Lesser evil or Left alternative? In fact, this is not a true either/or. Our task is by definition to build a Left alternative. But this does not mean that we can ignore aspects of the existing framework that may facilitate or obstruct this effort. Whether or not this entails identifying and voting for a “lesser evil” depends on the immediate circumstances.
Marx himself encapsulated this understanding in 1849, in Prussia: “Where it is a struggle against the existing government, we ally ourselves even with our enemies.… Now, after the election, we again affirm our old relentless standpoint not only against the government but also against the official opposition.”
One year later: “everywhere workers’ candidates are put up alongside the bourgeois-democratic candidates”; and the workers “must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory.”
The first of those cases was one where the whole institutional framework was at issue. Here, Marx provisionally supported the “lesser evil.” Later, when the alternatives were less stark, he rejected the standard lesser-evil argument that we hear right down to the present day. (For a more extensive discussion, see Victor Wallis, “The ‘Lesser Evil’ as Argument and Tactic, from Marx to the Present,” Socialism and Democracy, no. 54, November 2010.)
Most generally, the key “lesser evil” questions are: 1. Under what conditions do we need to focus our attention on defensive – as opposed to proactive – steps? 2. Is the difference between the two “evils” more than superficial?
Turning to our present situation, let’s consider the second question first. I think it’s pretty clear that, in terms of setting the basic framework for national policy, i.e., at the national leadership level, the Democrats and Republicans present a scenario of consensus and continuity. This is deliberately hidden behind a kind of political theater in which Republicans try to outdo each other in aggressiveness and bigotry, thereby serving to make Democrat leaders with essentially similar core priorities – in the spheres of economy and empire – look reasonable and well-intentioned by comparison. A Democrat president is one who can thus implement the same policies as a Republican – if not even harsher ones – while not facing the level of popular protest that the Republican would provoke (see Josh Gerstein, “What if Bush had done that?” http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1009/28764.html ; also Glen Ford, “Why Barack Obama is the More Effective Evil,” http://open.salon.com/blog/addisonpg/2012/03/21/why_barack_obama_is_the_...).
Since the total political package, whichever party holds the top office, will always yield unsatisfactory outcomes, there will inevitably be a cyclical popular demand for “change.” But the Republicans keep a tight rein on what any Democrat president might do; then, when a Republican president takes over, popular protest broadens, and the Democrats seek to channel the mobilized anger back into support for their own camp.
This is not to deny that, given the loose organization of the parties, an occasional candidate may emerge within a particular district and advance an authentically progressive agenda under the Democrats’ umbrella. A notable case is the 2012 congressional candidacy of Norman Solomon (much of whose local support, in northern California, comes from Greens). But this is exceptional. Democrats in Congress are under great pressure to support the party’s national leadership on key issues, whatever their own priorities might be. This severely limits the scope of whatever progressive legislation they might advocate.
As for the other key question – that of when we should turn from primarily proactive to primarily defensive considerations – I would say: as little as possible. Here, however, I would distinguish sharply between what we do all year round and what we do as casters of a secret ballot under the already heavily constricted range of options that has been put in place by Election Day. Our year-round, 24/7 task is to build the Left alternative. Our momentary duty on election Day is to take stock of what we have accomplished, to amplify its impact if possible, but to acknowledge where we have fallen short and to cut our losses where necessary (e.g., by voting against candidates who would undo some of our earlier victories, ranging from free-speech protections to social security).
But such Election Day calculus must be understood as only a fleeting nod to the as-yet unbroken hold of the reigning duopoly. More generally, no matter what promises the Democrats or Republicans may be offering during the almost chronic electoral campaign, we should at no point stop working for whatever viable Left candidacy there may be (whether Green or socialist). We should do this because, quite apart from the question of which candidate has a chance of winning, the election campaign presents a unique opportunity to carry on educational work with audiences that are otherwise inaccessible. The Left should above all insist that any candidate embodying a significant sector of opinion be allowed to participate in all broadcast debates. But we should also seek to:
Secure ballot-access for the Left party in every state
Expand the franchise while opposing voter-intimidation and voter-ID laws
Expose electoral fraud, especially the manipulation of computerized vote-tallies
Advocate a more representative electoral system
The Left campaign, in addition to advancing its own position, can also, if sufficiently strong, put pressure on the Democrats to improve as well their policies on particular issues, thereby altering the immediate power-equation. Although this may at first strengthen the Democrats vis-à-vis the Republicans, its more important effect is to empower mass constituencies, enabling them more easily to look beyond the Democrats once they see that doing so is necessary to their further advances.
What we must make every effort to overcome is the impulse on the part of many mass organizations – including especially labor unions – to reflexively endorse Democrats. In so doing, they are not only marginalizing candidacies that may more accurately reflect the needs of their members; they are also weakening any leverage they might have with the Democrats themselves. The bane of the current electoral configuration is the assumption on the part of Democrats that workers (including especially people of color), whether organized or not, have nowhere else to go; Democrats can then safely ignore those constituencies once in office. Only if they fear losing them might such behavior change.
Thus, throughout the electoral season, no less than at any other time, we must do everything possible to build the Left alternative. We can recognize and explain the areas of difference between Democrats and Republicans. But our focus should be on those parties’ convergences. The Democrats have financial resources matching those of the Republicans even without trade-union contributions. Why should unions steer their members’ dues toward unresponsive Democrats when such resources could have a so much bigger impact if spent on giving visibility to progressive campaigns that would otherwise go unnoticed?
The US federal structure has a curious incidental effect on the “lesser evil” scenario. Although the electoral system is totally geared to lesser-evil calculus, this logic dissolves at the presidential level in those particular states in which, on the basis of survey-data, the victory of one or other of the capitalist parties can be anticipated with virtual certainty. This is well enough known but insufficiently emphasized in practice.
But what about the so-called “swing states”? Here again, I would still argue that a Left party should compete strenuously, for these reasons:
First, it is not clear that Left-party support is necessarily at the expense of votes that would otherwise go to the Democrats. It can come from people who, being disappointed with an incumbent Democrat, would otherwise not vote at all. It can also come from people who are so eager to repudiate the Democrats that, in the absence of a Left alternative that spoke to their material needs, they would be disposed to vote Republican.
Second, as already noted, a Left-party presence – especially if felt in the debates – could force Democrats to take progressive stances, thereby re-energizing erstwhile supporters who had become apathetic.
Third, it may in fact be the case that however much the Left candidacy might take votes away from the Democrats, an actual defeat for the Democrats would make less of a difference than is commonly supposed.
Finally, given the swing-state setting, if none of these admittedly uncertain dynamics appear to be operating, and if there is indeed a significant predictable negative consequence to a Republican triumph, then, purely at this last instant, those of us who commit all our efforts to building a Left alternative may have a momentary duty – for two minutes in the voting booth, as Howard Zinn put it – to cast, as a defensive measure and a reminder of the still unfinished struggle for hegemony, a lesser-evil vote.
This essay is based on panel presentation at the Left Forum, March 17, 2012.
Victor Wallis, a Somerville resident, is the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy.