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The Imminent Threat of Trump and the Value of Progressive Third Parties

As predictable as death and taxes is the quadrennial injunction from liberals for progressive third parties to cease and desist. Equally predictable is the admonition that this will be the most decisive presidential election in US history. Given the prospect of four more years of Trump, do they have a valid thesis or are they once again just sheep-dogging those of little faith back into the true church of the Democratic Party?

Prominent left-liberals Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, Leslie Cagan, Ron Daniels, Kathy Kelly, Norman Solomon, Cynthia Peters and Michael Albert issued an Open Letter entreating third parties to “remove themselves as a factor” in the 2020 presidential election to “benefit all humanity and a good part of the biosphere.” They were addressing Howie Hawkins, running for the Green Party’s presidential nomination, who wrote The Green Party Is Not the Democrats’ Problem.

Chomsky et al. “agree with much” that Hawkins argues except for the matter of whether third parties should engage in electoral politics. To be more precise, they think that it is perfectly copacetic for third parties to run in safe states where they don’t have a chance of affecting electoral outcomes, but not in swing states. Third parties should feel free to do what the Open Letter condescendingly describes as their “feel-good activity” if they are guaranteed to be ineffectual, but not otherwise. In short, these left-liberals are adverse to an independent left outside of the Democratic Party.

Shamelessly, the Open Letter proclaims: “we too are furious at Democrats joining Republicans in so many violations of justice and peace.” These left-liberals agree the Democrats have indeed become ever more odious and indistinguishable from the Republicans. They understand that the degeneration of the Democratic Party has progressed so far that sugar-coating it doesn’t pass the red face test.

The left-liberal mantra is support the Dems despite their politics, not because of their politics, to avoid an even greater evil. Their solution, however, is to reward bad behavior by pledging – even before the primaries – to vote for whomever the Democrats dredge up.

Hawkins advises the Dems to stop obsessing about third parties and concentrate on mobilizing their base because they have more registered voters than the Republicans. In the long run, replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote. In the last two initial presidential runs won by a Republican, the GOP lost the popular vote.

Further, the best way for the Democrats to avoid losing votes to a progressive third party is to preempt their issues for combatting global warming, reducing income inequality, dismantling the national security state, and ending militarism. A left alternative in the electoral arena challenges the Democrats to be progressive. Otherwise they have little incentive to raise these crucial issues and instead can content themselves by continuing to whip the dead horse of Russiagate. Removing a third-party challenge from the left is tantamount to encouraging the Democrats to shift to the right with the assurance that their progressive-leaning captured constituencies such as ethnic minorities and labor have nowhere else to go.

Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 on a Green/Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Nader offered to drop out of the race if Democratic candidate Al Gore would adopt a minimal progressive platform. Gore refused. If progressive third parties don’t contest and raise the important issues of the day, those issues will die in the “graveyard of social movements,” also known as the Democratic Party.

The Open Letter, it should be noted, calls for progressive third parties to capitulate even before the Democratic presidential candidate has been chosen and the platform drafted. This is the opposite of moving the Democrat’s in a progressive direction.

To use a popular term, there is no quid quo pro. Progressives are entreated to drop out but get no assurances in return. What is virtually assured by the Open Letter strategy is that Democrats will run on a de facto single-issue platform: we are not Trump. Wall Street backers of the Democratic Party will be delighted.

The fact that the Open Letter demands that third parties abstain from effectively raising issues is symptomatic of the crisis of liberalism within the Democratic Party and the larger polity. As Chomsky himself perceptively observed, Republican Richard Nixon was “the last liberal president.” Nixon created the EPA and OSHA, recognized the People’s Republic of China, supported the equal rights amendment, expanded food stamps and welfare assistance, substantially cut military spending, and signed a suite of environmental and affirmative action acts. Since Tricky Dick, virtually no major progressive legislation has passed.

Liberalism, which made progressive contributions in the past, is dead but not down. As exemplified by the Open Letter, liberalism today has been relegated to (1) attacking and suppressing the independent left while (2) legitimizing the purveyors of neoliberalism and imperialism. The authors of the Open Letter have made immense contributions to progressive causes in the past. Yet leaning on their well-earned laurels does not obviate the bankruptcy of their current position.

Yet does the imminent threat of Trump render all other concerns moot? From a left perspective, the Open Letter is right on target in cautioning that the reelection of Trump would be “global catastrophe.” But would election of a Democrat avoid such an outcome or is the problem deeper?

The Democratic Party is now the full-throated proponent of neoliberal austerity at home, aggressive militarism abroad, and the ubiquitous national security state. Democrats gave landslide approvals to a record high war budget and renewal of the Patriot Act, while Pelosi’s “pay-go” act doomed prospects for future progressive legislation. The last Democratic president’s deportations, drone strikes, wars in seven countries, multi-trillion-dollar upgrading of the US’s nuclear war fighting capacity, multi-trillion-dollar quantitative easing gift to finance capitalists, extension of the tax cut for the rich, and so forth also rise – giving credit where credit is due – to the level of catastrophe.

But what about the environment? Here, giving credit where credit is due, the Dems may be better but not better enough, if avoiding environmental disaster is our metric. The biosphere, to use the terminology of the Open Letter, has the choice of climate change deniers and those who recognize global warming and do nothing about it.

Actually, that is giving the Dems more credit than they deserve. To quote no lesser an authority than Mr. Obama: “Suddenly America is the largest oil producer, that was me people … say thank you.”  When oilman Bush the younger was president, US oil production declined; under Obama, it nearly doubled.

What is needed is a break from rapacious capitalism, and this will not happen with either of the two parties of capital. Voting for the lesser evil of your choice does not break the calamitous rightward trajectory of worse and worse presidential prospects but perpetuates it. So, yes Trump is arguably worse than Dubya (now viewed favorably by a majority of the Dems) or Romney or McCain.

The downward political spiral precipitated by lesser evil voting is reflected in Time magazine’s observation in 2011: “Now Obama is fashioning his own presidency to follow the Gipper’s [Ronald Reagan] playbook.” If the vicious cycle of voting for the lesser evil is not broken, future generations of progressives may look back nostalgically to the Trump years.

Left-liberals toil to influence the Democratic Party from within – what could be characterized as their feel-good activity – which gave us hawkish Hillary Clinton in 2016. (To be evenhanded, the outcomes to date seem to suggest that working within the Democratic Party and working outside have had similarly quixotic results.)

The progressive third-party perspective is to pull the political spectrum to the left from the outside, which has a greater potential than unconditionally joining what some perceive as the lesser evil party. To paraphrase Hawkins, third parties don’t spoil elections; they improve them.

Indeed, left third parties must contest the Democratic Party’s presumptive electoral hegemony with its ruinous directions in both warmongering and environmental turpitude, often outdoing the Republicans in the former and peddling a go-slow, soft-denialist approach to the latter.  The Open Letter is correct that the situation is dire. Their solution is to make it more so.

Trump is the hook; the Dems are the bait. Don’t swallow it and get reeled in by the two-party duopoly. A better world is possible.

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Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.

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