Battle Strategically Everywhere: Response to Hawkins Reply to Open Letter

Howie Hawkins sent ZNet his on-topic and very welcome reply to the Open Letter to the Green Party, and of course we published it immediately. There have been other reactions to the Open Letter as well, some of which, hopefully written in haste, have mis-read or perhaps not even read the letter at all, attributing to it claims and preferences never uttered and of course not held. Other respondents have simply dismissed its actual argument by calling its authors shills for the Democratic Party, left liberals at work, or worse. In fact, the letter was offered in hopes of engendering a discussion of its substance but also also in hopes of warding off misreadings and personal disparagement that only deflect from real substance. Hawkins has himself admirably contributed to that same mutually respectful aim. And here is a further discussion entry also seeking to contribute to that aim even while addressing the actual substantive disagreements.

Key points of disagreement between Howie Hawkins and familiar Green Party electoral policy on the one hand, and the authors of the Open Letter, including myself, on the other hand, seem to be how much damage Trump’s reelection would do; whether Green policy choices can significantly affect Trump’s chances; and how much it would cost the Green Party to adopt a new approach.

Of course the battle for justice, ecological survival, peace, equity, racial and gender liberation, and all forms of progressive gain involves every state, as Hawkins indicates. But even with a strategy that treats about 40 safe states one way, and about 10 swing states a different way, as the Open Letter proposes, the Green candidate could go to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and the rest of the swing states and campaign for the Green Program, for whatever Green local candidates are running, and for a better future. The change the Open Letter proposed, as Hawkins correctly perceived, is not for a Green candidate, still to be chosen, to not run at all, but only for a Green candidate and Green Party activists to urge voting for Trump’s Democratic Party opponent in swing states. That would be a change, yes, but far less of a change than some seem to think the signers sought. “Greens in every state” could still have, as Hawkins says they want, “a presidential candidate who campaigns in their states in support of their local candidates and causes.”

Hawkins’ criticism of the Democratic Party, of the overall social and electoral system, and his highlighting the risks of ecological disaster are all echoed by the Open Letter signers, as Hawkins himself acknowledges. Likewise for Hawkins’ view of the value of running and winning local elections all over the country. There is no significant dispute about any of that. How some can read the Open Letter, even knowing nothing of its authors, and not see that is hard to understand, but perhaps this reply to Hawkins will dispel such confusions.

And the Open Letter, of course, didn’t say don’t run, or don’t advance the Green Party Program. Quite the contrary. The letter, instead, asked a simple and limited question: Is it strategically wise to risk aiding, and perhaps even being pivotal to a Trump reelection, by seeking presidential votes in swing states, rather than seeking to stop Trump in those pivotal states?

By way of actual disagreement, it seems like Hawkins is saying there is nothing very unusual about 2020 whereas the Open Letter signers assert there is something very unusual about 2020. In this election, the world is literally at risk. To give Trump four more years and a sense of invincibility because his lying, odious behavior, and heinous policies involved for him no cost will further embolden and unleash him. And, yes, as Hawkins points out, neither Biden nor any other typical Democrat is going to bring on full justice and comprehensive sanity. They will be usual business as usual. And while that is true, and of course well known to the Open Letter’s authors, it in no way counters the claim that the gap between what even a typical Democrat will seek to do, and what a reelected Trump will actually do, is enormous. It shouldn’t need stating that to recognize such a difference does not mean that one has lost a lifetime of clarity and suddenly become a shill for the Democratic Party.

And, of course, Hawkins himself doesn’t “refuse to recognize the special danger of Trump” or say there is “no difference between Democrats and Republicans,” much less call us shills, or the like. But other Greens certainly have done so. Hopefully, Hawkins agrees that to do so in 2020 is wrong.

But what is in fact different about Trump isn’t only that he is a horribly bad man, with a horribly bad agenda, it is also the nature of the constituency he appeals to and agitates. And it is that he is President now and perhaps for another four years while the nuclear buildup he advocates, ecological decline he denies and fuels, and rising Fascistic trends abroad and in the U.S. he promotes, threaten civilized existence. More, Trump isn’t a horror simply because of his horrible agitations and the vile hatreds they inspire, but also because of the personnel and structural changes he is imposing throughout the government. Four more years of that regarding even solely nuclear and climate choices, much less also equity and race and gender relations, and where will humanity be at?

Hawkins says, “Recognizing the danger of Trump does not mean that electing any damned Democrat should trump all other considerations.” That is true. Other considerations that should not be trumped in 2020 include, for example, trying to not get “any damned Democrat,” but to instead get one aligned with awakening trends toward fundamental change in the country, which is to say, Sanders. Perhaps Greens should consider helping achieve that during the primary period. I would guess that many are. But that is a different subject than the single issue the Open Letter explicitly addressed.

Likewise, recognizing the danger of Trump also doesn’t mean that everyone should set aside all other activity during the campaign season, either. For one thing, even with Sanders elected, as he repeatedly acknowledges, movements will matter, so building independent movements should not be set aside. And, of course, that is all the more true if someone else wins. So the incredible danger of Trump warrants acting to defeat Trump, but also to do so in the best ways we can for advancing social understanding and commitment in general, and for developing grassroots power to apply after the election. I suspect every leftist would agree on that; disagreement arises in how we apply the insight.

Hawkins says, “The Democrats might beat Trump, but they won’t beat Trumpism because they have enabled it.” And he elaborates, “In office the Democrats join the Republicans to support the basic policies that the capitalist class cares about: neoliberal economic austerity at home and neoconservative imperialism abroad.” And, yes, that is true, as the nine authors of the Open Letter have for decades attested — so if some typical Democrat wins, movements will still have to fight fiercely. But a key point is that in that case they will be fighting for positive gains and not just to ward off unthinkably hellish catastrophes due to having Trump still in office. On the other hand, if Sanders wins, and keeps his unwavering lifetime commitments, then activists will have an ally in the White House, not an opponent.

And, yes, the Democratic Party apparatus, as well as mainstream media and corporate centers of power, are going to try to block Sanders by every means at their disposal. Perhaps Greens should think about how to assist Sanders overcoming that.

Hawkins writes, “The signers note that I say in my article that “Greens want to get Trump out as much as anybody.” Then the signers ask “how can that be if Greens would vote for a Green candidate, and not for Sanders, Warren, or any Democrat in a contested state knowing that doing so could mean Trump’s victory.”

Hawkins answers that it “can be because there are stronger ways to fight Trump than depending on the Democrats.” But of course it isn’t a question of “depending on Democrats,” it is a question of voting Trump out. And how can voting him out possibly not be a viable and effective way to “get Trump out.” “Four more years” has never been a scarier slogan.

Hawkins’ criticisms of the impeachment project are on target, as are his concerns about how the Democratic Party establishment has enabled Trump. But these too are not areas of dispute.

Hawkins says, “The left is more powerful when it makes its demands independently of either pro-corporate, pro-war party. Instead of depending on the soft-right Democrats to fight the hard-right Republicans, the most effective way to fight the right is to build an independent left movement and party with its own program, actions, and candidates. Instead of futilely begging the politicians of the lesser evil between the two capitalist parties to say and do the right things, the left should speak to the public for itself and build its own independent power.”

I wonder who is proposing that the left beg Democrats? Of course pushing against power is essential. But urging voting in swing states to remove Trump isn’t depending on, and doesn’t imply depending on, whoever beats him. It is just taking from Trump the powers of the Oval Office as a partial contribution to moving forward instead of backward.

Hawkins writes, “Greens vote to make politicians meet our demands if they want our votes. We vote to show people who agree with our demands that they are not alone. We don’t waste our votes affirming Democrats like Clinton who exemplified the elite consensus for the neoliberal economics and neoconservative imperialism that has given us unabated global warming, growing economic insecurity, and endless wars. We used our vote for Jill Stein to demand a Green New Deal, improved Medicare for All, a job guarantee, student debt relief, ending US military aggression, and fair elections.”

It is tempting to say, how did that go? But, more substantively, recent progress on all these fronts seems to owe a great deal to the Democratic candidate, Sanders, and less so but still significantly to the other progressive candidate, Warren, and increasingly to the young Democratic Party dissidents as well. And, of course, most of all to grassroots radical organizing of the sort the Open Letter authors have supported and engaged in for decades. But more to the immediate point, it doesn’t affirm someone to say hold your nose and vote for him or her and then organize tirelessly to force him or her to implement positive gains he or she will otherwise try to block.

Hawkins says, “The climate crisis is a prime reason why Greens don’t support Democrats.” He then points to the correct fact that Obama was no great friend but an enemy of the earth. And that is certainly true. But Hawkins doesn’t mention that Trump is a climate apocalypse in the making, so that beating him and then of course fighting on is essential. Nor does he acknowledge that voting against Trump in swing states isn’t supporting Democrats. Even voting for Sanders there, and everywhere, should we win that option, would be supporting Sanders, not “supporting Democrats.” More, advocating voting against Trump in swing states doesn’t say that one merely wants to return to business as usual, or that one respects our stacked deck electoral procedures, much less that one is a supporter of or even a shill for the Democratic Party – -and this is so even if the opponent one has to nauseatingly advocate voting for is Clinton last time or Biden this time. It just recognizes that getting rid of an imminent threat to planetary survival is one part of and indeed likely a precondition for getting rid of business as usual. We want to but haven’t yet eliminated the electoral college. We want to but have not yet won ranked voting. We want to but have not yet won all kinds of feminist, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian and other gains, but have not yet attained them. Many of us want eco-socialism or participatory socialism, but have not yet accomplished it. That is our world in 2020. In that world, the one we inhabit, seeking those and more gains, what should be done in the coming election in swing states? That was the Open Letter’s focus.

Hawkins says, “Yes, let’s be realistic. The Democrats are not going to bring us Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, or deep cuts in the war budget. Progressive Democrats are allowed to make speeches. But the corporate Democrats make the decisions.”

This is a broadly true claim, when made by Hawkins, or when made by Chomsky or Cagan or Daniels or Ehrenreich, or me, or the other signers for decades, except for two things I and I think the other signers would all add. One, movements can force different results. And two, in 2020, and for decades, Sanders has been a movement ally, not an opponent, in the fight for change.

In any event, no one is saying Greens (or anyone) should “wait for the Democrats.” The Open Letter argues instead that there is no need for any Green Party member or candidate to do anything other than they would have done, except in swing states. There it urges not risking contributing to a calamitous reelection of Trump, and if possible seeking to help prevent it. Since Sanders arguably has the best prospects of accomplishing not only removing Trump from office, but also expanding grassroots forces seeking real change. Arguably one could read the open letter as also implicitly supporting working for him get the nomination, but the letter’s explicit focus was solely the Presidential campaign in swing states.

Hawkins says “We are running out of time to address the life-or-death issues of the climate crisis, the nuclear arms race, and the growing economic inequality that has become a survival issue for working people whose life expectancies are now declining in this country.” This is the view of the Open Letter, too, of course.

Then Hawkins says, “We don’t have time to march in place with a safe states strategy to elect a lesser evil Democrat. If the Democrats again give us a dismal choice between a corporate Democrat and Trump, and lose again because they cannot get their natural base out to vote for them, it will be their fault, not the Greens’.”

Why is it “marching in place” to not run for votes in roughly ten swing states but to instead campaign there for a Green Program and against a possible apocalypse, and to create momentum and if possible lasting organization for fighting on after the election? Why isn’t that, instead, strategically battling in those states in a way appropriate to their role in what shapes up to be the most important election in U.S. history? More, what if organizing and hard work compel the Democrats to have Bernie Sanders as their candidate? What happens then in swing states? Is Green policy unchanged, or strategic battling?

Finally, and centrally to his defense of a Green candidate seeking votes in all states, Hawkins claims that the Green Party would pay a price if it changes its policy in swing states. Okay, but if so, as the Open Letter asked, where is an argument that that price outweighs the price that everyone, including Greens, will pay for reelecting Trump and enduring the ensuing mayhem?

It is hard to fully determine what the potential price for the Green Party of a safe state approach is, much less to see why that price outweighs the potential price for the world of a Trump re-election. Hawkins has indicated that the price for the Green Party is mainly loss of ballot access due to not running a candidate in swing states and therefore not getting required levels of votes in those states to retain a ballot line there. But Hawkins’ website points out that the Green Party currently has ballot access in 21 states, which means it lacks access in 30, including DC. More, on his website I also found that among those places the Green Party doesn’t have ballot access are Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Virginia, which are all potential swing states in 2020. Does this mean that Stein’s choice to run in those states in 2016 didn’t manage to win ballot access? It seems like it. And in that case, is it true that existing access won’t be lost by changing the approach for this election? And for that matter is it likely that new access would be gained by seeking votes in swing states? Finally, Hawkins’ website indicates that petition campaigns are underway or planned in all 30 instances where the Green Party doesn’t have access. More, it indicates that the Green Party will likely gain access via those petition campaigns. Does this mean that regarding ballot access, petitioning is fundamental, not running in every state?

So does the cost to the Green Party of not seeking presidential votes but instead campaigning for its platform and to build grassroots strength for post-election activism in swing states comes down to certainly having to petition next time, which they may have to do in any event, as they do now, despite Stein’s running hard in those states? Does seeking to avoid petitioning that the Green Party might have to do anyhow, as it is doing now, outweigh the dangers of risking Trump winning enough swing states, despite losing the popular vote, to remain President?

And, yes, as every reply criticizing the Open Letter emphasizes, if Trump does win that many swing states it will mean the Democratic candidate and strategy failed because it was more concerned with blocking progressive gains than with removing Trump. And, yes, it will mean that the Democratic Party will therefore have been incredibly at fault, just as they were incredibly at fault in 2016. But I have to wonder, why do people think that that correct observation, no matter how many times it is repeated, indicates in any degree at all that Green Party policy, if different in 2016 or if changed in 2020, might not have made and might not make a critical difference?

If, as it seems, and as Hawkins would likely agree, the central difference and dilemma between the open letter signers and past and possibly future Green policy, is judging relative costs and benefits of possible modest Green losses from not seeking presidential votes in swing states against possible infinite world losses if Greens don’t work to block those states’ tallies contributing to Trump winning. Is there really a choice for leftists? It seems so, as there are leftists still on both sides. And so the question remains, what is good electoral policy this time around, for the Green Party and also for everyone else?

Michael Albert is the co-founder of ZNet and Z Magazine.