“I’ll sit out the 2016 elections”: really?

Announcements by candidates running for president are coming fast and furious. So I guess the 2016 election campaign has begun.

I’ve been particularly struck by reactions to Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement, which range from hostility to indignation to excitement.

In a hilarious take on the visceral hatred the far-right has for Clinton, humorist Andy Borowitz wrote, “RNC chair Reince Priebus called the (Republican) candidates’ ongoing evisceration of Clinton ‘magnificent,’ but expressed his concern that ‘no human beings, even an impressive group like yourselves, could possibly sustain such a high intensity of throbbing hatred for an entire year and a half.'”

In fact it’s disgusting to see Clinton being ganged up on by a bunch of Republican men who oppose every advance for women’s rights. Perhaps this is why former CEO Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson joined the race: to try to make the Republicans look less like a bunch of grumpy old white men. But Fiorina and Carson, far-right, anti-worker, are no prizes either.

Election campaigns – like politics – are all about coalition-building. Whether Clinton is able to assemble a winning coalition or her campaign is mortally wounded by controversy remains to be seen. Other candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, will liven up the debate.

And what a great thing that a self-described democratic socialist is running. It means more radical, substantive proposals will get discussed among millions, including Medicare for all, regulation of Wall Street greed, expanding Social Security, and American style socialism. Sanders can talk about things Clinton can’t or won’t speak about.

Sanders is setting a good tone: “I’m not running to attack Hillary, but to raise issues that face the working class of this country.” This is important for maintaining unity during and after the primaries, in the vital fight to defeat the far-right.

A few reactions to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy have made me scratch my head: “I want a woman president, but not this one,” “I’ll be sitting out the 2016 elections,” “I will never support her” and so on. Some have gone so far as to declare little difference between Clinton and the Republican candidates. One person described “Scott Walker vs. Clinton” as “Pepsi vs. Pepsi Light.”

Drawing a line in the sand when it comes to Clinton or any other candidate may validate one’s sense of moral outrage, but it gets us no closer to developing a viable strategy to determine a positive election outcome.

Inflicting a defeat on the GOP and ultra-right is not possible without assembling a broad multi-class, multi-racial coalition of all the major social forces, including that section of the capitalist class at odds with the extreme right. It includes the broad, loosely organized people’s coalition led by labor, comprising many grassroots democratic movements. It means working in and with the Democratic Party and its pro-Wall Street wing, even though they are at best unreliable and inconsistent allies and on occasion the main foe.

And it has to include political independents and even moderate Republicans. It means making inroads in “red” states and districts.

Only this kind of vision and breadth is capable of defeating the extreme right coalition of forces grouped in and around the GOP that includes the energy transnationals and military industrial complex and other sections of capital, Chamber of Commerce, evangelical Christians, Libertarians, neo-conservatives, tea party extremists, rabid racists, anti-LGBTQ, anti-women, anti-immigrant fanatics, global warming deniers and all their ilk.

The gulf between these two kinds of coalitions is as wide as the Grand Canyon, and who wins will have enormous consequences. A victory for the broad small-d democratic coalition would put the people’s coalition led by labor in a more advantageous position to fight the ultra-right and neo-liberal offensive being unleashed by the capitalist class, and to win real gains for the 99 percent of Americans.

This is the only path to more advanced stages of struggle, the election of radical democratic reform governments (national, state, local) capable of curbing the power of Wall Street and ultimately putting us on a path to democratic, green, demilitarized socialism. For example, it’s hard to conceive of advanced stages of struggle without a bigger, better organized, more united and more politically and class conscious working class and organized labor movement and its broad alliances. This is a prerequisite for social progress. Does anyone seriously think this is possible with a right-wing lockdown of federal, state and local government?

The outlook I have presented rests on the assumption that one views the ultra-right as the main danger to democracy and social progress and that sitting out the 2016 elections, or voting third party given our present two-party setup, are not effective means to advance progressive politics.

Rising right-wing danger

The ultra-right in our country arguably poses one of the greatest dangers to life on Earth. Climate scientists are issuing increasingly dire warnings and calling for more urgent action to stem global warming. If Republicans win the White House, they are sure to undo the Obama administration’s actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and they will disable the Environmental Protection Agency, block global climate treaties and allow the energy transnationals to write federal policy.

The battle against right-wing extremism has been a prolonged one, since at least 1980, when the extreme right took over the Republican Party and catapulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

The GOP victory in the 2014 elections heightened the extreme right danger. It extended right-wing Republican domination of Congress, guaranteeing a House majority until at least 2022. The GOP now controls 11 more statehouses and 31 governorships. The Republicans control 67 of 98 partisan state legislative chambers and has total control of governorships and both chambers of the legislature in 24 states. The GOP can obstruct progressive legislation at the federal level and in at least half the states.

Far from the new spirit of cooperation the GOP promised following their victory, they are gripped with a new level of racist hostility, irrational fury and obstructionism directed against President Obama. In the process the GOP is making government practically unworkable.

This is complemented by an openly partisan reactionary judiciary, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, whose right-wing majority act as “political operatives dressed in robes,” committing open obstruction, contemptuous of the Constitution, working in parallel with the GOP congressional majority to roll back rights and undercut progressive policy achievements.

We are witnessing an unprecedented undermining of traditional presidential authority directed at President Obama and any liberal or progressive executive initiatives. This was most evident when the Republican leadership extended an invitation to right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress and interfere in our foreign policy, behind the back of President Obama.

Or the letter signed by 47 Republican senators to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran warning him not to trust Obama and threatening to scuttle the entire framework of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran even before it was agreed upon.

Or Republican Majority Speaker Mitch McConnell of Kentucky calling on states to illegally ignore EPA efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Or the lawsuit by 26 GOP-dominated states seeking to block Obama executive authority on immigration reform by finding a right-wing federal judge in Texas to do their dirty work.

Or the open collusion of the states attorneys general with the biggest energy corporations to thwart and roll back Obama’s green environmental policy. “It is quite new,” Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University, told the New York Times. “The scope, size and tenor of these collaborations is, without question, unprecedented.”

The Republican-driven erosion of democratic rights is starkly seen in the enactment of cookie cutter voter suppression laws drafted by the right-wing funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts. It is now estimated that 3 to 5 million people, including 1.2 million in Texas alone, were prevented from voting in 2014. The margin of victory in scores of closely contested races was the margin of disenfranchisement of, especially, people of color, students and those living in poverty.

Because of their sweeping victory in the 2014 elections, GOP officials will control the electoral process in key swing states in 2016.

By combining institutionalized redistricting with efforts to change the Electoral College rules in key swing states, the right wing aims to make permanent a Republican presidency and Congress, even if Democrats win a majority popular vote.

Voter suppression added to the crisis of disengagement from electoral politics poses new dangers to democracy. Only 28 percent of voters turned out in 2014. With such low voter participation, democratic institutions and rights are at greater risk.

The flood of billionaire money unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling threatens democracy by allowing an oligarchy to buy elections. The most recent example is reports that the far-right billionaire Koch brothers are planning to spend $900 million to put anti-worker Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into the White House.

ALEC has also been responsible for introducing thousands of union-busting bills rolling back worker rights – especially “right to work” laws and attacks on public sector unions. It is estimated that this has resulted in the loss of 10% of public sector union membership. They aim to break the power of labor and its ability to form alliances in key “blue” and swing states.

ALEC is initiating new right-wing efforts to take over county and city government and impose local “right to work” (for less) laws.

Politics of hate

The right wing is fostering the spread of the most vile racism and hate that underlies the hostility directed at President Obama, the slew of voter suppression measures, the moves to destroy public schools, the police killings of unarmed young African Americans and other people of color and the military style occupation of communities of color by the police.

The extent of the institutionalized racism is starkly revealed in a recent study documenting that for every 100 African American women not incarcerated, there are only 83 African American men. Of the “missing” 1.5 million African American men aged 25 to 54, roughly 600,000 are locked up in prison, and another 900,000 have died prematurely due to murder and poor health. The biggest gap recorded is in, of all places, Ferguson, Missouri.

The Republican far-right has whipped up racist hatred and fear against undocumented immigrant workers and the Latino community in general.

Racism has been the justification for the long-term erosion of constitutional rights under the guise of the “war on drugs,” including eroding the rights to privacy and due process, criminalization of men of color, and racial profiling, resulting in mass incarceration and permanent loss of a range of rights due to felony convictions. All this has been made perfectly legal by Supreme Court rulings (as so clearly illustrated by Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow”).

This is a national shame and crisis and underscores what is driving the #blacklivesmatter movement and the reemergence of a new civil rights movement.

There is a new right-wing-fueled attack on women’s rights, beginning with greater restrictions on reproductive rights in 11 states including banning abortions after 20 weeks and attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, and blocking legislation guaranteeing equal pay.

This all illustrates the critical moment we live in. If the extreme right wins in 2016, we face a qualitatively new threat to democratic rights and the climate crisis.

If we learned anything from the Bush presidency (itself the result of a right-wing “American coup”) and more recently the actions of right-wing governors and Republican-controlled legislatures in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, the right is emboldened in victory, knows how to use power and wastes no time in enacting their agenda.

If the Republicans win the White House, they can be expected to stack the courts with right-wing appointments and impose austerity economics, including a dismantling of our social benefits programs.

We can expect the GOP to rule with racism and embed it in every policy and federal department including the Justice Department.

We can expect the GOP to reverse action on the climate crisis and promote global warming denial to official policy.

We can expect the GOP to favor a confrontationist and militarist foreign policy. Normalization of relations with Cuba or Iran could be reversed and a massive military buildup unleashed. Of Jeb Bush’s foreign policy advisors, 19 of 21 were in his father’s or brother’s administrations.

This is just for starters.

On the other hand, Clinton, Sanders and the other potential Democratic candidates generally favor the continuation of President Obama’s policy of normalization with both Cuba and Iran, and of reducing greenhouse gas emissions using the Clean Air Act, which Clinton told the League of Conservation Voters “must be protected at all costs.”

Fundamental differences between any of the potential Democratic candidates and any of the Republicans exist on nearly every issue.

Actively shaping the outcome

I am not saying mass movements and the left should passively support whichever Democrat is nominated. Nor am I advocating voting for the “lesser of two evils,” which itself is a no-struggle concept which doesn’t acknowledge the danger of the far-right. Far from it, the strategy I am outlining views the broad people’s movement and left as dynamic change agents, actively shaping issues, program and candidates.

Inspiring and channeling the energy and activism of all those who are pouring into the streets to “fight for $15,” protesting police murders, marching for action on the climate crisis, marriage equality, women’s rights, students for debt relief, those fighting for immigration reform, curbing the climate crisis – in short the broad people’s movement led by labor – will be decisive to victory in 2016.

Activism is key to determining what issues will be fought over. The political atmosphere in our country is different today largely because of these movements. Majorities support a higher minimum wage, taxing the rich, marriage equality, action on the climate, progressive immigration reform and even reducing mass incarceration and sentencing reform.

The AFL-CIO is leading the way with their “Raising Wages” campaign that will be a “measuring stick” to judge candidates and hold them accountable.

Here’s another example of how these movements affect politics: After the April 15 national strike for $15, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced legislation to raise the national minimum wage to $12 an hour (still not enough) and to end the tipping system for restaurant workers.

If the election terrain is based on issues advanced by the austerity “zombies” or war hawks, the political atmosphere and debate shifts to the right, and with it all the candidates.

However, if the election is defined around income inequality, the climate crisis and other issues facing working families, then the ultra-right will be on the defensive. The bigger and more united the movements, the more favorable the terrain of struggle.

All the candidates will have to adjust. Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be viewed statically. The country and the movements are not the same as in the 1990s, nor is Clinton, who is the leading candidate on issues of racial injustice, gender equality and immigration reform.

It’s also within this context that more advanced ideas can be raised, for example expanding Social Security and increasing benefits, scrapping the cap on taxing the wealthy, radically reducing the military budget, etc.

Furthermore, the movements have a big role in building broad-based multi-racial unity and activating, educating and drawing into the election process millions of voters including in new and emerging movements like #blacklivesmatter, ending student debt and others.

To break the back of the right wing it will be necessary to extend the reach of the movements, build their influence and engage people in “red” districts and states. It will mean engaging white communities who have been inundated with racist poison.

Such a strategy will create a more favorable post-election political terrain and help the movements emerge stronger, more united and with a deeper political conscious. Far from static, the anti-ultra-right coalition is dynamic, an arena of unity, but also contestation. It can result in strengthening the pro-labor or progressive wing in relation to the Wall Street wing in and around the Democratic Party, and advance the process toward working class political independence.

This is the path to new stages of struggle: radically curbing the power of monopoly corporate rule, creating a labor-led people’s party and carrying out a radical transition of our economy and society to a people-before-profits model.

So yes, it matters who is elected and whether or not millions are actively engaged or sitting on the sidelines in 2016.

Photo: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with Dreamers about immigration. While all the Republican candidates have moved to the right on the issue of immigration reform, Clinton pledged to fight for a path to citizenship for the millions of undiocumented in the U.S.   |   John Locher/AP


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.