The curse of the 2020 elections

Peter Solenberger

Posted October 2, 2020

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo: AP)

In an August 22, 2020 article Solidarity’s Election Poll David Finkel, writing for the Solidarity National Committee, reported that 47% of Solidarity respondents supported voting for Green Party candidates Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker, 27% supported voting for Hawkins and Walker in “safe states” and for Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden in “battleground states,” and 21% supported voting for Biden in all states. Biden had not yet picked Kamal Harris for his running mate.

The Solidarity members email list, our current discussion bulletin, had an exchange on the poll results. The Solidarity Webzine was to carry at least some of the exchange. The Solidarity Green Party Working Group adopted the statement Solidarity and the 2020 presidential election on August 25 and submitted it to the Webzine. The statement affirms Solidarity’s historic support for independent working-class political action and opposition to voting for Democrats or Republicans. It advocates voting for Hawkins and Walker, not Biden.

The process of making public the Solidarity discussion took a somewhat different course from the one I’d anticipated. The Green Party Working Group statement appears as it did on the Solidarity members email list. Bill Resnick and John B. Cannon have written new pieces advocating voting for Biden and Harris in battleground states. I’m replying to their articles to balance out the first round of the public discussion.

“Dump Trump, Fight and Force Biden: An Electoral Strategy for the Left”

Bill’s article Dump Trump, Fight and Force Biden: An Electoral Strategy for the Left is really two articles. The first quarter of the article is an argument for critically supporting Biden to stop Trump. The argument boils down to its final paragraph.

But just to be clear: everything said about Biden by those who argue against voting for him is true. These truths however, in this moment, don’t carry the day, if you believe, as I do, that Trump has to be stopped in his tracks, repudiated, to decisively interrupt the downward spiral toward a white supremacist autocracy. And a strategic vote for Biden makes sense since his administration will be forced to bargain with “progressive” Democrats in the Congress, and it should be possible to win significant programs, call them non-reformist or revolutionary reforms.

If I thought that voting for Biden would “decisively interrupt the downward spiral toward a white supremacist autocracy,” I’d do it. I’d also pray and possibly even sacrifice a goat. But I don’t believe that the US is in imminent danger of becoming a white supremacist autocracy — more on that below — and I don’t believe that electing Biden would “decisively interrupt” the real downward spiral in that direction.

The Democrats are indeed the lesser evil, compared to the Republicans. But they can’t be understood on their own. They’re part of the two-party system. In a cycle usually lasting eight years, about the same as the business cycle, the Democrats’ base gets fired up, the Democrats win, they fail to deliver, they demoralize their base, and they lose. The Republican side is the inverse.

In the past 28 years, eight years of Bill Clinton, eight years of George W. Bush, eight years of Barack Obama, and four years of Donald Trump. Trump has been so awful that the alternation may be accelerated this time. But it will continue. Most likely Biden now, a Republican — perhaps another another Trump — in four or eight years.

As the Green Party Working Group statement explains:

The alternation of Democratic and Republican administrations traces not a circle but a downward spiral toward barbarism. The capitalists use the duopoly to block solutions to the problems their system creates. This is ultimately self-destructive, since the barbarism will engulf them too. But capitalism is not a rational system.

The only way out is for the working class to assert its power. Revolutionary socialists know this. But Trump’s snarling has led many to advocate voting for the lesser evil “this time,” even though that undercuts their ability to educate the working class about the need to act independently in the electoral arena, as well as on the picket lines and in the streets.

The latter three-fourths of Bill’s article advocates organizing around “a package of ‘non-reformist’ reforms” or, in the language of the revolutionary socialist movement since the Communist International, a program of transitional demands.

The two parts of Bill’s article are connected just by the title. They have no necessary logical connection. I support organizing around Bill’s transitional demands, but I don’t support his call to vote for Biden and Harris.

Electing Biden and Harris wouldn’t “decisively interrupt the downward spiral toward a white supremacist autocracy.” It would jump us to the next phase of the downward spiral. That would improve the immediate situation, but only at the cost of reinforcing the two-party system which locks in the downward spiral.

Bill claims that “a strategic vote for Biden makes sense since his administration will be forced to bargain with ‘progressive’ Democrats in the Congress, and it should be possible to win significant programs, call them non-reformist or revolutionary reforms.” Forced to bargain? Win significant programs?

Biden has repeatedly said, including in his September 29 debate with Trump, that he doesn’t support Medicare for All, the Green New Deal or defunding police, he has defeated the socialists, and he is the Democratic Party. The Democratic National Convention showed the space the party is willing to give the progressives. AOC was allotted 60 seconds to nominate Bernie Sanders. She took 96 seconds and was silenced for the rest of the convention.

A vote for Biden and Harris, motivated in the first quarter of Bill’s article, would be a vote for an administration adamantly opposed to the transitional program outlined in the following three quarters.

Elections are less important than class struggle. At most they reveal and ratify the results of class struggle. But to the extent that elections are important, voting for an avowed enemy of what you want seems a poor strategy.

To quote Eugene V. Debs from a campaign speech 120 years ago, “I would address a few words to those who are in sympathy with the Social Democratic Party, but who hesitate to vote for it for fear they may lose their votes. Let me say to you: It is infinitely better to vote for freedom and fail than to vote for slavery and succeed.” (This seems to be the basis for the famous misquote, “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.”)

In this year’s presidential election Debs’s admonition means voting for Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker.

“Stay focused on the real fightback: the defeat of Trumpism will not come at the ballot box”

John B. Cannon’s article Stay focused on the real fightback: the defeat of Trumpism will not come at the ballot box is better, in my view, beginning with its title. It too, argues for critical support for Biden and Harris, but it makes modest claims for the efficacy of doing so:

Voting for Joe Biden in the midst of a crisis which has put neoliberalism to the test is an incredibly weak bulwark against any of this — so much so that it should be pretty quickly dismissed as a serious line of defense. Even a Biden win might not provide any reprieve in the long term, if the really dangerous fascist leader turns out to be not Trump, but a less disorganized protégé down the road.

This should be put more strongly: A Biden/Harris victory will continue the downward spiral through neoliberalism toward barbarism.

Like Bill’s article, John’s includes many points that I agree with. I particularly like:

The Democratic Party is flashing signs that despite the increasing combativeness of its constituencies, it will follow in the pattern of 2000 and 2004 and do nothing to organize a real fightback, even as Trump looks to 2000 and calls for two, three, many Floridas. Socialists should stand together with social movement forces to respond on the streets to defend election integrity and marginalized communities, organize an anti-fascist fightback, and hopefully, promote a “de-Trumpification” of governing institutions — all of which the Democratic Party intends to soft-pedal so as not to offend its anti-Trump, Republican lite allies.

But the article accepts the same pessimistic conclusion about the 2020 election as Bill’s, the need to critically support the lesser evil “this time.”

Given all of this context, what if anything should socialists as socialists say about the election? In my view, this election provides no “opening” for the forces we care about and would wish to cohere politically; it is all about playing defense against these authoritarian threats. The space for an independent, progressive-movement-based, third-party candidacy has been, for all meaningful purposes, suffocated — not of course by the right, but by the Democratic Party and by liberal and popular front political pressures that have been intensified 100-fold.

The polarization won’t end with this election. A Biden administration will continue the policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations, and these will lead to the next Newt Gingrich, the next George W. Bush, the next Tea Party, and the next Donald Trump. The “liberal and popular front political pressures” to which John refers will intensify another 100-fold. “Not now” will tend to become “Not ever.”

John’s article concludes with a statement with which I’d like to agree but can’t fully:

There is a crisis unfolding around us, and for left forces, the old, well-rehearsed election arguments are a distraction. To the people who are desperate to defeat Trump, we need to be saying: besides voting for Biden, what else are you ready to do? What are you willing to do to defeat Trumpism, not only for the next few weeks but after Trump is gone? That’s an urgent conversation.

The old argument, independent political action vs. the lesser evil, is not a distraction. Not when the working class and the left are being swindled as effectively as they are this year. But John is right that after the distraction of the election activists need to discuss, What next?

The historic answer, mass mobilization of the workers and the oppressed, will have been set back by the election, whatever its outcome. But it’s still the only answer.

Peter Solenberger is a Solidarity member and labor and social justice activist in Northern Michigan.