US elections: “Where the choice is between the greater evil and the lesser evil, you still get evil”

 The primary races for presidential nominations in the US elections are now reaching their closing stages. That Bernie Sanders’ campaign has survived to such a late stage, and gained significant support has been a surprise to many. To understand what impact the primary race has had on American politics so far, and what we might expect in the run up to the November election we’ve asked socialists in the US for their thoughts. First up are responses from Elizabeth Schulte and Alan Maass from, look out for further responses in the coming days. 

Photo: Michael Vadon/flickr
Photo: Michael Vadon/flickr

Where now for the Sander’s campaign – will it manage to sustain itself until the end of the primary season? What about at the convention and beyond?

The die is pretty much cast: Bernie Sanders was far more successful in the Democratic presidential primaries than anyone expected, but Hillary Clinton will have more than enough delegates to win the nomination at the party convention this summer, barring something totally unforeseen.

Sanders has said that he’ll continue to campaign through the end of the primaries, and he certainly should. The pro-Clinton apparatchiks who are demanding that Sanders drop out are just trying to limit further damage to their candidate from losing primaries to someone who actually stands for what Democratic voters believe.

But it’s clear that both sides have begun to accept that Clinton will win. Sanders reportedly laid off large numbers of campaign staff this past week – a sign of a shift toward gaining symbolic concessions from the party, like planks in the party’s non-binding platform approved at the convention.

To the extent that Sanders continues in this direction, it will be a prelude to the big question that was bound to come: when Clinton is the nominee, will Sanders urge support for the very symbol of the political status quo that he called for a rebellion against? Sanders has said all along that he would, and there’s no reason to doubt him.

And that’s the problem, as far as revolutionary socialists are concerned. Sanders called for a “political revolution,” but he wants it to take place within the confines of the two-party system – specifically, within the Democratic Party, which is institutionally dedicated to upholding that system.

Up until now, the limitations of Sanders’ “revolution” haven’t been so obvious – especially when he was taking on Clinton with sharp criticisms and delivering a frank left-wing message. But that phase of the election is ending, and a new one is starting.

Progress toward the (mostly) progressive agenda that Sanders put forward and further mobilisation of the large numbers of people energised by his campaign and inspired to take action will now run up against the Democratic Party, its presidential candidate and all the political figures who want to confine political activism inside it.

And unfortunately, Bernie Sanders will be on the wrong side in that conflict. Some on the left believed there was a chance that he and his campaign would lead a break from the Democrats, but that was always extremely unlikely.

The Sanders campaign will have an important and positive long-term effect in having defined another face of the radicalization to the left that has been underway for several years. But building on that upsurge will require going outside the boundaries of the two-party system.

Will Sanders’ supporters simply translate into votes for Clinton in the general election?

There have been a few polls asking that question, the latest one reporting that some one in four Sanders supporters wouldn’t vote for Clinton in the general election. This says something about the enthusiasm that Sanders supporters have for their candidate – and the complete lack of enthusiasm for the party establishment’s anointed choice.

But as the election comes closer, the pressure will mount for these Sanders supporters to change their minds. The Democratic Party will turn up the heat on them to set aside their raised expectations for change – and replace them with support for the “lesser evil” to defeat whatever maniac the Republicans nominate.

And the fact is that Sanders himself will be making the case to vote for Clinton – again, he’s said as much. He’s running as a Democrat who will take up progressive issues that differentiate him from Clinton, but he never intended his campaign to serve as an alternative to the Democratic Party.

In the end, most people – probably a large majority – will bite the bullet and vote for Clinton. But some will refuse to support her and look toward building an alternative, even if this isn’t seen as “realistic” for the current election.

One of the important things for people who are trying to rebuild the left in the U.S. is that a whole layer of people will come through this experience with a different sense of what should be expected from political leaders – and of the limitations of a two-party system where the choice is between the “greater evil” and the “lesser evil.” In the end, you still get evil.

What should socialists do when faced with a Trump (or Cruz) vs Clinton match up in the general election?

It’s a dismal picture, isn’t it? As is the case in most election years, the Democratic Party will try to get out the vote not on the basis of a positive vision, but amping up the fears of what Republicans will take away if they get into office.

The possibility of Donald Trump in the White House – an anti-immigrant, Islamophobe, sexist, billionaire TV personality – is a particularly frightening prospect. There will be a lot of pressure, especially on activists. For example, people standing up against the epidemic of racist police murders in the U.S. will be told to ignore Clinton’s support for a law-and-order agenda that helped cause the problem, because no matter what, she’s better than Trump.

The problem with this logic is that it allows Clinton and the Democrats to go as far to the right as they want, knowing that the left will vote for them. As Malcolm X said of the Democrats in a 1964 speech. “You put them first,” he said, “and they put you last.”

That makes it important for socialists to not only know Clinton’s rotten record – her past support for punitive crime policies, welfare “reform” that gutted the social safety net, her hawkish foreign policy stances – but the record of the Democratic Party itself. Its history as “the graveyard of social movements” is one of telling activists to shut up and support them during the election season because of the threat of the Republicans.

We have to continue building struggles strong enough that neither wing of the political establishment can ignore them and fight for left-wing politics independent of the Democratic Party. The Sanders campaign has shown that there’s an interest in socialist politics and an opportunity to build socialist organization in the U.S. But the outcome of the campaign makes it clear that this must take place independent of the Democrats.

It seems like there has been a shift in American politics because of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy – will this be sustained outside of the electoral cycle? How? How is, or will it be, reflected in workplace organising, unions, campaigns etc?

The Sanders campaign – with its message about the consequences of corporate greed and the need to challenge the gap between rich and poor – has given an electoral expression to a sentiment that had been building for some years.

With the Sanders campaign in full swing, there were plenty of opinion polls showing the popularity of socialist ideas, especially among younger people. Sanders is directly responsible for some of that surge in interest, but not all of it.

There has been a growing frustration with the status quo – decades of attacks on the working class, while political leaders remain completely removed from people’s day-to-day struggles and concerns. The Sanders campaign has been one way for that sentiment to find a voice. It’s not surprising to see that Sanders got a warm welcome from Verizon workers walking the picket line in New York City.

The opposition to injustice and oppression has been expressed in other important ways – the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011; the uprising in Wisconsin and the occupation of the state Capitol building earlier in 2011; the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012. It also showed itself in the streets of U.S. cities like Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago when protesters have shined a light on the everyday violence of police.

The Sanders campaign will give this resistance a boost, and it will help define the politics of coming struggles in important ways, especially in having raised the prominence of socialism. But it’s important to realise there was a lot to build on already.

It seems (from afar) that there’s been a lot more exposing of the undemocratic nature of primary system, super-delegates for example –  will anything change for future elections?

More people than ever know about the Democrats’ “superdelegates” – the party insiders and officeholders who get to come to the nominating convention and vote for whoever they want, regardless of the wishes of voters. Sanders supporters are bitter about how the party machinery was used against their candidate, and the party operatives who used it.

But don’t expect anything to change. The only candidate of either party who genuinely wants to make the system more democratic is Sanders, and he’s going to lose the nomination – which means his power to force changes within the Democratic Party is pretty much zilch.

The party system was shaken up by the social struggles of the 1960s – above all, following the chaos at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, when Mayor Richard Daley, one of the quintessential Democratic machine bosses, ordered his cops to riot against antiwar protesters.

But the more open nominating system established in the Democratic Party after 1968 lasted about one presidential election – long enough for the liberal senator George McGovern to win the party’s presidential nomination in 1972. A few election cycles later, the reforms to the primary system had been taken back – this is when the superdelegates were created – or blunted, and the party elite was back in control.

All this is a lesson in an essential fact about the Democrats: The institution is stronger than the individuals.

Sanders seems to have done better in more rural areas, when its often felt that cities are where most activism seems to take place – how do you explain this, what hopes and challenges does it present for future organising? Relatedly, how would you explain how well Clinton has done among black voters?

There are a lot of factors to talk about here.

The more important statistic to know about the Sanders campaign isn’t the number of rural states it won, but that its voting base was overwhelmingly young. Sanders regularly won more than 80% of the votes of people under 30, which is pretty incredible.

Sanders won states with smaller populations because he was able to leverage this youth enthusiasm and make it a bigger part of the turnout. It’s not so much that the rural vote came out for him, though he did have a class appeal that won him support outside the Democrats’ traditional big-city bases. But in the Iowa caucuses, for instance, the biggest reason that Sanders could battle Clinton to an upset tie was because he trounced her in the state’s university towns.

This is something that isn’t always appreciated about this election: turnout in the Democratic primaries was much lower than the party’s last contested race in 2008. That year, excitement about the chance to vote for the first Black president drove record turnouts. This time around, the Sanders surge was smaller. It was more intense and more politically radical, but in bigger states, the established Democratic Party apparatus outweighed it, and Clinton had the advantage.

Also, Sanders did best in state’s that had “open” primaries – where you didn’t have to be registered for one or the other parties to vote in the primary. Sanders was able to win independents suspicious of both mainstream parties and also working people who ought to be part of the Democratic base, but who have never been mobilized before.

But in New York, for example, because of the closed primary rules, voters who hadn’t previously registered as a Democrat had to change their affiliation six months before the election to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. The result was that the turnout was weighted to traditional Democratic voters who were most likely to be influenced by the party machine.

Then there’s Clinton’s strong support among Black voters, even though she doesn’t deserve it in the least. Again, there are a few factors at work.

It is true that Sanders’ political agenda has historically been focused on class and economic issues, at the expense of issues of oppression. He did respond to this shortcoming – he and his campaign began to speak powerfully on issues of police violence and Trump’s anti-immigrant bigotry. But the fact is he was a political unknown to most African American voters before this election.

Clinton also had the nearly unanimous support of African American leaders in the Democratic Party. This is despite she and her husband’s role in promoting policies that, for example, set off the mass incarceration boom – and for her position in the conservative wing of the party that, from the 1990s onward, has been intent on distancing the Democrats from civil rights and anti-racist issues.

Some of the Black Democrats may have been drawn to Sanders’ political stances – but not enough to defy the infamous wrath of the Clintons that’s directed at any party leader who crosses them.

As, among others, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor described in her must-read book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, a conflict is developing between these Black Democratic political figures and the mass of the African American community. It was apparent in the surge of radical Black Lives Matter activism that was beyond the ability of traditional Democratic and civil rights leaders to control.

But if you look at Clinton’s dominance in winning the Black vote, it’s clear that this conflict is still uneven and developing.

Another piece of the puzzle is the continuing popularity of Barack Obama among African Americans. There is a growing awareness that the first Black president did very little positive for the Black community, and did a lot more harm. But a lot of people blame the fanaticism of the Republicans who obstructed the Obama administration at every turn, rather than Obama’s mainstream political agenda and compromising attitude.

That feeds support for Clinton, who is seen as the heir apparent of the Obama administration. Sanders was unable to unwind the association between the two. But the political and social issues that his campaign highlighted are still in the spotlight, and the left in U.S. has the opportunity to draw out the clear and critical connections between struggles against racism and oppression and struggles against corporate power and capitalism.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here