Lesser Evil Voting and Prospects for a Progressive Third Party

Hillary Clinton’s victory over Donald Trump appears all but guaranteed at this point in history, short of some major meltdown on her part. Poll aggregators from Talking Points Memo and Real Clear Politics put Clinton up in national polling figures by seven to eight percentage points following the latest “revelation” that Trump is a misogynistic pig who harasses women.

With election day approaching, I thought it best to provide a comprehensive analysis of the stakes involved, in terms of what a Democratic victory will likely mean, and what possible alternatives there are moving forward regarding third party politics. The prospects for positive change, whether one is a Clinton or Green Party supporter, do not appear to be very good in my mind, minus a massive public uprising against the status quo.

First, liberal Clinton supporters should take a long, hard, critical look at what passes for “the left” in American Democratic politics. Hillary Clinton is one of the most unpopular candidates in modern history, contrary to the enthusiasm toward her candidacy I see among many academics. An August 2016 USA Today-Suffolk poll finds that only 27 percent of Clinton supporters are “excited” about their candidate, while much of the passion in this race is reserved for demonizing the other side. As USA Today’s poll found, 62% of Clinton supporters say they would be “scared” in light of a Trump victory.

And yet, it would be wrong to conclude that there isn’t significant delusion among many Clinton supporters regarding what her candidacy means for working people. August 2016 polling from the Pew Research Center finds that a plurality – 38 percent of Clinton supporters – feel that “the future of the next generation of Americans will be better compared with life today,” while another 28 percent say the future will be “the same,” and just 30 percent feel it will be “worse.” In other words, only a minority of Clinton supporters concede that the declining living standard of Americans that we’ve seen over the last four decades will continue following this election. Clinton supporters are at times quite starry eyed. For example, Katha Pollitt of the Nation magazine lists “12 Reasons to Vote for Hillary that Have Nothing to Do with Trump,” including promises that she is better on issues such as immigration, education, health care, and wages. Pollitt rejects the idea that Clinton is a “lesser evil” candidate, as does much of the milquetoast-liberal political, media, and intellectual establishment in America. These individuals have convinced themselves that she will lead the country forward into a brighter future.

Contrary to this “established wisdom,” short of a massive public uprising that completely upends the business-as-usual politics of the Democratic Party, things are going to get much worse for the average American under a Clinton presidency. I’ve never understood the willfully blind assumption that the Democratic Party is committed to aiding the poor, working class voters. This sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” naiveté is common in Democratic election ads and rhetoric, and in the mass media, but there is little evidence that the party has prioritized helping the masses in recent decades.

What I review below will not be news for most Counterpunch readers. But for those still harboring delusions about the Democratic Party’s track record under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, there’s little to celebrate. Despite promises to rein in Wall Street and fight or the average American, the Obama administration abandoned any commitment to passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which was vital to the re-unionization of America and the re-establishment of the middle class. The party pursued at best meager increases to the minimum wage, as its value has continued its long-term decline over the last eight years, due to inflation and the business sector’s commitment to gutting its value via pay cuts for average workers. The Democratic Party could have passed legislation to set the minimum wage on a path to its previous value of nearly $11 an hour (inflation-adjusted) reached in 1969 (or even a $15 minimum wage), and indexed the wage to inflation to ensure its continued vitality over time. But this was not a priority for party members. Nor was re-establishing the Glass-Steagall reforms from the Great Depression, the repeal of which (pursued by both parties under Bill Clinton) helped cause the 2008 economic crisis. Obama’s signature health care reform has blatantly failed in controlling health care costs – as this was never the goal of the corporate friendly reform. Instead, it handed tens of millions of new clients to the health insurance industry, refusing to institute meaningful price controls on health care premiums and other costs.
One can add to this history the Democratic Party’s record of militarism abroad, as seen in the continuation of the Afghanistan War long after the mass public demanded withdrawal, the further destabilization of Syria under a confused foreign policy that undermines both rebel groups and the Assad government, the dangerous military escalation against Russia following Putin’s 2014 Crimea annexation, the continued denial of due process to alleged terrorists at Guantanamo, and criminal drone attacks pursued across numerous countries. President Obama allocated more money to militarism, the pentagon budget, and foreign wars in his first four years in office than did George W. Bush in the first four years after 9/11, contrary to Democratic Americans’ delusion that he was the “anti-war” candidate.

Of course, one could go back even further, to the unashamed corporatism of Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party in the 1990s. Under NAFTA, the U.S. saw an intensification of the hollowing out of the manufacturing-based working class, with Public Citizen estimating as many as one million middle class jobs lost due to outsourcing to Mexico. Hillary Clinton’s involvement in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not encouraging for those who fear further outsourcing of manufacturing, contrary to her rhetoric during this election cycle that she opposes multi-national corporate investors’ rights agreements.

The central problem among those on the milquetoast left is that they take Clinton’s campaign promises to improve America for the middle and working class at face value, ignoring the actual life outcomes of Americans over the last four decades. Inequality grew dramatically in Bill Clinton’s America, as African Americans were criminalized under the “War on Drugs” – which disproportionately targeted young blacks for felony convictions, despite comparable drug use among whites and people of color. Along with growing racial inequality came increasing economic inequality. According to the Congressional Budget Office, during the 1990s the incomes of the top one percent of earners increased by approximately 150 percent, while incomes for the top 20 percent increased modestly, by approximately 40 percent, although we saw economic stagnation for the bottom 80 percent of Americans.

Inequality under Obama is higher than at any point in the last century. According to economist Emanuel Saez, between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent of income earners saw a 34 percent increase in income, while 95 percent of all income gains went to the top one percent as well. The median family saw a decline in their income of six percent between 2009 and 2014. The Sage foundation estimates that median family net worth declined from 2007 to 2013 by 43 percent, while the New York Times estimates that 75 percent of the loss came from the housing bubble collapse. This devastation on Main Street is juxtaposed with the affluence on Wall Street, as American corporations returned to pre-recession profits by 2010, and major corporations were posting record profits between 2010 and 2014, despite nearly non-existent economic growth and high unemployment and underemployment.

So if we know where a Clinton victory is taking us, what about possible electoral alternatives? Some Americans have understandably gravitated to third party choices such as Green Party candidate Jill Stein, in light of the party’s longstanding commitment to progressive politics. While the few Americans who vote Green will feel better in terms of taking a stand against the neoliberal bi-partisan duopoly, there is much unfounded romanticism among what’s left of progressive America concerning the Green Party and its electoral prospects. A simple question that should be asked of all progressives who frame Stein as a viable alternative to Clinton: precisely what has the Green Party managed to accomplish over the last decade and half outside of losing race after race in spectacular fashion? Many will downplay this reality in their promotions of Stein, but we must confront this failure if we want to build a real future that challenges the political status quo.

Why has the Green Party failed so horribly? There are many answers to this question, which we must take into account if we are not to delude ourselves about the prospects for change. The simplest answer is that the political system is rigged, and has been established to prohibit any meaningful third party victories, despite six in ten Americans agreeing in a 2015 Gallup poll that they want a major third party. And yet, despite record distrust of government, despite the toxic distrust of both Clinton and Trump, and despite the rapid growth of “independent” Americans, as the public gravitates away from self-identifying with the Democratic and Republican parties, voting for third party candidates is pathetically low. The reasons for the failure of these parties is multi-faceted, but most certainly includes the following:

The dominant political-cultural norm among most voting Americans that voting third party is akin to “throwing your vote away,” since these “spoilers” don’t have a realistic chance of winning. This mindset enables journalists to blackball third party candidates, thereby denying them the visibility needed to win elections. Most Americans are too lazy to look up the Green Party’s platform on their own, and their apathy shows on election day.

Restrictive state ballot access laws, which create artificially high roadblocks for third parties, requiring them to collect a greater number of signatures than Democratic and Republican candidates. When candidates fail to get on the ballot because of high signature requirements, there is no way they can win political office.

Lopsided fundraising that is dominated by Democrats and Republicans. This severe inequality in campaign donations is key, since the vast majority of candidates who spend more money on their campaigns prevail over their competitors. In our heavily mediated society, most Americans’ “interactions” with candidates are through the news, and citizens are reluctant to vote for third party candidates they know little to nothing about.

Rigged presidential debate rules, which mandate that third party candidates must poll at 15 percent public support prior to being invited to the debate. This threshold creates a Catch 22 in which third parties are damned no matter what they do. They can’t get into the debates because they lack the 15 percent public support, but they can’t secure 15 percent support because they can’t get into the debates.

A winner-take-all legislative system, in which a candidate must win an entire Senate or House race, or go home. This system heavily advantages major party candidates. Their dominance of election campaign finance means they can essentially buy election outcomes, while third party candidates are left with hat in hand, blackballed from the halls of political power. A shift to a proportional representation system, in which each party receives a certain number of legislative seats based on the percentage of votes they receive, would ensure at least some sort of representation for Green Party candidates – something they could build on in future elections. But there’s little prospect of this happening under the winner-take-all system.

Despite the romanticism of the Stein campaign among many on the left, the hard reality we must face is that the party has no chance of making inroads in the current rigged political-electoral system. If the party was on the path to successfully building a progressive, mass-based alternative party, we would have seen some indications by now, 16 years after Ralph Nader’s famous 2000 election run.

The failure of the Green Party, it should be noted, is also due in significant part to the inability of party members to organize on any serious level. My conversations with activists in the Green Party have left me with little doubt that the party is in no danger of building a progressive alternative to the Democratic Party in the near future. Based on these conversations, I’ve drawn the following conclusions. First, the Green Party’s “power structure” is in disarray. Little coordination takes place among the individual Greens running for national offices across the country, and many of the campaigns are essentially run ineffectively due to the amateur status of the candidates themselves.

Second, the Green Party’s commitment to challenging the Democrats and Republicans in state and local elections is weak-to-nonexistent. With the rigged nature of national electoral politics, one would think the Greens would have greater success focusing on the state legislative and local levels, but this has not happened. With the emphasis on national politics, the party’s state and local efforts are anemic. One Illinois activist I spoke with – who spent more than a decade organizing and running for offices as a Green Party candidate – explained: “It’s a sign of a party that doesn’t know what it’s doing when it fields more candidates for Congress than for state legislatures in a given cycle. Here in Illinois there has not been a single Green candidate for state legislature on the ballot since 2010…since most municipal offices are nonpartisan there is a perception that these aren’t seats that Greens should be targeting, which is absolutely the wrong way to be looking at them,” considering how effective conservatives were in their takeover of state and local politics tracing back to the 1960s onward. “It’s not like you’ll go to a Green meeting and talk about running in state political races and have people say they’re unwilling to mobilize to such an end. But there’s often very little skill and talent at these meetings. They don’t know what to do…It’s not so much that the party doesn’t focus on state and local as that the party doesn’t focus on anything. People run for things on their own. There’s no strategy. No planning.”

The failure to organize in state and local politics exists outside Illinois. As my Green friend explained, “You’ll see Greens claim that they really do run up and down the ballot and point to the hundreds of candidates running across the country. But this averages out to something like 4 or 5 candidates per state, and those numbers are highly inflated by just a couple of states, such as Texas, where all Green candidates for state legislature or statewide office are nominated at a single party convention, with no petitioning required, and no local organizing.”

For those who worry that I’m unfairly attacking the Green Party, I should point out that I’ve been committed to voting Green for much of my adult life, at least in elections in which I wasn’t so disillusioned that I skipped voting altogether. I do plan on voting for Jill Stein come November. But I don’t believe there are any ideal party choices in this election cycle or any other I’ve ever been a part of. The modern Democratic Party has betrayed the public so often that there’s little trust to draw on when it makes promises to the masses. But the Green Party has its own demons to deal with as well, and an honest assessment of the current electoral climate must recognize that the Green Party – at least as it is currently constituted – is not the solution to our problems.

I’ve never been one to claim that elections are the lynchpin to American democracy. I’ve always believed the opposite – that what happens in the streets in between elections is far more important than what happens come election time. It’s in social movements like “15 Now” – calling for a $15 an hour national minimum wage and the re-establishment of basic worker rights – and Black Lives Matter, that I see the most potential for progressive change. In light of the impending Clinton victory, the primary goal moving forward will be to look to the future free of naïve, starry-eyed trust that the Democrats will “handle things” once elected – and instead embrace an extra-electoral push for political, cultural, and economic transformation. Progressive transformation has never been based primarily out of the ballot booth, as countless social movement victories throughout the 20th and 21st centuries demonstrate.

But progressives should also realize that their holier than thou condemnations against progressives who feel Trump is even more dangerous than Clinton (and who vote accordingly) are extremely counterproductive. If leftists consider Stein voters to be the only acceptable people with whom they can work to promote positive change, then the movement for progressive change is already dead and buried. Those sympathetic to leftist causes should keep this in mind when they sanctimoniously condemn others for criticizing Trump or for lesser evil voting.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.