Looking back on an endorsement debate

October 18, 2018

Danny Katch puts forward a view on an important ISO discussion in New York City.

AS SOMEONE who helped write the statement of the ISO’s New York City district (“The independent left must oppose Islamophobia”) criticizing Green Party candidate for New York governor Howie Hawkins, and who also voted against the district’s decision to withdraw its endorsement of Hawkins’ campaign, I want to draw some lessons from what I think has been an important and useful process, and explain the reasons I disagree with our final decision.

To begin with, it’s important not to confuse this discussion with the debates we’ve been having in the ISO — particularly in New York City — around left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. There are connections, certainly, but opposition to endorsing Hawkins is not an inevitable by-product of wanting to endorse Democrats instead.

In fact, this conflation was one of the problems with our initial endorsement meeting, which didn’t allow enough time to discuss and debate the various arguments opposing endorsement.

Those arguments included: the campaign wouldn’t build the left; campaigns that can’t actually win are nonstarters in an era of victorious left Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez; and the Green Party has a serious problem of Assadism and Islamophobia. Our rushed discussion and vote resulted in the conflation of these and other arguments, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.

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As a result, our district came out of the vote to endorse with less clarity and confidence than before — which in turn made it harder for us to fully implement our plans and test in practice whether we had made the correct decision.

Then came news of the campaign’s decision to feature Jimmy Dore, a political commentator who is known for promoting Islamophobic and Assadist views. Lingering doubts and frustrations in our district over the endorsement burst out into the open.

The elected district leadership tasked our elections committee to meet with the campaign to urge it to disavow Dore — which we did repeatedly — and draft a public statement. We then called another membership meeting to hash things out.

At that meeting, we had a productive discussion about why we had made the mistake of rushing the initial endorsement — as well as about the growing influence on the left of supposedly “anti-imperialist” support for dictatorships, and the harm these politics have done to a party like the Greens that has struggled to find a base as many others followed candidates like Sanders into the Democratic Party.

It was apparent that many members would not have decided to endorse the campaign if they had the chance again, whether it was because of the original arguments or experiencing the campaign’s interactions with Dore. I still think there were good reasons to support the campaign despite its weaknesses, but clearly this was the full discussion we should have had initially.

UNFORTUNATELY, I think that our decision to rescind that endorsement compounds that first mistake by making another.

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It’s important to be clear on the facts that are laid out in the district statement. The issue isn’t Howie himself supporting Assad or Islamophobia. To the contrary, he has a history of supporting the Syrian people’s democratic struggle, and has taken heat from some Greens for that stand.

The problem is that his campaign became associated with someone whose statements about anti-Assad Syrians are repugnant to us.

This raises many important and far-reaching questions that we’ll continue to confront moving forward: How do we build united fronts and electoral campaigns alongside people with whom we have major disagreements? How do these projects square with the ISO’s commitment to waging a fight on the left about Syria, while also recognizing that this fight is unfortunately far from won across the left?

Withdrawing our endorsement of the Hawkins campaign over our disagreement of his handling of Jimmy Dore signals that our method in electoral campaigns is to offer conditional support that is subject to being pulled when substantial political disagreements arise — not with the candidates, but with some of their supporters.

None of this is to say that our disagreement with Howie over his handling of Dore isn’t serious. In our conversations about the issue with leading members of the Hawkins campaign, some of whom we’ve worked with for years, the differences between our strategic conceptions of how electoral campaigns can build the left were very clear.

That’s why I think the appropriate response would have been to publicly criticize the campaign while continuing to be a part of it — and continuing the debate after the election.

There’s also the fact that Howie Hawkins is a lifelong fighter for independent politics and a longtime ally and collaborator with the ISO, who is waging a difficult fight to build the Green Party in difficult circumstances — which in my opinion led him to make a bad decision regarding Jimmy Dore.

One could argue that these and other factors shouldn’t have been enough of a reason to endorse the campaign, but once we did, I think we should have seen that decision through and assessed it afterward.

THE DISCUSSION and debate about this campaign has raised important questions about how to build independent electoral alternatives, the future of the Green Party and the growing influence of Assadism and even more openly reactionary elements in corners of the left. These questions should help us as we think about the kinds of campaigns and initiatives we want to develop moving forward.

But the fact remains that on Election Day in New York, Howie will be the only left-wing alternative to machine boss Andrew Cuomo running for governor. By rescinding our endorsement, we are saying it’s a better thing for the left if people abstain, rather than giving Howie the strongest vote possible. I don’t think that’s right.

There’s a better method for handling these situations, and it’s the one we originally came up with: publicly criticizing campaigns while continuing to support them. In 2004, for example, the ISO endorsed Ralph Nader’s independent presidential run while being upfront about our criticisms of his inadequate position on immigrant rights and his disastrous association with the right-wing racist Pat Buchanan.

Some on the left argued that our endorsement of Nader gave cover for these weaknesses, but we argued that it was possible to be open about our disagreements while also keeping in mind the campaign’s larger dynamic. In the Socialist Worker announcement of the ISO’s endorsement, we went through those disagreements before concluding:

We have been upfront about these criticisms because we want the Nader campaign to be the strongest possible left-wing challenge to the Washington status quo. Despite his flaws, that’s what Nader represents in Election 2004 — a left alternative to the candidates of the two-party system.

The debates we’ve had in New York City about the Hawkins campaign are a sign that there’s a new moment, raising new strategic questions. The fact that our vote to withdraw endorsement passed by a narrow margin shows these are complicated questions that need further discussion.

Even though I disagree with the decision, I’m glad we held a meeting to reassess our endorsement, because I feel clearer and more united with my comrades about the important tasks ahead than I did after the first vote.

Further Reading

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