The left and the vote in 2012

January 17, 2013

Alan Maass, a member of the International Socialist Organization, the publisher of this website, replies to a critique about the 2012 election and the left vote.

SOME READERS of may have come across a long article from Socialist Alternative (SA), a small U.S. group, attacking the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for its alleged position on a local election campaign in Washington state. The topic may seem obscure--because it is obscure--but the article's criticisms will come as a surprise to any regular reader of this site.

The campaign in question involved a candidate of Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, running for a state House seat from a district in Seattle. SA claims that the rest of "the U.S. left largely missed a major opportunity to intervene in the 2012 elections" by not supporting Sawant, and they single out the ISO for a very lengthy critique.

SA does admit that it first attempted to contact the ISO as a national organization about supporting its candidate with an e-mail sent in mid-October. Our reply to that communication began by noting that we "encouraged [ISO members] to vote for genuine anti-corporate third party alternatives." We then pointed out that contacting the ISO national leadership a couple weeks before Election Day was "not a serious effort at collaboration" since there was no time for any actual collaboration.

Kshama Sawant
Kshama Sawant

Likewise, the tome published by Socialist Alternative earlier this month is not a serious effort at discussion on the left. It ends by claiming that SA has "initiated a dialogue in Seattle and elsewhere about running broad left slates of candidates in 2013 and beyond." SA has not initiated anything of the kind, at least that they've told us about--since that would mean having an actual discussion with forces other than themselves, rather than lecturing them.

We thus must reach the same conclusion we came to after receiving SA's mid-October request to support its candidate--that SA is not interested in collaboration or dialogue toward common efforts on the left, but with rhetorical statements to that effect and sectarian point-scoring.

THEN AGAIN, the self-important tone of Socialist Alternative's missive about the left's failure to embrace a "historic" opportunity seems to reflect a radically overblown estimate of the importance of the Sawant campaign.

It's certainly positive that a socialist candidate won a significant vote--more than 20,000, for just under 30 percent of the total--against a well-known Democrat and the speaker of the state House. Of course, Frank Chopp, the Democrat, was running unopposed in a liberal-leaning district, so casting a protest vote was an attractive option.

The main reason for the Sawant campaign's stronger-than-expected showing was an endorsement from Seattle's alternative newspaper The Stranger. It's great that a firmly pro-Democratic paper urged a protest vote against a well-known Democrat. But the paper also endorsed Democrats in every other race where it made a selection, from what I could tell--including ones where an independent left candidate was running. So its support for Sawant doesn't exactly represent a consistent break from the two-party system.

But however you explain the results of the battle for Representative Position 2 in the 43rd Legislative District in Washington state, it's a little much to draw conclusions about Election 2012 and the "historic" opportunities for the left based on an election where approximately 99.93 percent of voters in the U.S. couldn't cast a ballot.

An analysis not focused on a single local race for state office would have been a little more sober about the outcome for left candidates.

There were occasional signs of local success, but they were few and very far between. On the national level, the Green Party's presidential candidate Jill Stein won only 468,907 votes, or 0.36 percent. Left-leaning protest candidates Roseanne Barr and Rocky Anderson combined for another 100,000 votes, and 0.08 percent.

No one reading this website will believe that 0.44 percent reflects the real level of discontent with the two-party system in this country. That's not even close to the level of sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, with its critique of both corporate greed and the corruption of the two-party system.

So unless you believe that a left-wing campaign managed by Socialist Alternative or some hypothetical coalition of other left organizations would have done significantly better, the conclusion has to be that the sentiment for political change in this country wasn't most effectively expressed and built through left-wing protest candidacies in 2012.

Three different lead articles at (here, here and here) urged readers to consider voting for candidates who represented a genuine left-wing alternative, in the presidential race and in local elections where possible.

But as Lance Selfa wrote, "[W]e have to understand that these campaigns are shoestring efforts." As Lance and others wrote here, the left's time and resources were better utilized building struggles outside the electoral arena last fall--like the spreading fight to defend public education, building on the Chicago teachers' strike, or the strike wave among low-wage workers at Wal-Mart and other workplaces.

Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative is prisoner to a bit of dogma passed down through generations of orthodox Trotskyist organizations that they must try to run candidates in elections, no matter how tiny their ranks, no matter how meager their resources, and no matter how little such campaigns reflect the actual state of the working-class movement.

SA's polemic against the ISO since the election reflects another shibboleth--one that Leon Trotsky would have despised--of such groups: an obsession with attacking other left organizations for real or imagined differences, inflated out of all proportion as "historic" failures and betrayals. It's hard to take such critiques seriously--any more than Socialist Alternative's claim to be engaging in constructive dialogue.

Anyone on the left should welcome opportunities for genuine collaboration to build a political alternative. But collaboration requires honest discussion about proposals for united action, not sectarian point-scoring.

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