Democrats over Republicans, it gets no better than the status quo. Without a left-wing alternative that actually stands for something and challenges the logic of lesser evilism, the Democrats can push through any policies they want.

That's why, faced with no pressure from the left, the Obama administration has gone to the right--concentrating on maintaining Wall Street profits while working-class families suffer the effects of the crisis.

IN MOST European countries, elections regularly feature more than two, if not dozens, of political candidates and organizations.

But in the U.S., the bipartisan political establishment has a lot of power to keep the choices limited at election time. For instance, the rules on whether a candidate is allowed to take part in debates set the bar so high and so capriciously that it's nearly impossible for an independent to get a foot in. And excluding independents from public forums like debates puts them at a crippling disadvantage against two parties that have huge political machines devoted to taking in donations and running ads.

Simply getting on the ballot is an ordeal, with election boards run by the two main parties setting high thresholds for signatures. Once the candidates' supporters get the signatures they need, they can be sure that every name and address comes under scrutiny.

And there's a double standard for who has to jump through these hoops. In 2004, for instance, Democrats threw up every imaginable roadblock for left-wing independent candidate Ralph Nader to get on local ballots. That same year, however, in Illinois, Democratic and Republican lawmakers got together and passed special legislation to extend the deadline--so the Republicans could adjust for a technicality and George W. Bush could appear on the state ballot.

The trouble doesn't necessarily stop once you get on the ballot, as supporters of Green Party candidate for Illinois governor, Rich Whitney, found out--when they discovered that his name appeared as "Rich Whitey" on ballots in parts of Chicago.

But dirty tricks aside, the Democrats have a long history of trying to destroy any left-wing electoral alternative. By and large, they've been successful--by either co-opting the rhetoric and policies of the left alternative, or carrying out all-out wrecking missions.

In the late 1800s, the Populist movement looked poised to offer a lasting left-wing, pro-worker alternative at the ballot box, with presidential candidate James Weaver winning a million votes in 1892. The People's Party offered a radical program that included nationalization of railroads, a progressive income tax and support for unions. In the South, groups of populists organized Black and white sharecroppers together, defying local racist governments and white supremacist vigilantes.

The Democrats went into action with a combination of obstructionism and offers to incorporate some populist leaders into the party machine. Under pressure from some in the People's Party who wanted to concentrate on electoral politics and water down its radical message, the party voted to "fuse" with the Democrats in 1896 and back William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan lost the election to Republican William McKinley, but the Democrats got what they wanted, crushing the populist hope of a left-wing alternative for decades to come. As the historian Howard Zinn later explained, "It was a time, as election times have often been in the U.S., to consolidate the system after years of protest and rebellion...[W]here a threatening mass movement developed, the two-party system stood ready to send out one of its columns to surround that movement and drain it of vitality."

So shutting down a left-wing independent electoral alternative is nothing new for the Democratic Party establishment. But neither is the widespread popular support for a left alternative unique to the populists.

During the period of mass strikes and protests in the 1930s, workers began looking to a political alternative to represent their interests. In 1937, 21 percent of those surveyed in a Gallup poll said they agreed with forming a labor party.

However, in the face of this kind of sentiment from members, union leaders worked overtime to ensure that labor voted Democrat. When the newly founded United Auto Workers voted in favor of forming a national farmer-labor party, leaders of the CIO union federation threatened to yank its funding for organizing if it didn't get out the vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Today, the conventional wisdom has it that U.S. workers would have gotten nowhere during the Great Depression without the Roosevelt administration. But the truth is that Roosevelt wouldn't have the reputation he does were it not for the labor movement and its struggles. It was workers organizing strikes and protests who forced the government and employers the right to join unions.

This pressure from below is the key to building left-wing alternatives--at the ballot box and even more importantly on the streets.

IN SEVERAL elections on November 2, there are candidates on the ballot who are challenging the Democrats and Republicans' iron grip and offering something to vote for instead of against.

Socialist Party candidate Dan LaBotz is running for the U.S. Senate from Ohio, and is speaking out about the importance of organizing from below for fundamental change, setting out to bring socialist ideas to an ever-widening audience.

Several Green Party candidates deserve support. Longtime activist Howie Hawkins in New York is offering a left-wing alternative to the "I'm less scary than Carl Paladino" politics of Democrat Andrew Cuomo. In Illinois, Rich Whitney is taking on the austerity programs of Democratic incumbent and public-sector jobs killer Pat Quinn.

In the face of the Democrats' fear-mongering about what will happen if the Republicans win, activists have to ask themselves how much scarier both parties will be if they face no opposition from below.

In the long run, this means creating an independent political alternative that's active not just at election time, but every day, and in every sector of society--at work, at school and in communities--organizing for demands that affect workers' lives.

American socialist Eugene Debs ran for president five times in the last century, speaking to workers not about his ability to govern them, but about the need for workers to join the socialist movement and ultimately govern themselves. As he said in a speech to fellow Socialist Party members in 1911:

We should seek only to register the actual vote of socialism, no more no less. In our propaganda we should state our principles clearly, speak the truth fearlessly, seeking neither to flatter nor to offend, but only to convince those who should be with us and win them to our cause through an intelligent understanding of its mission...Voting for Socialism is not Socialism any more than a menu is a meal. Socialism must be organized drilled, equipped and the place to begin is in the industries where the workers are employed.

Further Reading

From the archives