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The lesser-evil trap

Socialists and the 2020 election

The 2020 elections provide a unique challenge for the Left. We must both connect with the widespread hatred of Donald Trump and desire to see him ousted from the White House, and continue to pursue a strategy that leads us closer to a political alternative of our own. How to thread this needle has led to a firestorm of debate on the Left. In this contribution to that debate, Ashley Smith and Charlie Post argue that despite the indisputable greater evil in Donald Trump, the socialist Left undermines its own project when it campaigns for the lesser-evil, Joe Biden.

Donald Trump’s administration is in crisis. His catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, the global recession, and the Black-led multiracial working class uprising against police brutality and racism have turned popular opinion against him. Joe Biden appears headed for victory in the presidential election, and the Democrats may retake the Senate.

Nevertheless, the Democratic establishment is haunted by the defeat of their last “sure-win” candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. They are pulling out all the stops to pressure former Sanders supporters and others on the left to campaign for a candidate they rightly despise.

Socialists must resist the pressure to campaign for the “lesser evil” to stop the “greater evil.” This strategy has always led the left to surrender our movements and demands, enabling “lesser evils” to cut deals with the “greater evils,” and strengthen the far right who will appear as the only opposition.

We need to preserve our political independence and build our movements. The Black Lives Matter uprising scored more victories in a few weeks than decades of voting for the lesser evil. Such mass struggles remain the motor force for social change and popular radicalism as well as the basis for building socialist organization.

Bourgeoisie for Biden

The ruling class, which never fully supported Trump, is now deserting him. Whole sections of the bipartisan political establishment, the state bureaucracy, and capitalist class have switched their allegiance to Biden. They hope he and the Democrats will restore social peace at home and salvage Washington’s dominance abroad.

A growing layer of Republican centrists, like Mitt Romney and turncoats from Trump’s regime like former Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci, are backing Biden. Even the dark prince of the neocons, John Bolton, has promised to write in another Republican rather than vote for his former boss. He follows a long list of former “Trump Generals” who have since deserted the president and are increasingly vocal in their opposition.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic Primary debates.

The rich, too, are leaning toward Biden. As one banker told Vanity Fair, “The majority of my friends on Wall Street would like to see Trump lose to Biden. They’re saying, ‘We’d like to see Biden crush Trump.’”

So it should come as no surprise that at last count, Biden leads Trump in the race for billionaire donors by 106 to 93, and he has taken the lead in overall fundraising. With such ruling class support, Biden has surged to a double digit advantage in national polls and leads in key battleground states that tipped the electoral college for Trump in 2016.

Buyer Beware! The Lesser Evil is Evil!

There is no question that Trump is evil. His administration delivered tax cuts and deregulation for capital, set off a new cold war with China, staged conflicts with Iran and North Korea, doomed tens of thousands of people to unnecessary death by mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, and whipped up racism, Islamophobia and immigrant bashing. Now, as his administration enters its apparent death throes, Trump has reached new extremes of racist demagogy not seen since George Wallace or Richard Nixon.

As most of the left acknowledges, Biden is also evil. He helped destroy the welfare state, backed the appointment of right-wing judges, betrayed Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas hearings, supported countless free trade deals that came across his desk, fueled mass incarceration by voting for the Crime Bill, and championed nearly every war the United States has fought since Vietnam.

Today, he stands accused of rape by Tara Reade. Amidst the uprising against police brutality, he opposes the movement’s main demand to defund the police and, instead, supports spending more money on them. He even proposed a new training regime to teach cops “to shoot ‘em in the leg instead of the heart.”

The Trap of Lesser Evilism

Without a party of our own, the new socialist movement faces the devil’s choice between the two capitalist parties’ candidates in the presidential election. If we accept the terms of this “choice” and campaign for the lesser evil, it will compromise our independence, our demands, our movements—the very basis on which we win reforms today and prepare to abolish capitalism in the future.

The logic of lesser evilism leads the socialist left to suspend our fight against the Democrats, downplay our criticism of their policies, and repackage our support for them as somehow advancing the struggle. If and when the Democrats win, they take office with a weakened, disorganized and co-opted left and are able to impose their program—leaving the far right as the only consistent opposition.

The history of the 1930s and 1960s proves that, in Malcolm X’s words, “if you put the [Democrats] first, they put you last.” During the Depression, the Communist Party helped subordinate the militant workers struggle to the Democrats, preventing the formation of a labor party and opening the road to the employers’ offensive and Republican reaction after World War II.

Again, in the 1960s, much of the Black liberation and anti-war movements and the New Left supported Democratic lesser evils only to see the Democrats, led by Biden and others, turn on them, abandon the vestiges of the New Deal, consolidate neoliberalism, and embrace racist scapegoating, paving the way for the Republican Right. The lesser evil strategy always enables, rather than hinders, the growth of the right.

The Myth of Political Alchemy: Lead Cannot Be Turned into Gold

Liberals and social democrats reject this argument, claiming that by joining Biden’s campaign you can force him to adopt a progressive program. Today, Sanders has become the principal proponent of this position.

He has attacked the left as irresponsible for not backing Biden, disciplined his delegates to become uncritical supporters of Biden, and co-opted AOC and others to serve on joint task forces with Biden’s team. AOC, the rest of the squad, and most prominent elected DSA members—in violation of the spirit if not the letter of DSA’s “Bernie or Bust” resolution—have already publicly endorsed Biden.

This strategy has already failed. Sanders and AOC didn’t even get Medicare for All or the Green New Deal incorporated into their task force’s recommendations, and yet Sanders claimed on MSNBC that if Biden implemented this watered down agenda, he would become “the most progressive president since FDR.”

The business press is already crowing that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has had its wings clipped and can now be taken for granted. Put simply, the struggle for substantive reforms has already been set back by supporting Biden.

Supporting the Lesser Evil Will Not Stop Fascism

Max Elbaum is well aware of all this but argues that Trump threatens US democracy with white supremacy, authoritarianism, and creeping fascism. To stop this menace, he argues that the left must unite with Biden and the Democrats in a multi-class popular front. Elbaum promises that if we do, the socialist left will “be part of, and then ultimately lead, a coalition that governs and transforms the whole country.”

First of all, Trump is not a fascist dictator. However reactionary, he has not dismantled Congress, jailed opponents, or suppressed the opposition press. Nor does he have thousands of armed, organized private shock troops smashing union meetings and waging a reign of terror on the racially oppressed.

Unable to send Federal troops or other forces to quell the uprising because of opposition from Pentagon leadership and the repressive apparatus, Trump dispatched Federal border control marshals to Portland and Chicago – to the near universal condemnation of the political establishment. Of course, their opposition reeks of hypocrisy, as many Democratic mayors, like Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, have deployed their local police forces to repress protests and justify their brutality in the name of controlling “anarchists” and “vigilantes.”

That said, Trump has certainly encouraged and enflamed the developing networks of white supremacist and fascist networks, which are a real and growing threat. But, as history demonstrates, you cannot stop the far right by voting for the capitalist establishment.

Two examples prove the point. In Germany, the Social Democrats supported General Paul von Hindenburg for President in the 1932 election to prevent the Nazi’s rise, only to see Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. During the 1930s in Spain, the Communist Party held back the socialist revolution and supported the capitalist Republic against Franco, and, in doing so, demoralized their working class and peasant supporters and lost to the fascists.

Today, there is no reason to expect the Democratic Party to fight state authoritarianism or the institutions of white supremacy. Remember, they collaborated with Republicans to pass the Crime Bill and Patriot Act, built the enormous police forces in cities they rule, and deployed them to suppress Occupy in 2011 and the Black Lives Matter occupations in New York City and Seattle over the past few months.

And far from winning influence by backing Biden, the left will be co-opted and weakened. While he may appoint a progressive or two, he will not enact even a watered down program, but implement the one pushed for by Wall Street.

Our best bet to challenge authoritarianism and white supremacy is building on the Black Lives Matter uprising, which won immediate victories through militant protest. The worst thing we could do is derail this movement into Biden’s campaign.

Can We Campaign for Biden and Organize Against Him?

Barbara Ransby argues a far more sober strategy. She calls Biden “close to the worst” candidate imaginable, unflinchingly itemizes his right-wing record and positions, and argues that the movement should have no illusions that he will be an ally in the White House.

Despite this, she argues that while “we cannot be cheerleaders and apologists for neoliberal politicians like Biden, … we cannot endure four more years of Trump.” Her solution to the lesser evil dilemma is to “vote against Trump and organize against Biden.”

In this spirit, she calls on activists to mobilize under the banner “Dump Trumpism” to support Biden’s campaign “through voter education, fighting safe and accessible voting by mail, virtual door knocking and mobilizing in key states.” But, can you campaign for Biden and organize against him at the same time?

We think not. Campaigning for Biden leads away from fighting his policies and, if he wins, his new administration. Why? First, participation in the Biden campaign will divert all the best activists out of the struggle to turn out the vote for someone who opposes everything we’re fighting for.

Second, supporting Biden will lead to political adaptation. Once you campaign for a candidate, you must present them in the best possible light to motivate people to vote for them. Adept at entrapping the left, the Democrats will happily supply the talking points, delivered not by Biden, but Sanders who is already spinning Biden as a progressive.

Thus, if you deprioritize movement organizing to support Biden and give him a political facelift to justify it, it will be almost impossible to mobilize mass protests to fight for our demands right at the start of his administration. You cannot successfully oppose and support a candidate at the same time.

Not an Individual Choice

The last line of defense for supporting Biden as a lesser evil is the claim that voting is just an individual decision and does not take any time away from organizing the resistance. While that may be true for some activists in the voting booth, it is not the case for the major institutions of working and oppressed people—the unions, social movement organizations, and NGOs.

They are already making Biden’s election their top strategic priority and will spend hundreds of millions of dollars as well as countless paid and volunteer hours on his campaign just as they have done for Democrats for decades. For example, trade unions spent $217 million on the 2016 election and will shell out similar amounts this year.

The left must challenge this collective waste of our resources, regardless of what individuals do at the ballot box. Socialists, particularly DSA, should agitate for the mass organizations of our side to spend our time, money, and energy on building struggle.

If we do not, and instead back voting for Biden as a lesser evil, we also confirm a limited vision of capitalist democracy—that elections are the way to change the world. This is especially dispiriting at a moment when we have a living counterexample—the recent uprising that won victories through mass struggle.

The left needs to prioritize building this and other non-electoral battles to win immediate improvements in people’s lives and prepare our forces to fight against a Biden administration.

Without Struggle There is No Progress

Underneath these various lesser evilest arguments is the misconception that elections are the key to social change. Elections, however, have never been the key to winning reforms, let alone revolution.

The real determinant of social change is the level of independent, militant and sometimes illegal class and social struggle. That’s how workers and oppressed people scored our greatest victories, especially in the 1930s and 1960s.

Clearly, socialists need to contest elections when we can with candidates of our own and on our own ballot line. That’s why we advocate voting for Howie Hawkins, despite the problems of the Green Party, as a protest vote and alternative to the dead end of lesser evilism.

We also support independent socialist campaigns in the big “one party” cities and towns where we cannot be accused of being spoilers. We must raise this alternative electoral strategy in the uprising, strikes, and other social movements as a compliment to, not substitute for, those struggles.

Whether or not socialists support Hawkins, we need to organize discussions about the formation of a new socialist party that can lead struggles from the workplace to the streets and ballot box against the two capitalist parties. We need a party of our own to guide what will be the fight of and for our lives.

No Honeymoon for a Biden Presidency!

Our top priority from now until November must be building the anti-racist uprising and working class resistance to “reopening the economy” in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Facing a global recession and fiscal crises in federal, state, and local governments, we are headed for the deepest attacks on working class and oppressed people in living memory that will produce mass unemployment, homelessness, and hunger.

Political independence from both the capitalist parties must be the north star that guides the left—especially if Biden wins the presidency. The new socialist left needs to argue that the unions and social movements deny him any honeymoon like the one Obama received. Instead, we need to confront Biden with mass struggle for our demands from day one.

The capitalist establishment will try to create a “government of national unity” under Biden, bringing Republican and Democratic centrists as well as co-opted progressives into his cabinet. This sort of administration will “restore normalcy”—implementing a program of neoliberal and imperial restoration, albeit with a few bones (a health care “public option”) thrown to us here or there.

If the left is not on the streets at the start of a Biden administration, the lathered up far right will be the only opposition, determined to fight for its program of racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia. Rather than resisting them, Biden will cut a deal with their ilk in the GOP like he has done countless times in the past.

Our only hope amidst the horror of our epoch is our own independent struggle against both the lesser and greater evil.

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Ashley Smith and Charlie Post View All

Charlie Post teaches sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY, is active in the faculty union at the City University of New York, and is a member of the NYC Labor Branch of Democratic Socialists of America.

Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.