Can Progressives Bring Democracy to the USA?

October 22nd, 2012

Published on ZNet, by Gregory Wilpert, Oct. 19, 2012.

… Can Progressives Bring Democracy to the U.S.A.? – Failed Strategies:

There is an on-going debate among progressives with regard to left strategy in the U.S. On the one side are progressives who argue that the political system is hopelessly corrupt and so undemocratic that it makes no sense to run for office or to support nominally progressive candidates. 

Either these candidates have no chance of being elected or, if they do get elected, they cannot achieve anything once in office or they become so corrupted by the system that they don’t even try to work for progressive change. The conclusion of this position is that progressives ought to forget about electoral politics altogether and focus on working on specific issues outside of the political system, either by pressuring the government through protest and civil disobedience or by creating alternatives outside of the existing political and economic system. Many people involved in Occupy Wall Street or in the U.S. Social Forum often take this position.

Given the undemocratic and plutocratic-polyarchic nature of U.S. politics, participating in the electoral process does seem to merely feed the beast because voting gives the system a legitimacy that it otherwise would not have, no matter for whom a person votes. In other words, if we see the electoral process for what it is, as a process of legitimizing a political system that we actually profoundly object to, then perhaps it is our moral duty to withdraw this legitimacy by boycotting the electoral system. This could be a form of civil disobedience and not just an apolitical abstention. As a matter of fact, it would seem that U.S. politics already enjoys the legitimacy of only a tiny minority of the U.S. population.
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 17% of the population believes that the U.S. government has the consent of the governed.

On the other side of the argument are those progressives—mostly people involved in more “mainstream” groups, such as and Dennis Kucinich supporters—who argue that no matter how corrupt or undemocratic the political system is, voters still have a choice and can still make a difference in the outcome of elections by supporting the “lesser of two evils” (for a more leftist version of this view, see Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Carl Davidson’s recent article or Tom Hayden’s position). More than that, this argument often goes, citizens have a moral obligation to prevent the worse candidate from being elected, since despite the relatively small differences between parties and their candidates, who gets elected still makes a real difference for people’s lives (especially for those who are more disadvantaged). Abstaining from the electoral process just abandons the political terrain in favor of an even worse rightward drift in U.S. politics.

A variant of this second position argues that progressives ought to try to take over the Democratic party through an “inside-outside” strategy by both pressuring Democratic candidates through protest and activism and by at the same time running truly progressive candidates within the party so as to change the party from the inside. Historically, there have been at least three attempts to implement such a strategy, first in the 1960’s with parts of the New Left and of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Then, in the 1980’s, this strategy was tried under the leadership of Michael Harrington and his Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as under the leadership of Jesse Jackson and his National Rainbow Coalition (NRC). Most recently, in the early 2000’s, with the support of Dennis Kucinich and Tom Hayden, the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) tried this strategy again.

A third perspective on this debate, which comes from supporters of third parties, argues that indeed, the Democratic and Republican parties are hopelessly corrupt and should therefore not be supported, but abandoning electoral politics to these parties is not a solution either and that one should instead support progressive independent candidates or third parties, such as the Green Party. Here the argument is that even if third parties and independents have little to no chance of winning, at least not for major elected office, they would help move political discourse towards the left by forcing Democratic candidates to not take the progressive vote for granted.

In short, we could call these three positions about electoral politics, non-participation (or boycott), lesser evil voting (with or without Democratic party takeover), and third party voting. Each of these three positions makes important points that are convincing and difficult to refute. How can one counter the main argument of lesser-evil voting, that we have a moral obligation to prevent the worst from happening to the most oppressed? On the other hand, if that lesser evil is also involved in atrocities, as is all too often the case with the foreign policy of Democratic presidents, then wouldn’t lesser-evil voting perpetuate evil? But doesn’t the solution of voting for a third party seems equally hopeless, since the third party candidate might just take votes from the marginally better candidate and enable the election of the even worse candidate? There seems to be no easy solution to this debate. One possible compromise solution has been to urge people to vote for the lesser evil in state where the races is close, but to vote for third party candidates in races where progressives are unlikely to make a difference in the outcome (a position that very many prominent U.S. progressives advocated
in 2004 and in 2000).

Also, given that each side has convincing arguments, this helps explain why the progressive movement is so weak in the U.S.: the diversity and depth of conviction of attitudes towards electoral politics makes unity within the left nearly impossible.

What this strategy debate points to is precisely the undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system. This is the kind of debate you would expect to see in countries with profoundly dysfunctional democracies. If the U.S. had a more democratic system, there would be a general consensus among progressives to participate in the democratic process. The reason you do not see this kind of debate in the democracies of Western Europe or of Latin America (at least not since the 1970’s in Western Europe and since the 1990’s in Latin America) is that these countries, by and large, have far more democratic political systems than the U.S. does.

A New Strategy? Calling for a Second Independence: … //

… Conclusion: What About 2012?

Such strategic considerations of what to do of course also have to consider how to deal with on-going electoral cycles. The question in this context is then, what about Obama in 2012? Does it make sense for progressives to vote for Obama this year, given how negative his policies have been for most people in the U.S. and especially for people in countries where the U.S. has intervened in the last four years? The key, I believe, is that progressives (or any responsible individual) is obliged to minimize harm, even when they don’t have an opportunity to do good, which is precisely the situation when we enter the voting booth in some states. This means that even if Obama is only minimally better than Romney, progressives ought to support Obama in those states where there is a chance that Obama might lose the state. However, if he is either guaranteed to lose it or to win it, then it makes little sense to vote either for Obama or for a third candidate. As I discussed earlier in this article, a vote for a third candidate has no hope of making a real difference and merely represents a further legitimation of the undemocratic U.S. political system.

Despite the efforts of many progressives and supporters of the Democratic party to portray this election as a momentously stark choice between two very different candidates, Obama is actually only minimally different from Romney, mostly in the area of economic policy – and even there mostly only in the area of taxation and of how much he would cut social spending. We need to be clear: a vote for Obama is not a vote for a progressive or even “liberal” agenda, but merely a vote to stall or slow-down the country’s on-going rightward drift. However, if Romney wins the election, he will almost certainly renew and reinvigorate the country’s move to the right and probably even cause a serous economic downturn because of the Republicans’ austerity agenda. Even the New York Times recently recognized just how much further the Republicans—and by implication the rest of the country, including the Democrats—have moved to the right in the last thirty years. Preventing Romney’s election is thus better for working people, even if voting for Obama barely represents a more positive alternative.

Voting for the “lesser evil” in swing states, however, does not absolve us from having supported a candidate whose policies we consider “evil” or oppressive. More than that, as I stated earlier, the very act of voting legitimizes an increasingly undemocratic polyarchic plutocracy. We must be clear about this too: all voting, even for a radical third party candidate, legitimizes an undemocratic political system. As a result, everything we do between elections ought to counter this act of legitimization, by organizing against the existing political system for transformative change of the U.S. political system.
(full long long text).

(Gregory Wilpert is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College’s Graduate Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso Books, 2007) and a member of the recently launched International Organization for a Participatory Society IOPS. For a collection of his writing, see Gregory


International Organization for a Participatory Society IOPS;

The Fall of America and the Rise In Spirit, on Activist Post, by Bernie Suarez, Oct. 20, 2012;

The Gaddafi clan: Where are they now? on BBCnews/Africa, by , Oct. 20, 2012:

Russia protects Armenia from Western influence, on english, Oct. 19, 2012.

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