by Todd Chretien
October 29, 2012
Does Barack Obama deserve the votes of activists and radicals?
FOUR YEARS ago, I wrote an article for Socialist Worker titled “Why I’m Not Voting For Obama.” The atmosphere in which President Barack Obama is running for reelection could not be more different from the high hopes and expectations that surrounded his 2008 campaign. But I believe socialists and the left must take the same attitude to this election.
I started my article four years ago by pointing out the disgusting racist attacks on Obama. Unfortunately, these attacks have only gotten worse in the past four years–Romney supporters have even added the slogan “Put the white back in the White House”. This racist backlash is one of the reasons the election is so close.
Romney himself has joined in. For instance, while campaigning in Michigan with his wife last August, Romney stated, “I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born…No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
A Romney victory will embolden the most vile elements in American society, which explains why opinion polls suggest he will get close to 0 percent of the Black vote.
There can be no doubt that Mitt Romney in office will do his damnedest to makes things worse for all workers and poor people, but especially for people of color. The question, though, is this: Does casting a vote for President Obama and the Democratic Party help make things better?
Sometimes Lesser, But Still an Evil
Socialist Worker‘s Lance Selfa makes it crystal clear in his book The Democrats: A Critical History that placing faith in the Democratic Party has led to a series of disasters for social movements over the course of the 20th century.
Here are just two examples. Students for a Democratic Society backed President Lyndon Johnson’s reelection campaign in 1964 with the slogan “Half the way with LBJ.” Antiwar activists hoped they would avoid war in Vietnam with Johnson back in the White House. But they ended up with an “ALL the Way” bloodbath when Johnston sent in 600,000 troops. The result was over 50,000 American soldiers killed and 2 million dead in Vietnam and the surrounding region.
In the 1990s, voting for Bill Clinton was presented as the only “realistic” for stopping the Republicans, who in the post-Reagan era clearly stood for an anti-poor, racist, law-and-order, anti-gay, pro-business agenda. As president, Bill Clinton proudly “ended welfare as we know it,” presided over an unprecedented growth in the U.S. prison population, deregulated Wall Street, signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and implemented “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military.
Of course, Republican presidents also have a long list of crimes. But these examples ought to make it clear that Democratic presidents and politicians are, at best, a lesser evil.
But Isn’t This Election Different?
I want to address the rest of this article to readers who may already be highly critical of the Democrats, but who believe there is no choice but to support them as a defensive measure.
For instance, few Chicago teachers believe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is anything other than an anti-union bully, bent on destroying public education. At the same time, a very large majority of them will vote for President Barack Obama simply because they see no alternative on the national level to Romney.
As noted previously, close to 100 percent of African American voters will support Obama for many of the same reasons–as well as a logical desire to express pride in the first Black president and to defend him from racist attack. And my guess is that a very large majority of the people who took part in an Occupy Wall Street protest over the past year will vote for Obama as well, however reluctantly.
These groups will vote for Obama’s reelection despite his dismal policies that have made their lives worse: from bank bailouts, to the failure to provide help to homeowners facing foreclosure, to the surge in Afghanistan and more.
Radicals who dismiss these pro-Obama people as simply “ignorant” or “brainwashed” are missing the point. Millions of people who want strong unions, real solutions to stop global warming, increased taxes on the rich, etc., will support Obama because they can’t see an alternative.
The reality at this point is that those of us who want to build powerful social movements of workers, students and the oppressed have very limited options on November 6. Casting a protest vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or some other left-wing party is a worthwhile option. But those campaigns have almost no social weight behind them.
In 2000, Ralph Nader and the Green Party received almost 3 million votes and were closely connected to the rising global justice movement. But then, Bush stole the election, the Democrats blamed the Greens and Nader–and the global justice struggle collapsed after September 11.
Several Green Party and independent campaigns managed to put forward an antiwar message in the years that followed, but the unfortunate reality is that some key Green Party leaders abandoned an all-out fight against the Democrats by adopting a “safe state” strategy or other means by which they effectively threw their support to the Democrats. In other cases, Greens simply quit the party and returned to the Democrats, leaving a severely weakened organization in their wake.
I think this only goes to show that if we want to build a radical political alternative to the Democrats, we have to be better prepared.
Many people believe that building an alternative to the Democrats is a waste of time. Former Obama staffer Van Jones typifies this thinking. One particularly infantile version of this argument was put forward recently by writer Rebecca Solnit. She accused a “rancid sector of the far left” of “left-wing voter suppression” because we criticize Obama and other Democrats.
If I were Rahm Emanuel, I would read Solnit’s piece and think, “With enemies like this, who needs friends?”
There are more thoughtful cases being made along the same lines. For example, veteran activists Bill Fletcher Jr. and Carl Davidson stress the danger in a rising racist wave of attacks and argue that, despite Obama’s miserable record as a “corporate liberal,” “we think the matter of a lesser of two evils is a tactical question of simply voting for one candidate to defeat another, rather than a matter of principle. Politics is frequently about the lesser of two evils.”
If Fletcher and Davidson’s formulations are primarily defensive in nature, Bob Wing asserts that an alliance of progressives has a positive opportunity to gain influence within the Democratic Party:
In recent years, progressives have grown more united, more organized, more aggressive and strategically smarter. We are occasionally able to gain initiative (opposition to the war in Iraq, Wisconsin, Occupy), but we have not yet become a consistent and undeniably powerful force in national politics or even within the Democratic Party, two crucial and mutually interconnected tasks…though some on the far left still harbor abstentionist or third party dreams.
While they pitch their arguments in terms of 2012, it’s worth recognizing that this strategy of orienting social movements to work within the Democratic Party is a decades-old approach whose results must be judged in that light.
In that regard, I disagree that our goal should be to become, as Wing puts it, a “powerful force…within the Democratic Party.” In my judgment, history has shown that it is not revolutionaries who qualitatively change the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party that qualitatively changes revolutionaries. One small example is Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. She used to be a communist. Now she directs the police to bludgeon protesters.
Consider the Democrats today, and remember that this is after the challenge of the 1960s and ’70s social movements and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Yet it’s hard to imagine how the Democratic Party as an institution could be more neoliberal, anti-democratic and hostile to grassroots struggle.
But What Do We Do Now?
First, we must look reality in the face. The economic crisis will continue after November 6, and conditions for the majority of the population will continue to deteriorate. We face years of austerity, an increasingly violent state, attacks on civil liberties and civil rights, and a growth of sexist and especially racist ideas and attacks.
Second, at the same time, we are finally seeing a response from our side: the uprising in Wisconsin and the Occupy Wall Street movement last year; the Chicago Teachers Union strike in September; and smaller fights against police brutality, anti-immigrant policies and so on. Our side remains weak, but a new layer of radicals is emerging, and they are asking big questions.
Third, we have a long way to go before we can successfully challenge the two-party system on a national scale. But it remains the case that if the bosses have two parties, we need (at least) one of our own. We need a party that won’t trade principles for votes or bargain away the demands of movements on the streets and on the picket line for a few seats in Congress. We need a party one that sees elections as simply one aspect of a larger strategy for social transformation.
Some people will say that voting for Obama will only take a few minutes–and then we can get on with the job of building a genuine left-wing alternative.
But the Democrats don’t let social movements and unions off the hook so easily. They demand that unions hand over tens of millions of dollars to help Democrats get elected, and that movements demobilize so they don’t embarrass the party.
Mitt Romney is disgusting. But Obama and the Democrats want us to play by the rules of the game determined by the intensity of the capitalist crisis: austerity, poverty, war, repression. Those are rules we have to break, and the sooner we start learning how, the better.
That’s why I’m still not voting for Obama in 2012.
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