Untangling the Election Madness: A Reply to Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn, in his column for “The Progressive” (March 2008), has written a political analysis that deplores the current “election frenzy.” In its place he offers a guide to action based on the understanding that presidential elections, in and of themselves, do very little to solve social problems. Unfortunately, his overall argument is flawed by its inability to break free from the lure of the two-party system in general and of the Democrats in particular.

Zinn, a former professor of political science at Boston University, a civil rights and antiwar activist, author of the justly celebrated “A People’s History of the United States,” in addition to numerous other works, is one of the most widely respected voices on the American left. What he writes merits attention.

In his article, “Election Madness,” Zinn attempts to achieve a principled but realistic compromise with the two-party system that dominates American politics. He enthusiastically encourages independent political action, and, far less enthusiastically, encourages a vote for the Democratic candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

As have many before him, Zinn believes progressives can use the two-party system and somehow avoid being used by it. That is, he advocates brief cooperation to avoid long-term co-option. But this is a resolution more readily achieved on paper than in practice.

Nonetheless, much of what Zinn writes is perceptive and bold. Without mentioning Clinton or Obama by name, Zinn makes a forceful, accurate case against them and the Democratic Party itself. He writes bluntly: “Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all.

“They offer no radical change from the status quo…

“None of this should surprise us… We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.”

After skewering the myth of the ballet box, it is surprising that Zinn still clings to the false hope of elections. Yet, he is unable to follow his argument to its proper conclusion and advocate the logic of withdrawal from the two party system.

Instead, he says, “No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death…

“Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.”

Again, the premise of Zinn’s argument does not lead to his stated conclusion. Avoiding an ultra-left position and, apparently, moral purity, does not require diddling with Democrats, even for two minutes.

Moral purity is hardly the issue. Especially after the squalid scandals of President Clinton, former Governor Eliot Spitzer, etc. – let moral purity of any sort, personal or political, become what St. Paul said of faith: “the substance of things hoped for” rather than a dubious virtue self-righteously proclaimed.

Ultra-leftism, by all means, should be avoided. It would be foolish for Marxists to argue that since bourgeois elections foster illusions, that since they create a false sense of “the consent of the governed,” then these elections should be boycotted or ignored.

When revolutionary socialists do not participate in bourgeois elections, it is a sign, not of some kind of moral purity, but of political or organizational weakness. The failure to contest capitalism in the electoral arena does not preserve the purity of the working class or of the protest movements; it only strengthens the influence and the power of the ruling class.

Socialists have a long tradition – Eugene V. Debs is, of course, the most successful example – of using capitalist elections to speak against the capitalist system itself. In its best years, the Socialist Workers Party did the same: using elections to educate about socialism, to promote movements for social change, and, at the same time, to build the revolutionary party. To squander or surrender such opportunities would be the height of foolishness.

Yet, to surrender to the class enemy by voting for one of its candidates, even the most liberal and charming of them, is no advance over ultra-leftism.

Note, first, that Zinn does not advocate a protest vote for a third-party candidate, much less a vote for a socialist. He intends to be pragmatic by voting for the lesser-evil, that is, opposing the Republican by voting for the Democrat.

This approach actually raises more questions than it answers and, in reality, draws progressives step by step into the swamp of bourgeois politics.

If voting for the Democratic Party candidate is useful and necessary, then why stop there? No one wins a nomination without enormous expenditure of time, effort, and money. Why not work for the candidate during the primaries to ensure that it will be possible to vote for him or her in the presidential election?

If it is worth voting for the Democrat, then isn’t it also worthwhile to encourage other voters to do the same? Wouldn’t you try to convince people to support (even if for only two minutes) the candidate that you’ve supported?

After all, there is no guarantee that a Democrat will win the election. By late March 2008, for instance, polls show John McCain ahead of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. A Gallup poll and a “Los Angeles Times” poll show voters trusting McCain as the candidate most capable of managing the Iraq war, more than Clinton or Obama, by 10 to 15 points! Surely, then, with numbers like these, a vote for the Democratic candidate would not be enough. It would only make sense to work energetically for the Democrat to reverse the Republican candidate’s substantial lead.

If the Republican has to be defeated, if a Democratic victory is really significant, then a mere single vote is insufficient. It would be necessary to support – not the most reform-minded of the Democrats but whichever Democrat won the nomination – more fully and more vigorously.

To be most effective, one would work with others in a coordinated fashion to ensure the greatest possibility of success. That would mean joining a Democratic campaign committee to raise funds, make phone calls, campaign door-to-door, hold signs, distribute campaign literature, drive supporters to the voting places, and so on.

These efforts, all consistent, even necessary, that follow from supporting the Democratic candidate in the first place, consume considerably more than “two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth,” as Zinn says.

In fact, if Zinn is correct, if “even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death,” then two minutes is clearly inadequate. All-out, thorough-going support for the Democrat would obviously be necessary.

This scenario is not merely a supposition but is established in fact. It is the political trajectory and conclusion of “The Nation” magazine, for one. In February 2007 a “Nation” editorial promised not to “support any candidate who does not call for a speedy withdrawal of our troops” from the battlefields of Iraq. One year later, “The Nation” announced its support for Sen. Barack Obama, who promises, not “speedy withdrawal,” but a sustained U.S. military presence in Iraq and a troop increase of some 90,000 soldiers, the better to police the world.

A year ago “The Nation” claimed a position even more radical than Zinn – unless the Democratic nominee campaigned for “speedy withdrawal” from Iraq, they wouldn’t support the candidate for even two minutes.

But, in for a penny, in for a pound. The logic of lesser-evil politics means abandoning criticism and supporting whatever candidate the Democratic Party throws up.

History does, unfortunately, repeat itself. In the 1960s, supporters of Sen. McCarthy or Sen. Robert Kennedy were left with the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. After all, wasn’t he better than Nixon? In the 1980s, Rainbow Party activists who worked for Jesse Jackson ended up, after all their efforts, with Walter Mondale and, later, Michael Dukakis. After all, weren’t either of these two better than Reagan and Bush?

In 2012, those active in social struggles will again be told that the current election is unique, so voting for a Democrat will be vital, just as Zinn argued that the 2004 election was one of those “certain critical moments in our history, when even a small difference between the political parties may be the difference between war and peace” (“Original Zinn: Conversations of History and Politics,” p. 154).

Every presidential election will always be a “certain critical moment” when the choice will be an evil Republican or a lesser evil Democrat, with both candidates completely loyal to the profit system.

Despite the best intentions of Prof. Zinn and the liberals of “The Nation,” the contradictory direction of independent activism and dependence on bourgeois candidates cannot be balanced or reconciled. The one negates the other. Even the most radical argument for a reformist position cannot escape the pitfalls of reformism.

The road to social progress is not with but against the Democrats. The way forward is to break cleanly and completely with the logic of lesser-evils that always leads to support of one of the two capitalist parties.

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