Since the mid 1930s, self-styled progressives and many socialists have often justified supporting one of the United States' two major capitalist parties by claiming that it is the “lesser evil” compared to the other one.
The “lesser evil” is frequently the Democratic Party. In this year's election, the “lesser evil” is the war hawk and neoliberal Hillary Clinton as opposed to right-wing populist Donald Trump.
But this has not been a “normal” election year. In the Democratic Party primary race, Senator Bernie Sanders waged a surprisingly strong challenge to the party establishment represented by Clinton. His main message was that the working class is continuing to suffer in the anaemic recovery from the Great Recession, which has mainly profited the rich.
Sanders identifies as a “democratic socialist” and raised some pro-working class demands. Noam Chomsky characterised him as a “New Deal Democrat”, referring to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.
Clinton was correctly seen by many Sanders supporters as defending the past eight years of the Obama administration. The Democratic machine was organised against Sanders, as proven by the Democratic National Committee internal documents published by WikiLeaks.
Trump is widely reviled for his open racism, hatred of Latino immigrants (but not white ones) and foreigners, as well as his open Islamophobia, misogyny, hinting at the use of violence and authoritarianism — and much more. For many, Clinton is seen as also evil but less so.
The US Socialist Worker offered a twist to the “lesser evil” with an article headlined: “The Evil of the Two Lessers.” Indeed, both Clinton and Trump are disliked by a majority of those eligible to vote (Trump more so). Polls also show about two thirds think that both are equally dishonest and untrustworthy.
After his defeat in the Democratic primaries, Sanders came out in support of Clinton — as he always promised he would do. His objective was never to break with the Democrats but reform the party in a more leftward direction.
Sanders urges his supporters to join the Clinton campaign. But many are angry at the rigging of the Democrat contest and hate Clinton's pro-corporate politics. This is true of many in the social movements and the small socialist groups.
This left opposition to Clinton is creating a broad discussion of whether to go with the Clinton lesser evil or to support the independent left-wing candidacy of Jill Stein of the Green Party.
Interest in the Stein campaign has jumped since Sanders' defeat and embrace of the Clinton campaign. At the recent convention of the Green Party, which formally endorsed Stein, she took up the lesser evil question: “We have a role to play that will not be played by anybody but us. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
“When they tell us to get out of the way, because we are standing in the way of the lesser evil, the answer to that is this politics of fear, which we've been told to bow down to, has only delivered everything we were afraid of…
“All those reasons we were told to vote for the lesser evil — because we didn't want the offshoring of our jobs, the meltdown of the climate, the massive bailouts for Wall Street, the expanding prison state, the attack on our civil liberties and on immigrant rights — all those things we didn't want is exactly what we got by allowing ourselves to be silenced and letting lesser evil speak for us.”
“On climate change, we are told that there will be a civilisation-ending development in the form of massive sea level rise as soon as 2050 … So we cannot wait, we have to act now if we want to stop that from happening.
“We need to declare a state of emergency right now and undertake a wartime-scale mobilisation to create 20 million jobs and create 100 percent clean energy now.
“We have a crisis in nuclear weapons, and again thanks very much to the Democrats. Bill Clinton, who removed us from the Anti-Ballistic Treaty framework for nuclear disarmament, and then Barack Obama, who created a trillion-dollar budget for us to spend on a new generation of nuclear weapons and modes of delivery.”
She also raises President Barack Obama's continuation of the wars without end under the rubric of the “War on Terror”.
Concerning how to fight Trump, Stein said, “The only solution to the likes of Donald Trump is a truly radical, progressive agenda that restores our needs and ends the economic misery that promotes the kinds of demagogues we are seeing in Donald Trump…
“Hillary Clinton is the problem; she is not the solution to Donald Trump.”
The US Green Party is to the left of many other Green parties internationally. It recently adopted a new statement of purpose defining itself as anti-capitalist. On the alternative to capitalism, it remains vague and doesn't call for socialism — reflecting internal differences. Stein often refers positively to socialists and proposes an alliance with socialists.
Among the main socialist groups, there is a divide over supporting Clinton as the lesser evil to Trump. The Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), which came out of a split in the Communist Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has the traditional stance, like that of the CP itself, of supporting the Democratic Party. The Communist Party has the same stance.
This year, the CCDS joined Sanders' Democratic Party campaign. After Sanders lost, it altered its traditional stance. It now calls for a vote for Clinton in states where the race is close between Clinton and Trump. In states that are not up for grabs, it calls for a vote for Stein. Thus it retains the basic “lesser evil” argument.
The US's main social democratic group, Democratic Socialists of America, also comes from a long-standing tradition of supporting the Democrats and has taken a similar position to the CCDS on Clinton and Stein. Some DSA members support Stein in all states, but the group's basic orientation is the same as the CCDS — to reform the Democratic Party along the lines Sanders proposes.
To their left, Socialist Alternative, the International Socialist Organisation and Solidarity stand for a break with the Democrats and argue that a mass independent workers' party is needed — and Stein's campaign is a step in that direction.
Socialist Alternative joined the Sanders Democratic Party campaign, as did a section of Solidarity, before shifting to Stein.
The context for this discussion has been the long-standing position of the trade union bureaucracy of subordinating workers' interests to the capitalist Democratic Party and opposing building an independent labour party.
A similar position has been taken by the major establishment Black, Latino and women's groups. Subordination to the Democratic Party has led some leftists to characterise the Democrats as the “graveyard of labour and social movements.
The long-term economic stagnation that drove the type of opposition to the status quo seen in Sanders' campaign will continue. Stein's campaign can tap into the same sentiments and begin to raise the need to break from the stranglehold of the two party system of capitalist rule that has stifled the working class and the oppressed for so long.