Left Election Strategy: Lesser Evil or Independent Left?

A Response to Michael Albert’s “Battle Strategically Everywhere”

Michael Albert’s safe states strategy says the Green presidential candidate should go into the battleground states to campaign for the Green program but then say vote for the Democratic ticket. Most people who hear that will wonder why the Greens are even bothering to campaign if they want us to vote for the Democrat. Media commentary will make fun of it. Safe-states messaging in the battleground states will also undermine the Green campaign in the so-called safe states. Why vote for a Green candidate in this state who is telling people in other states to vote Democratic? Safe states is just not a serious approach grounded in the practical realities of election campaigning.

Albert even suggests that Greens should work for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. The Greens have their own primaries and ballot access petitions to do. They are busy with ongoing issue campaigns. It is not the job of the Green Party to help a candidate in another party win that party’s nomination.

Albert argues that electing a Democratic president, even a Biden or a Bloomberg, is needed to stem the rising authoritarian right around the world that Trump is very much a part of. I don’t see much Democratic anti-authoritarianism. A strong majority of congressional Democrats consistently supports the US global military empire that enforces authoritarian stability against democratic uprisings. They support Trump’s attempted coup in Venezuela. The previous Democratic administration backed the anti-democratic coups in Honduras, Egypt, and Ukraine. Trump’s imperial presidency builds on dangerous autocratic precedents set by Obama’s presidency, notably his thousands of drone-strike assassinations and his unprecedented use of the repressive 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers.

There are differences between the Democrats and Republicans. The problem is how much they agree on pro-corporate economic and foreign policies. The Democrats’ “all-of-the-above” pro gas and oil energy policy is not much different from Trump’s policy in its practical effect on the climate. The nuclear weapons modernization program initiated under Obama and continued under Trump has sparked a new nuclear arms race without challenge from any but a very few congressional Democrats. I could go on at length. Voting for the lesser evil does not stem the greater evil; it legitimizes it.

When a progressive votes for the Democrat as the lesser evil, nobody knows if their vote is from a Sanders socialist or a Clinton corporatist. It gets lost in the sauce. The progressive Democratic votes are seen as votes for the corporate militarist Democratic agenda. On the other hand, nobody confuses what a vote on the Green Party line means.

Democrats take progressive votes for granted. They feel they have progressive voters in their pocket. As long as prominent progressives promulgate lesser-evil doctrines like safe states, Democrats are reassured that they can appeal to voters of the center-right without worrying that progressive voters will bolt for the Green left alternative.

The safe states strategy is inside baseball that requires knowing how the Electoral College works and what the polls say in a particular state going into the voting booth. Most voters are not steeped in those details, or care much about them if they are. Most people use their vote to make a statement about their values and the policies they want. For example, most Democrats vote Democratic even in overwhelmingly Republican districts where their candidate has no chance of winning. Often that values-and-policies vote is defensive; it is simply against what they see as the greater evil. Telling progressives to vote for the lesser-evil Democrat is telling them to vote against their values and the policies they want. It is telling them to vote against the Green left alternative.

In response to my statement that a 2016 vote for Jill Stein was “a vote to demand a Green New Deal, improved Medicare for All, a job guarantee, student debt relief, ending US military aggression, and fair elections,” Albert asks “how did that go?”

Well, every presidential candidate, Democratic and Republican, is now talking about the Green Party’s signature issue of the last decade, the Green New Deal. The Democratic versions may be watered down. The Republicans may be creating sham caricatures of it to ridicule. But everybody is now talking about it. The Greens are in the debate as the original Green New Dealers with the full-strength emergency program for averting climate apocalypse. Getting into the debate is half the battle. That is what third parties have done historically in the US. They force neglected solutions onto the nation’s agenda.

When I ran for governor of New York in 2014 against the Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, I got 5 percent of the vote campaigning for a ban on fracking, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and tuition-free public college, among other demands that the governor either opposed or ducked taking a position on. Cuomo had wanted to get a higher vote than he got in 2010, more than his father Mario Cuomo ever got, in order the lay the foundation for a presidential run. Instead, his vote went down from 2010. Realizing that he could not take our 5% progressive voting block for granted anymore, in his following term Cuomo began calling himself the “pragmatic progressive” and backed the fracking ban, the $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and a new state scholarship for public college students.

Voting for what you want works. It makes the politicians come to you to compete for your vote. As Eugene Debs famously said, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” That is not just a moral statement; it is a strategic statement.

Let me end with a point of agreement. Michael Albert is correct to note that he and the others who signed their Open Letter advocating a safe states strategy for the Greens are on the left. They are not the same as the regular Democrats who routinely attack the Greens as “spoilers,” “useful idiots for Republicans,” “Russian assets,” and, more consequentially, work to keep Greens off the ballot with their lawyers filing challenges to Green ballot petitions, their officials “losing” Green ballot access filings, and their legislators changing election laws to make it harder for the Greens to qualify for the ballot.

It may be understandable that Greens who are under this constant assault saw the Open Letter as another incoming salvo coming from the same Democratic army’s artillery. But I would urge Greens and others on the independent left who want to argue against lesser-evil and safe-states electoral strategies not to conflate our progressive critics with the corporate Democrats.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a progressive to the right of the signers of the Open Letter on electoral strategy because she advocates a Democratic vote in every race. But she made an important point recently when she noted that in any other country she and Joe Biden would not be in the same political party. The Greens and the signers of the Open Letter would be in the same political party in any country with a reasonable electoral system based on proportional representation in legislatures and ranked-choice voting for executive offices.

Despite our differences on electoral strategy in 2020, we have broad agreement on policy demands. We should have our strategy debate with the idea that we are allies on policy, including transforming our anti-democratic electoral system, and that we want to get to a future where we are comrades in the same major party of the left.

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