In this time of global political and economic crisis, calls to support the ‘least bad’ candidate are becoming a staple of political debate on both sides of the Atlantic.
After Bernie Sanders officially endorsed Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate in order to keep Donald Trump from power, left wing figures such as Owen Jones, Michael Moore, and Noam Chomsky have fallen in line behind Clinton.
Similarly, Paul Mason is now arguing for a ‘progressive alliance’, in reality the ‘least bad’ pro-austerity parties, to prevent future Tory or UKIP governments from coming to power. Bizarrely, Mason includes the hated Liberal Democrats—the Tory’s austerity-driven bedfellows between 2010 and 2015—in this alliance.
The reaction to this line of reasoning has been mixed. On the one hand, there are those with understandable concerns about what a future Trump or Tory/UKIP government would mean. Certainly, comparisons between Trump, Farage, and the emergence of Nazism in the 1930s have played a significant role in ramping up this fear.
But on the other hand, there are those who refuse to be cajoled and bullied into besmirching their ballot paper. After Sanders announced his support for Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia earlier this week, much of the audience responded by booing and jeering; others by chanting ‘we want Bernie’. Over 500 delegates walked out in protest.
These same principled campaigners have since been accused of playing into the hands of Trump by not throwing in their lot with Clinton.
The EU referendum campaign in Britain has also been held up as a shining example of lesser evilism. Voters were told by left wing commentators such as Paul Mason, Owen Jones, and Yanis Varoufakis that, although the EU is a repressive institution, a vote to Leave would only strengthen the far right. Hold your nose and vote Remain, was the advice.
But if the Tony Blair years have taught British workers anything, it is that, in the long term, holding your nose does very little in terms of contributing toward meaningful change. Consequently, the former ‘heartlands’ of the Labour Party voted to leave the EU.
Pundits like Owen Jones ironically accuse sections of the left who refuse to support the lesser evil canidates of ‘accelerationism’, i.e. attempting to ‘speed up’, or ‘deepen’, the crisis so as to provide more favourable conditions for revolution. This is ironic because nothing is more likely to ‘accelerate’ the growth of the far right than figures on the left giving their support to candidates with a proven track record of hammering the working class.
Jones’s calls to support Clinton, even if only tactically, are particularly disingenuous because candidates like Clinton have played an important role in creating the conditions for the rise of right wingers.
Until the left sets out its own independent program right wingers like Trump will continue to fill the vacuum.
This is why it is so important that the left in the US strengthens its forces outside of the Democratic Party, to build a principled left alternative to the two party system. One group which is making excellent progress in this work is Socialist Alternative, who pioneered the $15 Now campaign in Seattle which is now also making inroads into a number of other major cities.
For the present election, however, this means giving critical support Jill Stein.
Similarly, contrary to what Mason argues, the most effective way to cut across support for UKIP is not to create a ‘progressive’—in reality, unprincipled—bloc, but to put forward a bold socialist program to win back ex-Labour supporters, many of whom vote for UKIP, many no longer vote, and some have never voted.
Forming so-called ‘progressive alliances’ with the ‘least bad’ pro-austerity parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, will hold back the mood for socialism by, on the one hand, sowing illusions in reactionary candidates and on the other, further postponing the project to build a viable left alternative, even as the right continues to grow.
But Won’t We Let the Fascists In?
One of the main criticisms of voting according to principle rather than tactics is that, whilst the left struggles to reconstitute itself, the door is left open for the likes of Trump and Farage.
Whilst this fear is understandable, it is also misplaced; it is a panic reaction based on the belief that the world can return to a pre-crisis situation.
With economic stagnation now plaguing the Chinese economy, it is only a matter of time before another global recession hits. The consequences of another financial collapse, along with continued war in the Middle East and elsewhere, will be further polarization, and a heightening of political struggle.
The old guard of capitalism is currently trying to deal with this situation, particularly in Britain and the US, by painting themselves as the solution to the problem and painting figures such as Trump and Farage as fascists. This is used as a form of emotional blackmail to cow the working class.
Not only is this hypocritical because it is these very people and parties who made the growth of right wingers possible, it is also an inaccurate appraisal of the character of the right wing candidates.
Although individuals such as Trump and Farage are of serious concern, it must be remembered that their ability to put their divisive politics into practice would be proscribed by the active and self-conscious layer of the workers’ movement (despite their evident weaknesses at the moment).
An example of this can be seen in the many U-turns the Tories have been forced to undertake since their election in 2015 as a result of strikes, public campaigns, and protests, as well as backbench rebellions. The Tories are having to deal with an increasingly combative workforce, and there is no reason to think that this would be any different under a more right wing government.
Certainly on a personal level, Trump appears to be more than a few cuckoos short of an asylum. And, indeed, a number of pundits have crawled out of the woodwork in recent weeks, including Trump’s official biographer Tony Schwartz, to express their deep misgivings about the prospect of Trump entering the White House.
Clinton, by contrast, is undoubtedly seen as the most qualified for the job… but given what the job usually entails it is unclear whether this makes her any more credible than Trump.
From the perspective of many workers, however, Clinton and Trump are understood in a very different light. Clinton is seen as a representative of business as usual, a vote for (in)stability and (dis)order; Trump on the other hand, despite being so far inside of the US establishment as to be only visible through a proctological examination, is seen as a subversive figure, the one who will ruffle the feathers.
This fact alone goes some way toward explaining Trump’s appeal. It is not that people necessarily support all of the things that he stands for, but that he is seen as a vote against a status-quo which, for most Americans, is characterized by debt, exploitation, and poverty.
A recent poll revealed that 47% of Trump supporters said the will back him because they do not want Clinton to win, whilst about 46% of Clinton supporters said they would vote for her to keep Trump from the White House.
Moreover, Trump’s reputation as an outsider has actually driven him to adopt (superficially, at least) a number of populist policies such as a $10 an hour minimum wage and the introduction of free universal healthcare. Since the capitulation of the Democratic ‘outsider’, a layer of Sanders supporters may now be won over to this program. Certainly there is layer of voters in the US who would have voted for Sanders, but would rather vote for Trump than Clinton.
In reality, the majority of Trump’s voters are not stupid, and to the extent that sections of them may be racist, it is a reflection of a need for radical change in US society. A program such as that being advanced by Socialist Alternative has the potential to cut across this racism and to win over the majority of Trump’s voter base in the future. Clinton has nothing to offer in this respect.
The attraction of anti-establishment figures is something that many pundits on the left seem to have overlooked or misunderstood. The world has entered into a period of profound political and economic turmoil, and the working class is looking for an alternative.
We can either come to terms with this fact now and get on with the difficult task of building the socialist alternative, or we can try to manage the effects of the crisis by building coalitions, however tactical, with the very forces that made the rise of right wingers inevitable.
Only one of these strategies will succeed, however.
By Tom Barker