What will lesser evilism look like in 2016?

March 30, 2016

The party primaries are still playing out, but the shape of the general election this November is becoming clearer. Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, considers one of the central dynamics in all U.S. presidential elections and what it will look like this year.

BERNIE SANDERS' campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination has had a huge impact on national politics. With his message about the need for a "political revolution" and his forthright identification as a democratic socialist, he injected a surge of energy into the 2016 election.

Sanders won far more support than most observers, Socialist Worker included, guessed at the start. For a time after the first few primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Hillary Clinton campaign--and the ranks of the Democratic Party leadership that stand behind it--was running scared.

But realistically speaking, the tide had turned. Sanders will still rack up votes and win important primaries through June, and for sure, he will keep generating excitement for large numbers of people. But for him to win the Democratic nomination, two implausible things would have to happen: First, he would have to sweep the remaining contests with around 60 percent of the vote overall. And second, he would have to convince the elite Democratic "superdelegates" to abandon Hillary Clinton and back him.

Hillary Clinton speaking to supporters in Seattle

Given that one of these scenarios happening is unlikely--and both happening together is very, very unlikely--the stage is set for a November matchup between Clinton and whoever the Republicans manage to put up.

So now is a good time to start pondering what that will mean.

At this stage, the most likely Republican candidate is racist billionaire Donald Trump--unless "hateful fanatic number two" Ted Cruz slips by him. Neither option makes the Republican Party leadership happy. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham compared the choice between Trump and Cruz to deciding on "being shot or being poisoned."

Graham may have been musing about the dilemma for Republicans. But for those who want to see real change in U.S. society, the hard truth is that the November election between the candidates of the two mainstream parties will present a similar non-choice.

IS THAT an exaggeration?

Whoever the Republicans pick--even if somehow they finagle the nomination for a more respectable figure, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich or House Speaker Paul Ryan--their candidate will be an enthusiastic servant of the rich; a dedicated opponent of immigrants' rights, civil rights and women's rights; and an advocate for U.S. empire. In a word: poisonous.

But what of Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate? Her long record has shown her to be an enthusiastic servant of the rich and advocate for U.S. empire. 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 recently in the New York Review of Books.

Despite the long, strange trip of the 2016 election campaign since it began last summer, 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" and the "greater evil."

That's not the way Clinton's partisans will put it. In fact, if they end up facing Trump--as they hope they will--they will do everything they can to make choosing Clinton a vote to save the republic from the "fascist" barbarian Trump. Liberal groups--including those officially supporting Sanders now--have mapped out a multi-level plan to create a "movement" to respond to Trump's rise, which they characterize as a "five-alarm fire for our democracy"

When the choice is put this way--between "fascism" and "democracy"--this will put 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.

And when that time comes, Clinton's enablers will probably have no better ally than Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has said from the beginning of his campaign that he will back the eventual Democratic nominee, whoever it is. Though he is now speaking more combatively about what Clinton needs to do to get his support, that promise will almost certainly be honored in the end.

Clinton knows that in November, she will need the voters that Sanders mobilized in the Democratic primaries. What better way to win them over than to have their champion endorse Clinton and urge his supporters to vote for her in a great crusade to save democracy itself?

In this way, Sanders' capitulation--and that's what it would be if and when he calls for a vote for the very symbol of the status quo that he called on people to rebel against--can be cloaked in the gauzy rhetoric of unity against a bigot. This is what lesser evilism is likely to look like in 2016.

SO WHAT'S so wrong with voting for the lesser evil when the "greater evil" of Trump or Cruz would clearly be a disaster for working people?

Before we consider this question, let's clear a few red herrings out of the way.

The first of these is the standard liberal charge that socialists like us believe there are "no differences" between the Democrats and Republicans. No one on the left--and certainly not this newspaper--has ever made this claim. The U.S. political system works precisely because there are some differences between the two parties. It simply wouldn't be credible--nor would it be a recipe for election success--for the Democrats and Republicans to run on identical platforms.

But as the two governing capitalist parties in the U.S. political system, the Democrats and Republicans carry out the policies of the capitalist class. They differ on the details, not the overall aims--and their differences are actually smaller than what unites them.

If Republicans openly flaunt their favoritism toward the rich, the Democrats are, in the words of former Republican adviser Kevin Phillips, "the world's second most enthusiastic capitalist party." Meanwhile, the neoconservative "hawks" who flocked around former President George W. Bush worry that Trump won't fulfill commitments to U.S. imperialism--and so many have already said that they consider Clinton the candidate most committed to the imperialist project.

Another red herring is the claim that we're just against voting in principle. The counter is that voting only amounts to a few minutes of effort every few years, and we can spend the rest of our time building grassroots movements for change.

The problem with this argument is that if you're serious in believing that elections offer the hope of social change, then a "few minutes on Election Day" isn't enough. In fact, tens of thousands of people have devoted countless hours to getting out the vote for Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

This year, the AFL-CIO will spend millions of dollars to get out the vote for Clinton. Those millions could be spent, for example, organizing Wal-Mart workers into unions--which would have far greater impact on advancing organized labor's agenda. So the strategy of voting for the lesser evil does divert resources away from the real fights that need to be waged.

Socialist Worker isn't against voting in principle. What we oppose is working people throwing their votes away on candidates of a party that opposes them on major issues. Thus, those who want to see the U.S. get out of the Middle East or break Wall Street's stranglehold on economic policy won't find a champion in Clinton, an advocate for increased military intervention, whose Treasury Department is likely to be staffed with executives from the mega-hedge fund Blackrock.

To point out these pro-war, pro-Wall Street positions is not nitpicking. Even if--and it's a big if--Clinton might, say, pick more liberal justices for the Supreme Court than a Republican would, the price for the "lesser evil" is all of the rest of the decidedly less progressive policies that will come with a Clinton administration.

As Sanders' hero, the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, often said, it's better to vote for something you want and not get it, than to vote for something you don't want and get that.

But that's one of the traps of supporting the lesser evil. When movements fall behind candidates like Clinton, it weakens those involved. They get used to lowering their sights and putting the issues that are most important to them on the back burner.

If you think about it, Clinton has told voters to do just that--repeatedly--throughout the primaries. If you support health care as a right for everyone, Clinton has already told you that it's unrealistic to expect that from her administration.

MANY PEOPLE who agree with every argument raised above against supporting Clinton may still decide to vote for her--if only to prevent a Trump or Cruz from wreaking immediate damage on the tattered social welfare state and on civil liberties. Like the proverbial atheist who, wanting to hedge their bets against the possibility of an afterlife, asks to receive last rites before dying, many people will cast a vote for the lesser evil, just in case.

The fear of the greater evil is understandable. But is voting for the lesser of two evils really a strategy to even win "breathing space" to organize movements from below?

Consider Democrat Lyndon Johnson's election as a "peace candidate" in 1964. He was running against the reactionary and enthusiastically pro-war Republican Barry Goldwater, so many left voices decided to go "Half the way with LBJ." But once Johnson was elected, he escalated the war in Vietnam beyond anyone's worst nightmares. Those who voted for the lesser evil to stop the greater evil got a combination of both.

That outcome is more typical than not, as U.S. socialist Hal Draper explained in an important article titled "Who Going to Be the Lesser Evil in '68?" Draper referenced what he called the "classic case of lesser evilism": The 1932 election in Germany, when the Social Democrats encouraged a vote for extreme conservative Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to defeat Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party:

So the Lesser Evil, Hindenburg, won; and Hitler was defeated. Whereupon President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and the Nazis started taking over...the people voted for the Lesser Evil and got both [the greater and lesser evil]...This is exactly why 1932 is the classic case of the Lesser Evil, because even when the stakes were this high, even then, voting for the Lesser Evil meant historic disaster.

Draper's example is a dramatic one, but it illustrates the importance of understanding that the Democrats and Republicans are two wings of the same "property" party--and that they operate as such.

What about issues like abortion rights on which there are real differences between the two parties? For example, Democrats are at least committed to maintaining abortion as a legally available option for women, whereas the Republicans are committed to outlawing it.

Within the limited scope of the question, that much is true. But supporting Democrats just because they aren't as bad as Republicans demonstrates the poverty of expectations among liberals. Democrats like Hillary Clinton are responsible for giving up so much ground to the right on the issue of reproductive rights, which at every step has enabled the anti-abortion fanatics to push for more.

Plus there is the question of how legal abortion was won in the first place. The U.S. Supreme Court was packed with conservative appointees when it overturned laws banning abortion with its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision--and Richard Nixon, an ardent opponent of choice, occupied the White House. So what happened? The Supreme Court felt the pressure of thousands of women and men demonstrating for abortion rights in the preceding years.

As Draper notes elsewhere in his essay, when Democratic politicians are assured that the party's more liberal base will vote for them anyway, they spend most of their time moving to the right to win votes there. Thus, Clinton and her surrogates have already talked up a strategy of bringing "moderate Republicans" repulsed by Trump into the Democratic "big tent."

ONE OF the great Achilles' heels of the American left has been its failure to build a sustained political alternative to the Democratic Party.

Today it's common for most people and organizations that consider themselves on the "left" to be at least passive supporters of the Democratic Party. After the last great period of the flowering of left-wing organizations--the 1960s and early 1970s--many dedicated revolutionaries eventually found their way back to "progressive" politics through the vehicle of the Democratic Party.

Today--especially if the Sanders campaign serves the purpose that party leaders have always hoped it would--that will be the destination as well for at least some activists radicalized by movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy. Because of the failure to build a mass independent left alternative, the Democrats largely maintain the ability to define the left-most edge of the political spectrum under the two-party system.

We face the challenge of building grassroots organizations to fight effectively for working people's demands in many arenas of potential struggle. But we also face the challenge of building a mass political alternative to the Democrats. Postponing that task with attempts to "transform" the Democrats will only delay the day when working people can vote for something they actually want, rather than choose between "terrible" and "not as bad."

A socialist organization to connect today's fights--for higher wages, for health care, against racism, sexism and homophobia, and more--is key to the fight for a future socialist society.

And one of the first steps in building socialist organization is the one Debs advocated more than a century ago--to recognize that the Democratic Party is one of the chief pillars of the system perpetuating exploitation and oppression, and to build a socialist alternative to it.

Further Reading

From the archives