October 4, 2010
Frequently asked questions about whether or not to vote for the Democrats or to support a Socialist, Green or progressive independent candidate.
Dan La Botz is the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. He is a member of both the Socialist Party and of Solidarity. He is one of the organizers of the Socialist Contingent for the October 2 rally in Washington. (See DanLaBotz.com, follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.)
Question: You are a progressive activist running as the Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. You chose not to run as a Democrat. Do you really think that the Republicans and Democrats are the same? Most progressives don’t seem to think so. Most people on the left think that the parties are quite different and that it matters greatly whether or not they vote Republican or Democrat.
La Botz: I agree that the Republican and Democratic parties are not the same. They have different platforms, different histories, and different reputations. Many consider the Republicans to be more conservative, more pro-war and the Democrats to be more liberal and pro-peace. The platform positions and reputations of these parties, however, do not tell us how they actually act
or how they will behave in the future.
The Democrats seldom live up to their liberal reputation and seldom fulfill the more progressive planks of their platform. The war? Since the election of Barack Obama, he and the Democratic Congress have expanded the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the drone bombing of Pakistan. The environment? Obama announced—and then after the BP geyser—retracted expansion of offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast. Labor? After making a
campaign promise, the Democrats dropped the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which they had promised the unions.
Immigration? The Democrats put immigration reform they had promised Latinos and other immigrant groups on the back burner while increasing deportations and making it harder for immigrants to get jobs. Health care? The Obama administration rejected the best option, single-payer, out of hand, and also ditched the public option. Women’s right to choose? Some prominent Democrats—especially the Blue Dogs—do not support abortion rights and played a key role in eliminating abortion from the 2010 health care bill. Civil liberties? The Obama administration has continued to condone or excuse torture, rendition limiting domestic civil liberties, and promoting governmental secrecy and outsized power for the executive branch.
The Democratic Party’s neoliberal national, state, and big city leaderships have betrayed rank-and-file voters looking to them for support. Voting for Democrats does not lead to substantially more liberal or progressive national politics on most issues because the corporations dominate the Democratic Party. The Democrats are a corporate party, a capitalist party. And because of the Democrats’ loyalty to the corporations they are demoralizing many supporters and potential supporters.
Question: Most of us think of the Republicans as the corporate party. What do you mean when you say the Democrats are a corporate and capitalist party.
La Botz: American corporations play almost as large a role in the Democratic Party as they do in the Republican Party. First, of course, they provide campaign funding for the party and its candidates. Most big corporations hedge their bets, contributing to both Republicans and Democrats, though some definitely lean toward the Democratic Party. ) Large corporations, for example, bankrolled much of President Barack Obama’s campaign. Now that the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are persons and can give unlimited sums, Republicans and Democrats both will be even more beholden to the corporations.
Second, corporate executives and corporate attorneys provide Democratic Party candidates and party staff, and provide the Democrats their policies. When it comes to policy, the Democratic Party works closely with the largest corporate associations to develop legislation. When Obama designed the health plan, he met with the insurance companies, the for-profit hospital companies, and the pharmaceutical industry. Liz Fowler, vice-president of WellPoint (with its affiliates
Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield) wrote substantial portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act. Not surprisingly, the reform did not eliminate insurance companies or the profit motive from health care.
Third, the Democratic Party campaigns operate, just like the Republicans, principally through advertising and the media. So the Democratic Party also becomes linked to those sorts of advertising and media corporations. The Democratic Party has close ties with the corporations—
and no intention to break them.
Question: But don’t you exaggerate? Even if the corporations dominate both parties, aren’t the Democrats more progressive on certain issues such as labor?
La Botz: At one time, the Democrat Party held more progressive positions on many of those issues. During the post-war period of American capitalist expansion, from 1939 to 1969, the United States with its vast power and wealth could make concessions to the working class.
Today, facing an economic crisis, the Democrats have to manage the crisis, have to impose austerity, they have to make cutbacks. The Democrats were more liberal back in the 1970s when there was both more elasticity in the economic system and a mass movement pushing them.
After Howard Dean became head of the Democratic Party, he worked to move the party more toward the center and even toward the right. The Democratic Party platform’s liberal planks have been watered down. Dean encouraged the party to bring in more conservative politicians to compete with the Republicans. Blue Dog Democrats, as they are known, are often anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, and anti-labor. The growing number of these Blue Dogs has made the party as a whole more conservative. If you vote Democrat you find yourself backing a party that is moving to the right, and taking you with it.
Even on social issues where the official positions of the Democrats have often been better than the Republicans, such as abortion and gay and lesbian rights, their commitment has been tepid and uninspiring, and all too often compromised on important points. Moreover, the Democrats’ conservative economic policies alienate people who could be won over to more progressive social positions if there were a party that stood firmly for both economic and social equality.
Question: But shouldn’t we try to move the Democrats to the left? Can’t the Democrats be reformed? Don’t you see any merit in being involved with movement people in the Democratic Party campaigns? Don’t you see that as a vehicle for change?
La Botz: The most impressive example of this strategy was Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1987 Democratic Party presidential primary. Jackson traversed the country, marching on picketlines, participating in demonstrations, and standing on the U.S. Mexico Border with Rosario Ibarra, a socialist and the first woman candidate for president of Mexico, calling for rights for immigrants. Jackson won almost 30 percent of the vote in a campaign based on supporting the struggles of working people. It was a remarkable achievement.
Then, having lost his bid for the nomination, he took all of those whom he had mobilized and kept them imprisoned in the Democratic Party. Time magazine reported in 1987: “Instead of threatening to bolt the party, [Jackson] embraces it. At a gathering of Democrats in Atlanta, Jackson declared that while the party has both a conservative and a progressive wing, it needs two wings to fly. Democrats let out a sigh of relief. During a debate among the presidential candidates, the preacher sounded so reasonable he was almost irrelevant.” The Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition campaign served primarily to keep the most active, militant and radical Democrats from leaving the party. After the campaign, that movement disappeared.
This is the historic role of the Democrats: in the Populist era of the 1890s, in the labor upheaval of the 1930s, in the post-war upsurge of the 1940s, in the radical period of the 1960s. The Democrats role is to round-up the insurgent and dissident elements that are making change and bring them back into the Democratic Party and to chloroform them, put them back to sleep.
Question: The Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) seem to agree with you about the corporate control of the Democratic Party, but still they want to reform it. What do you think about their strategy to reform the Democratic Party?
La Botz: Many Progressive Democrats of America members are movement activists. I admire their stated goal. As the PDA website says, “We seek to build a party and government controlled by citizens, not corporate elites—with policies that serve the broad public interest, not just private interests.”
The Democratic Party has such strong institutional ties to government, the military, professional politicians, and the corporations that the kind of reform the PDA seeks is not possible. The Democratic Party is not a block club, or a community center where people could actually organize and vote out the leadership. It is a top-down party completely enmeshed in professional
politics and government.
I imagine that many PDA members will also come to the conclusion that reform of the Democrats is not possible. My hope is that, when they do, they will not become cynical about politics and the possibility of change, but will organize to lead those progressive out of the Democratic Party, to work for independent, progressive politics. And today, when progressive candidates are defeated in Democratic primaries, I hope PDA members don’t play by the party rules and go on to support “centrists” and “moderates” who have demonstrated their commitment to reactionary policies at home and abroad.
Question: So you don’t see any chance for reforming the Democratic Party?
La Botz: We have to look at the Democratic Part in the context of the contemporary American economy and society. Working people, labor unions, the movements for social justice used to prefer the Democrats. They knew the Republicans wouldn’t negotiate, but with the Democrats negotiation was always possible. For all intents and purposes, those days are over.
We have entered a period of capitalist crisis, a structural crisis of modern American capitalism that finds it increasingly difficult to compete internationally with Germany, Japan, the rising power of China, and now the new competitors such as Brazil and India. While the U.S. economy—that is American capitalism—could in the past afford to be more expansive and liberal in its social programs, that sort of largesse is no longer possible in the current crisis.
The Republicans and the Democrats have both become parties of economic retrenchment, looking for ways to cut reduce universal social programs, such as Social Security, and to restrict their benefits. Under these conditions, the Democratic Party will continue to move to the right, despite the best efforts of genuine progressives within the party. It’s time to leave and create a working peoples party.
Question: Some people fear that the Tea Party movement and the ultra-conservative candidates they have successfully nominated in the Republican Party mean that the country is moving toward fascism. Faced with rightwing Republicans and currents of fascism, they argue, we have to support the Democrats.
La Botz: There is a growing rightwing movement in the form of the Tea Party and in it one can find some real, though still small, fascist organizations at work. The question is, does the Democratic Party represent some sort of bulwark against such ultra-conservatism and fascism? Do we see the Democrats mobilizing to create a massive movement as an alternative to the rising rightwing or even fascist movement? Not at all. The entire goal is to get people to vote for the increasingly conservative Democrats. How does that stop the right wing?
Do you stop the right by supporting the corporate-dominated Democratic Party? Do you stop a growing conservative trend or emerging fascism by moving to the right with the Blue Dog Democrats? I don’t think so. I think we fight the right by building powerful independent labor and social movements and offering an alternative to both corporate parties, that is, to both the Republicans and the Democrats.
Question: Alright, but from a completely pragmatic point of view, given our two party system, doesn’t your campaign run the risk of taking votes away from the Democratic Party candidate and electing the Republican?
La Botz: No, I don’t buy that. It’s not like this is a zero-sum game. Half of the eligible voters in the United States don’t vote. Most of those are working people and low-income people. The Democratic Party, which claims to be the party of working people, should be able to get its votes there. If it cannot, that’s their fault. Not mine.
When the Democratic Party loses elections, it generally loses to the Republicans, not to third parties. The argument that Ralph Nader and the Green Party cost Al Gore and the Democrats the 2004 election is completely specious. The Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Supreme Court won the election for George W. Bush.
Every party and every candidate has the opportunity and the responsibility to go out and win voters.
Right now Rob Portman is predicted to beat Fisher by 55 to 35 percent, according to a Rasmussen Poll. Why is Portman running ahead? First, Portman has about $9 million in his campaign treasury to Fisher’s $2 million. Portman’s advertising is burying Fisher. Equally important, Lt. Governor Lee Fisher cannot attract votes because Ohio has lost tens of thousands of jobs while the Democrats held power in both Washington, D.C. and Columbus, Ohio. The Democratic Party has failed to deal with the economic crisis and to provide jobs. The Democrats have consequently lost their appeal to working class and low-income voters.
Question: Would you want people to vote for you if the vote were really close, if the vote for you might mean the difference in who wins the election?
La Botz: Yes, I ask people to vote for me even if a vote for me might make the difference, because otherwise the Democratic Party will continue to be able to blackmail progressive voters. Most working class, African American and Latino voters only vote for the Democratic Party candidate because they believe that he or she will be better than the Republican. And all too often they are disappointed.
The Democrats extort votes from voters with the threat that the Republicans will be worse. Meanwhile both parties, arm-in-arm, move to the right. The Republicans will always tend to be worse than the Democrats, even as the whole political landscape shifts rightwards. We can’t let this serve as a permanent argument for accepting whatever the Democrats do.
People should vote for what they believe in, for what they know would be right for our country, not for a supposed “lesser of two evils.” We will not be able to go forward unless we are prepared to break with both corporate parties and construct a new political party on the left.
Question: Some would say: All that sounds very nice, but this is a two-party system, like it or not. You are a spoiler, so you are helping the Republicans.
La Botz: I have to say, this is the most common argument I heard from liberal Democrats. I hear this argument from the real party loyalists and it really disturbs me. Some tell me I shouldn’t run as a Socialist and tell others that they shouldn’t run as Greens or independent progressives. I find it deeply distressing that people who consider themselves to be “liberals” would attempt to squelch any attempt to create a more democratic system.
The Democratic Party organization, despite the party’s name, always opposes other parties and candidates that appear on their left. If we really believe in a democracy, then we have to recognize that people have the right to organize political parties and to put forward their point of view. If we are really progressive, then we should welcome a broadening and a deepening of the development of left political alternatives. We should recognize that healthy debate on the left will be good for the left and for the country.
Question: It sounds like you dislike the liberal Democrats about as much as they do you.
La Botz: Dislike the Democrats? Not at all. Most of my co-workers, neighbors and friends are Democrats. I absolutely oppose the Democratic Party organization, because it is a political arm of the corporations. But I find that I agree with most grassroots Democrats about the issues, and find that we share many common values. After all, when I participate in an anti-war demonstration or a union picketline, I am usually marching alongside a bunch of Democrats. While I walk with them, I talk with them, maybe even argue with them, and try to change their minds, try to convince them of the need for independent politics.
What we have to recognize is that the functional role of the Democratic Party. That is, whatever it says about itself, the Democratic Party in fact functions to prevent the development of an American political party that can represent the real interests of working people — from auto workers, teachers, bus drivers, steelworkers and clerical workers to nurses, freelancers, home health care workers and computer programmers.
That’s why the Republican Party isn’t sufficient for the corporations to run the country. The American ruling class needs two parties. The Republican Party keeps the small business people and corporate managers in line. The Democratic Party exists to keep the working class majority under control. The Democratic Party—and especially its leftwing—functions to keep the labor unions, African Americans, Latinos, women and LGBT folk from leaving to form an independent working class party not controlled by the corporations.
Question: Do you think that voting for you could really change America? Would a vote for you really move us in the direction of Socialism?
La Botz: I believe that progressive social change comes from mass movements from below, from working people. All of the great changes in American society came from such movements, whether we talk about the creation of the industrial unions in the 1930s, the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the women’s movement of the 1970s. Still today the environmental movement and the gay and lesbian rights movements have been created by millions of American working people. Social movements and activism bring change.
Yet, movements and activism must also need a vision, a political platform and a strategy. I run for office to project the vision, program and strategic ideas that can change American society. If I were elected, or even if 51 Socialist Senators were elected or if 50% plus 1 of the House were socialist, we could not bring about the change this society needs. Only the building of a mass movement can do that—but it would have to be a mass movement with a political agenda. I am attempting to project that agenda.
Socialists recognize that elections are only part of the democratic process and only part of changing society. Our goal is to build working class power in order to change society. The Democrats really want your involvement only on Election Day, and then hope you will go back to sleep. We want your involvement even more on other days, and want you wide awake and fighting for the future.
Question: Isn’t your campaign then really a symbolic campaign? Aren’t you just seeking a protest vote? Aren’t small parties like yours doomed to remain marginal?
La Botz: Not at all. This is not a symbolic campaign; this is a quite real campaign. To carry out the campaign, we have built campaign organizations in towns and cities and on college campuses throughout Ohio. Through the campaign, I have spoken to thousands of Ohio voters at meetings and public events. We have distributed tens of thousands of pieces of literature. I have appeared on radio and television shows talking about the need for a socialist alternative and my platform has appeared in newspapers all over the state. I have shared the platform with candidates from the other parties as we debated the issues. We will come out of this campaign having won thousands of votes for socialism, but more important we will have contributed to build activist networks and a socialist movement.
Question: So, do you think that Socialists can come to power in the United States through the ballot box?
La Botz: American history suggests that social movements and alternative political parties together offer the possibility for profound social change. We can think back to those small groups of men and women, black and white who met together in churches and schools back in the 1840s and who eventually formed small abolitionist groups and then the Free Soil Party. The existence of such a social movement and of an alternative political party provided the catalyst that led to the formation of the Republican Party which then led the Civil War to abolish slavery in the South.
We can also think of other small political parties which in other periods—the 1930s and the 1960s—a vision, a platform and a strategy. I think of the small labor parties that developed in the 1930s and of the Peace and Freedom Party of the late 1960s. While the social movements and the political alternatives they developed did not coincide to lead to the radical transformation of America in that period, they did force the major parties to adopt some of their progressive platform.
Today we are in a period when the combination of a complex economic, social and political crisis, an emerging mass movement, and parties offering political alternatives will be able to bring about the changes we seek. When this crisis deepens, history suggests that we will pass through a period of massive upheaval from below. When that happens, today’s left-of-center political parties—the Greens, the Socialists, and others–can help to provide that catalytic element which can lead millions of Democrats to leave their party and form a new party that really represents and is accountable to working people and has a progressive platform. Clearly, it will be rank-and-file Democrats and abstentionist and apathetic voters who will form the basis for America’s working class socialist party in the 21st century.