Resolving the Left Impasse Over Elections

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. DSA’s perspective on the 2016 elections can be found here

By Kurt Stand


Organizing success requires establishing a framework that enables individuals to express their distinct voices in combination with others in an expanding circle of mutual support.  The goal – to form a union, stop police violence, prevent off-shore drilling, cut military spending – brings people together even though immediate concerns and/or long-term aims will vary greatly.  Success or failure in any given campaign resides in how close it gets toward its principle objective, and, crucially, whether people remain engaged.  Win or lose, the next step almost inevitably entails reaching out to those who stayed on the sidelines, advocated a different approach or stood in opposition in order to build strength for whatever follows. 

Few activists would dispute the above – except when it comes to elections.  Then, the tendency is to see those charting a different course as opponents rather than individuals or communities whose outlook and participation is needed for success.  It is a blindness well in evidence this campaign season.

Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton is viewed by some as the needed last step to unify the Democratic Party and progressive opinion in order to defeat Donald Trump.  From this perspective, those who refuse to go along are opening the door to the most dangerous right-wing demagogue we have faced in our time.  The hateful speeches that characterized the Republican Convention only amplified that view.  From another perspective, Sanders’ endorsement is a betrayal of his program, and of the voters who supported him.  Such critics charge that he succumbed to a pragmatic opportunism which will reinforce corporate neo-liberalism.  Clinton’s pick of Tim Kaine as her running mate underlines her Wall Street agenda and gives credence to those who argue that she is not a progressive alternative to Trump. 

Curiously, one salient fact is often ignored: Sander’s success in putting inequality at the center of politics, bringing the term “socialism” back into public discussion and generating widespread enthusiasm for a “political revolution” grew from working within the Democratic Party without being beholden to it.  This inside/outside organizing helped establish unity between those with clashing perspectives without sacrificing principles. 

It is a lesson lost when the valid point that there needs to be the widest possible unity of working people to confront and defeat Trump is joined to the argument that Clinton has now adopted social justice policy positions she refused to previously advocate.  Certainly, there is nothing progressive about her projected foreign policy.  Clinton’s insistence that she would achieve the domestic aims outlined in her acceptance speech by reaching across the aisle to Republicans calls into question any guarantee of a progressive Administration.  Sanders made a different argument – legislative progress on a progressive agenda is only possible through mass pressure. 

Others argue that Trump can’t win or that it is a matter of indifference whether he or Clinton is in office next year.  Behind this lies the disempowering notion that a candidate’s relationship to corporate power matters far more than popular opinion.  An example can be found in an article by Steve Bloom (signed by a number of other activists) who writes:

A victory . . . for someone who espouses a less-blatantly racist imperial agenda still strengthens the hand of the imperial rulers of this country . . . This electoral tactic/strategy has been tried often. It has not once led to a leftward shift in the establishment political discourse . . . not even when the candidate they call on us to vote for wins and takes office. Indeed, any such “victory” tends to simply compound the problem by making the calls by the rabid right even more strident. Note, as a clear example, the emergence of Trump after eight years of an Obama Administration.

Of course, those eight years also saw the emergence of Occupy and Black Lives Matter – and Sanders garnering the support of millions.  More important, this line of reasoning ignores the impact on whole communities of his open racism, xenophobia and misogyny.  Trump’s candidacy relies on mobilizing white voters to the exclusion of all who look, think or act differently; Clinton’s campaign relies on mobilizing a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of women and men of different sexual identities, different backgrounds.  These are distinctions that should matter to proponents of social justice, of socialism.

Moreover, Trump demonstrates open contempt for civil liberties with his advocacy of torture, of violence against opponents.  Beyond the “liberal”/ “conservative” business-as-usual divide in US politics, Trump’s campaign needs to be confronted as a threat to democratic rights in and of themselves.  To treat such rhetoric in a cavalier fashion reflects the liberal illusion that our rights – however limited they may be – can never be truly imperiled. 

Yet such criticism should not be taken as a dismissal of the legitimate anger behind the argument. To say that Trump needs to be defeated is not sufficient reason to ignore Hillary Clinton’s militarist assertion of U.S. power abroad, her ties to Wall Street, her support for the death penalty, or her consistent opposition to universal New Deal-type social programs in favor of means-tested plans that deepen inequality. 


Defining a social justice agenda primarily in reaction to Clinton (oppose her, back her), or Trump (fight him, ignore him), allows the dominant two-party system to set the tone, and reduces independent politics to slogans without substance.  Such arguments inhibit the ability of progressive working-class politics to take the initiative. 

In today’s moment this means confronting and defeating Donald Trump; all sophistries aside, that can only happen by electing Hillary Clinton as president.  Trump normalizes overt racism, and if nothing else, that is sufficient reason for taking seriously the choices for November.  But support for Clinton should be combined with opposition to any part of her program that reinforces corporate economics, military interventionism, undemocratic policies and practices – opposition to TPP, support for Palestinian rights, a ban on fracking, solidarity with Honduras, should not be put on hold. 

Saying this doesn’t make an enemy of those concerned that criticism of Clinton will help Trump, nor does it make an enemy of those who back Jill Stein.  That logic, however, goes both ways.  Supporters of Stein who aim their fire at Clinton supporters undermine any project for building a sustainable social justice movement, Clinton supporters who condemn all who don’t embrace her undermine their objective of unifying to defeat Trump.

We will find a path to organizing against the neo-fascist danger posed by Trump without surrendering to Clinton’s neo-liberalism when we link election activity to ongoing activity within and through popular movements and social justice organizations.  Choices we make depend on circumstances not of our own making; independence flows from what we do with those choices: build solidarity rather than proclaim it, speak to popular intelligence rather than in slogans, and connect our work toward improving life in the present to a strategy for a future that is free because equal, democratic because inclusive, secure because just.

A strategy to realize that vision requires a national organizational form that gives unified scope to multiple voices, links multiple levels of engagement.  Too often, work in election campaigns dissipate almost as soon as concluded – unlike in other kinds of organizing, for reasons noted above.  This time may be different, especially if Sanders’ planned initiative to maintain the network of supporters of the “political revolution” can maintain a balance between independence and connections beyond itself. 

Turning to the past, we have an example of what such a formation could look like in the Rainbow Coalition, built around Jesse Jackson’s 1984/88 presidential runs.  Though not fully realized, it achieved an enormous amount – reform within organized labor, gains for the women’s movement, expanding support for peace and global solidarity, new linkages for environmental organizations, connections to farming communities. Such impacts were beyond any reverberations flowing from Nader’s campaign, beyond the impact made by mainstream Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore. 

Yet the Rainbow didn’t survive, in large part because the changes which it helped further were still at too early a stage of development, thus individual leadership choices loomed too large in its growth and decline.  But the Rainbow had strengths that Sanders lacked – it was truly multi-racial and multi-ethnic in its leadership, electoral support, activist base.  This was not a matter of program; in many ways the Rainbow’s was similar to Sanders’, centered on universal programs to advance economic justice and democratic rights.  Rather, it has to do with the fact that African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Mid-Eastern, and Native communities were full participants in setting the Rainbow’s agenda and defining the movement.

The complexity in each aspect of what we face as well as of the whole should inform our actions around the elections and beyond.  A path toward that end was offered by DSA’s National Political Committee in a statement on our current political choices which came to the following conclusion:

While we also vehemently oppose the pro-corporate, imperialist policies of neoliberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton, we recognize that defeating the authoritarian Donald Trump is a crucial step toward building both a strong opposition to neoliberal democrats as well as a powerful democratic socialist movement. …

Going forward, DSA believes that it is only by prioritizing work around issues of racial justice – broadly conceived – that the emerging Sanders trend in U.S. politics can become a truly multiracial, majoritarian movement. Only by legitimating antiracist and feminist democratic socialist politics and fighting for the ultimate democratization of economic and social life – what is known around the world as “democratic socialism” – can we build a society that serves the needs of the 99%.

We can seize this moment to build social justice politics that are broad and transformative; if we don’t take the initiative, however, reaction surely will.  The choice, individually and collectively, remains with each of us.


Kurt Stand is a member of Washington, DC DSA.

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