The 1996 Elections and the Trap of Lesser-Evilism

David Finkel

[from New Politics, vol. 5, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 20, Winter 1996]

David Finkel is an editor of the socialist bi-monthly Against the Current.

A STRIKING OBSERVATION ABOUT LEFT-WING "LESSER-EVILISM" in electoral politics seems to be: the greater the actual evil of the "lesser evil," the louder the argument for supporting it.

For a rough empirical test of this proposition, think back over the past five Democratic presidential candidates -- Clinton, Dukakis, Mondale, Carter, McGovern -- each more conservative than his predecessor, more committed to and dependent on corporate America, more distant from labor's concerns and influence. Yet with each turn of the political cycle, the liberal and social democratic commitment to these candidates and to the Democratic Party seems to be more and more consolidated.

Not only that -- even as the real influence of the institutions of labor, liberalism and their social democratic appendages within the Democratic Party shrinks toward the vanishing point, the shriller becomes their insistence on shoving the Democratic Party option down the throats of social movements and radicals. Refusing to support the Democratic Party right now, in (what is always) the most decisive election of the century, means abandoning the black community and the workers to the virtual onset of fascism.

The end product of lesser-evilism for labor and the left seems to be that we inherit all the evils. Since the 1992 election we have had a right-wing Democrat as president; for the past year, a right-wing Republican Congress; a year from now we may face Republican control of both Congress and the White House. But the greatest of all evils for the left is the absence of an independent voice -- so that Clinton's wretched corporate health-care "reform," for example, was labeled by Gingrich & Co. as the left's program!

That lesser-evilism grows, not declines, with the evil of the lesser-evil -- and even with the actual weakening of the lesser-evil ideologists themselves -- seems paradoxical. In fact, the paradox is only an apparent one; but before returning to it let's deal with some consequences as we consider the left and the Clinton reelection campaign in 1996.

If my observation is valid, it both simplifies and complicates the argument about Clinton and the left. On the one hand, it becomes unnecessary, even irrelevant, to try to detail the Clinton Administration's atrocities. The fact that Clinton initiated the drive to "end welfare as we know it," meaning an attack on the poor; that "putting 100,000 more cops on the street" and more petty drug users in prison is the centerpiece of his reelection campaign; that his (extremely feeble) efforts to curb "permanent replacement" of strikers were linked to compulsory arbitration schemes that would effectively eliminate the right to strike itself; that his only first-rate appointments, Dr. Joycelyn Elders and Prof. Lani Guinier, were in the latter case abandoned in the face of a right-wing slander campaign and, in the former, preemptively fired for mentioning "masturbation" before the reactionaries even had time to mount their attack; that his crime-control and "anti-terrorism" initiatives contained provisions for secret trials and executive deportations that exceed the police-state wet dreams of the Bush, Reagan and Nixon regimes; and that his defense of medical care for the poor and elderly against Republican budget ax-murderers reduced itself to a technical dispute over which figures to use for a seven-year budget-balancing crusade -- none of this, you see, actually matters.

We could say even more -- how Clinton allowed the military gangsters in Haiti to massacre thousands, then sent troops in to "restore democracy" (and coincidentally, to steal the documents showing the CIA's deep involvements with the death-squad regime) after forcing the popular elected president to implement an International Monetary Fund program and to promise not to run for reelection. How he announced, then renounced, the end of the ban on gays in the military. All this and NAFTA too -- but so what?

It's precisely because the political situation is so dire, the soon-to-arise chorus of liberal and social democratic commentary will tell us, that we must at all costs resist the ultimate horror of simultaneous Republican control of the White House and Congress. How could we be "indifferent" to the prospects of turning the entire government apparatus over to the right wing?

Since no facts about Clinton can affect the argument, it becomes necessary to turn to a more complex problem: the character of the evils we confront, and the possibility of alternatives. Clearly it won't do to rely on ritual formulas claiming that the Democrats and Republicans are identical, which they aren't; or to deny that the Republican agenda is, taken as a whole, a worse evil than the Democratic one, which it is. If there weren't greater as well as lesser evils in bourgeois politics, there wouldn't be a lesser-evil debate in the first place.

Let's outline, then, the more complex and practical case against voting for the Democrats, lesser evils that they are. It is necessary to grasp that the two political evils, while by no means identical, are profoundly co-dependent, as manifested in several ways.

(1) The greater, overtly right-wing and reactionary (roughly speaking, Republican) evil, which felt the political wind in its sails from the defeat of Clinton's wretched health-care pseudo-reform until the Republicans' own debacle in the budget wrestlemania of November 1995, can scarcely exist without the weakly pro-welfare state, slightly liberal (roughly, Democratic) lesser-evil opposition.

For one thing, after the collapse of Communism the "big spending," "soft on crime" and "weak on God and family values" Democrats are the only remaining official enemy so desperately required by the right. For another, on a practical political level, many angry and alienated white working people who voted for the Republicans in 1994 may have done so because of the belief that a divided government, with a Democratic administration still controlling the executive institutions, would prevent the Contract on America being implemented in a way that would directly impact on them.

This belief is actually mistaken, inasmuch as profound changes in U.S. and world capitalism underlie the truly bipartisan screw-the-people consensus in today's politics -- but who will present that reality to the working class public if there is no independent left to do so?

(2) The ever-more-rightward moving Democratic establishment, responding faithfully to the imperatives of its corporate masters, requires the looming menace of the Republican greater evil to discipline its own voter base. After NAFTA, after the betrayal of every Democratic promise to labor from the Carter-era labor-law-reform on, what could keep either the institutions of labor, or workers (two very distinct entities!) in the Democratic loyalist camp if not the hideous visage of Newt Gingrich?

By now, the process of political decomposition has reached the stage where even the menace of the right may not be able to hold the Democrats together much longer. I suspect that workers, unlike ideologues of the liberal or social democratic left, will not vote from purely cynical lesser-evil motives, but only for something that is seen to be, even if only in a partial and wrong-headed way, somehow positive. If the Democrats offer nothing, white workers either don't vote or try to get what they can from the conservative option (the illusory tax-cutting promise, for instance, or the pledge to wipe out affirmative action's "special privileges" for minorities).

(3) This dynamic affects the debate in the left in ways that are too rarely acknowledged. I mentioned at the outset that the shrillness of the lesser-evil argument escalates as the real political influence of its adherents diminishes. This is not so hard to understand.

At the elite levels, Democratic leadership pays less and less attention (or even lipservice) to the concerns of the left. For liberal intellectuals or social democrats within trade union structures, then, maintaining their last shreds of credibility within the Democratic Party depends on delivering the votes of constituencies that naturally incline toward the left. Crudely put: who needs a DSA (or some other left cover) if it cannot deliver or impose some discipline on any base? Self-preservation thus plays at least a scarcely acknowledged role in the formulation of the lesser-evilist argument.

(This is not the occasion for a full-fledged polemic, but there is at least a rough parallel here between social democrats' role in seeking to channel anger and political disaffection back into the Democratic Party, with their historic work of blunting the organizing of mass independent anti-war or disarmament campaigns during the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.)

Let's move, then, to briefly consider alternatives to the lesser-evilist trap. The Perot phenomenon is of course symptomatic of profound political alienation, but circumscribed by the fact that the 20% of the electorate drawn to Perot are outnumbered, two or three to one, by those who (correctly) regard him as a political snake-oil salesman.

More interesting is the fact that Bill Bradley, for the one day he publicly contemplated an independent presidential candidacy, became a virtual front-runner -- not because he was seen as either a left or right alternative to Clinton (generally he's somewhere to the right), but mainly because he looked like something different. Or that Colin Powell, as a possible moderate Republican candidate, threw both the Democrats and the Christian Coalition into a panic.

Obviously neither Bradley nor Powell represents anything in the nature of a progressive new political party. Their appeal, however, reflects the extraordinary malaise that has the ruling class parties desperately looking for new faces, new images, new sound bites -- anything but new politics.

For its part, the left can look -- if it so chooses -- to a number of developments in recent electoral politics. In several states, including New Mexico, not a traditional left bastion, Green parties made important steps forward in the 1994 elections. Labor Party Advocates will hold a founding convention by mid-1996. The New Progressive Party is on the political map in Wisconsin; Campaign for a New Tomorrow and other activists have carried out aggressive city council and board of education campaigns in Pittsburgh; Bernie Sanders has proven in Vermont that independent political action informed by populist and socialist convictions can succeed. Activists should be working to bring these and other local or state efforts into some kind of operational alliance.

This is not the place for a comprehensive survey or detailed strategic discussion of how to bring about such unity, but I would hope that this and other journals committed to independent politics would undertake it.

[colored bar]

Contents of No. 20

New Politics home page