Every national election, there’s another attempt to launch an independent left (or left-leaning) campaign. There’s also a huge mobilization of lefties to support the Democratic candidate. Every time this happens, an old debate rekindles over the relative merits of the two positions.
One side is convinced that the party itself is a trap, that once it is supported, the supporters are compromised and hamstrung until they see the light. The “independents only” advocates think those on the other side are either working for party bosses, or are too simple to see that the Democrats push bad policies.
The other side feels silly that they even have to point out that the popular base for change has been attached to the Democrats since 1932, that the two-party system is not threatened by independent campaigns for president, and that the results of Republican wins are obviously worse for working people than those of Democratic wins.
The ‘third party now’ side often argues that even if these factors are true, principles and/or morality demand that working with, in, or through the party be abandoned right away. “Don’t vote for what you don’t want” is the logical-sounding mantra. And the Democrats themselves, who are ‘the second party of capital’, have made so many concessions to the right that they have squandered their own base of support.
The ‘inside/outside’ position recognizes this, but sees nothing inherent in the party’s role or structure that would automatically taint building a left presence in it. Shit happens, but not automatically or inevitably. As for the party’s politics, local races are often influenced by local social movements who push local electeds from the center to the left, either by political pressure or electing their own candidates.
‘Inside/outside’ supports independent slates and parties when they have a chance of strengthening the left’s hand and pushing through progressive policies. They oppose independent runs that act as spoilers for the right, or avoid reaching out to the Democrats’ popular base.
Those who seek out a Euro-style Green or far left niche in the American electoral system maintain that ‘inside/outside’ is a repeatedly failed compromise with centrists, who are often framed as no better than, or even no different from, the GOP right and center-right.
But the only time the left had any appreciable success in a national election outside either major party was in 1912, when Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party won 6% in a four-way race, scoring 900,000 votes. In 1948, Henry Wallace, a popular New Deal leader, broke from Harry Truman to run independently. He received 2.4%, matching the percentage of Dixiecrat breakaway Strom Thurmond.
Bernie Sanders broke hearts in the ‘independent only’ camp when he ran in the Democratic primaries last year. Yet running as a democratic socialist, he far exceeded Debs with more than 13 million primary votes.
What is even more significant is that by employing an inside/outside strategy, Sanders gave the American left a new lease on life. He brought it out of the margins for a fleeting moment, and unlike Obama, left the door open. He brought hundreds of thousands of new actors into the electoral process, not just out of self defense against an insurgent right, but in response to demands that directly challenged neoliberalism and xenophobia.
Under the circumstances of the Trump non-popular election, the best that can be said about the Jill Stein campaign is they failed to get more votes, which would have conclusively stained them as spoilers for the right.
Sanders chose to run as a Democrat and won enough influence to give the party a more pronounced left voice. He was also a diligent campaigner for Clinton, but could not get through to the Democratic leadership that Trump was picking up their base among rural and suburban workers who had supported Bill Clinton and Obama. Now the fight has shifted to the direction of the party itself. But for the Stein supporters, whether Green or socialist, this is strictly off-limits by definition.
The US has a share of left electoral activists in every state. They are fringe, fragmented and uncoordinated, like the rest of the left. But if the goal is breaking out of that quagmire, then an inside/outside strategy has proven potential. This is also the direction most left voters choose, even though it means going head-to-head against entrenched power brokers and money handlers.
The alternative is eternal glory in our own implacability, which is its own — and only — reward.
Charles Lenchner is the co-founder of People for Bernie Sanders.