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The Safe State Strategy: A Tactic for The Predicament of Lesser-Evilism

02-Oct-2020Kyle Kamaz

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Columbus DSA will vote on a resolution for DSA to advocate voting for Howie Hawkins in “safe states” at its October 8th chapter meeting. Columbus DSA Coordinating Committee member Adam P. wrote a response in opposition, co-signed by a number of comrades, arguing against the resolution. We truly appreciate this exchange and believe it helps us foster a culture of comradely debate and political development within DSA, which is absolutely critical in charting a course to build the socialist movement and a new political force of the working class in oftentimes unfavorable terrain.

How should socialists vote in the 2020 election?

This is the primary question that the proposed resolution is answering. Currently, DSA’s official position per the national convention is one of abstention. Resolution 15 states that “Be it therefore resolved, the Democratic Socialists of America will not endorse another Democratic Party presidential candidate should Bernie Sanders not prevail”. This is also the position that the proposal’s opponents are asking you to maintain. And while we agree with not endorsing Biden, failing to answer what socialists should do in November is insufficient and sows confusion in our movement.

Should we vote for Hawkins like Jacobin Editor Bhaskar Sunkara announced he will do (without building the Green Party), but unlike Bhaskar not publicize it? Or should we vote for Biden to get rid of Trump in swing states like Eric Blanc calls for? Or should we vote for Biden even in safe states? Or will comrades not vote at all in the presidential race? These are questions left unanswered by DSA’s current position, decided well over a year ago, on the question and those who argue against our resolution. But in a bellwether and swing state like Ohio, anything short of a tactical vote for Biden is a vote for Trump. Not putting forward a strategy on how to vote in swing states, or how to engage in safe states, is of enormous consequence and serves as a barrier to defeating Trump.

We have to ask, is it good enough to not put forward a strategy on how socialists should vote in the 2020 elections? We don’t believe so, and we find abstention hard to be convinced of when countless Bernie supporters within and outside of DSA are considering to “write-in” Bernie, or not vote at all. Furthermore, DSA chapters across the country are already going beyond mere support of Hawkins and the Green Party and actually endorsing and campaigning for Hawkins which we consider to be a mistake. All of this underscores the need for DSA to take a position that helps the organization navigate the politics that socialist face in both safe and swing states. Either we collectively discuss and debate a strategy for socialist to take in the 2020 elections, as our resolution does, or we leave it for people to figure out on their own, in isolation. We believe the former is the best approach.

A Safe State Strategy: The Swing State

While declaring a non-endorsement of Biden, our organization in their statement of non-endorsement, reaffirm their commitment to growing working class power from the bottom up by engaging in mass movements, unions, etc. and recognize the opportunity to grow our movement at this moment. One assertion in this statement is that engagement in the presidential election is not the primary, or at least not the only way, to build working-class power. We agree with this perspective, but this still does not answer how millions of people should vote. Nor is it merely propagandizing or boutique politics, as it has been suggested, to consider how to answer this question.

No one likes the fact that we are subjected to lesser-evilism via the two-party system. But it is a concrete contradiction that we can not ignore. It is our reality that anything but a vote for Biden in 2020 in a place like Ohio is a vote for Trump. Then, if we ask ourselves “who do we want socialists to vote for in swing states” the answer is obviously against Trump, and obviously this means, at the very least, a tactical vote for Biden.

Those arguing against our resolution said that politics begins where there are not thousands, but where there are millions. Then why do they not put forward an answer to how millions should vote in November? In contrast, our resolution does answer this question and does attempt to engage with the millions of progressive and socialists working-class people who will be voting. Calling for a tactical vote for Biden is the most rational thing any socialist or progressive can do in a swing state in what is otherwise a catch-22 situation and DSA should call on socialists to do so. This is one component of what we call the “Safe State” strategy.

A Safe State Strategy: The Safe State

Of course, if we are going to call for a tactical vote, we must also clarify why it is in fact tactical and not based on political preference. We need to also make our politics clear where we are not at risk of lesser-evilism dilemmas and simultaneously avoid remaining silent in our opposition to the neo-liberal democratic party. That is why it is necessary for us to call for a tactical vote for Biden while maintaining opposition to him. However, it is also important for us to declare who we do support where it is safe to do so. Perhaps most importantly, why we support them.

This brings us to Howie Hawkins of the Green party which our resolution is supporting (not endorsing) in safe states. We support him because he is a socialist who is putting forward a socialist platform. He will make working-class arguments against both Trump and Biden. He will add nuance to the national discussion over the 2020 elections that benefit our work and politics. We support him over other socialists, like Gloria La Riva, because he will most certainly have the largest profile of all 3rd party candidates. When we talk to people, he is who most people will likely have heard about. At the very least, they will have heard of the Green Party.

There is no disagreement that Hawkins’ campaign will be marginal. (In 2016 the Green candidate Jill Stein received 1,457,216 votes, 1.07% of the vote.) But there is a far larger dynamic impacting workers’ power that the comrades’ response does not address. It’s the policy of unions and most progressive organizations to support Biden and tell working people that Biden is on our side. We strongly believe that such an approach materially weakens working-class power by lowering consciousness and promoting illusions in our class enemies. This will have the effect of undermining the building of social movements to fight back under a Biden administration.

It is also important to note that supporting is not the same as endorsing. Endorsing implies a commitment and mobilization of significant resources. Already, there are chapters across the country endorsing and mobilizing for Hawkins. This goes too far and we believe it is necessary to put forward a resolution (as we are) that clarifies this. It’s important that we focus on engaging in the mass struggles bursting out all around us AND we think it’s important to answer the question as to how and why socialists should vote in November.

Why Include Hawkins? Simply Call for a Tactical Vote for Biden in Swing States.

As mentioned above, it’s important for us to avoid remaining silent in our opposition to the neo-liberal democratic party. That is to say, our position on the 2020 election shouldn’t simply provide left cover for Joe Biden’s Democratic party. We can acknowledge the dilemma we face as socialist in swing states facing another four years of Trump and we can take a position where we don’t face such dilemmas that explains and clarifies our politics and denounces the capitalist program of the Democratic Party. If we fail to do this, then calling for a tactical vote for Biden only further sows illusions in the Democratic Party’s usefulness to the working class.

Call for a Safe State Strategy for Hawkins, But Do Not Comment On How to Vote in Swing States.

Within our own caucus, Reform & Revolution, this statement represents a competing position on the Safe State Strategy. The position being we should call for a vote for Hawkins in safe states, but no mention as to who people should vote for in swing states. But don’t worry, we understand if those in swing states find it necessary to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Comrades, what good does it do anyone to hide behind implications? Who else would or should socialist vote for in the Swing States to defeat Trump? This is a real question many of us are left to grapple with. Also, why would those of us in Swing States even bother to engage with the Safe State strategy if it doesn’t offer us a concrete answer to the dilemma we face here in Ohio? Are we supposed to argue who we think socialists in Washington or California should vote for? We have better things to do. Perhaps it is difficult for you to personally ask people to tactically vote for Biden. We can relate, we also detest the situation we find ourselves in. But it serves no one to hide from answering uncomfortable questions. Countless socialists are looking for answers as to how to vote in Ohio, we need an answer.

Note: The headers below are referencing the article in opposition to our resolution. Each headline is a point brought up in that article which we are directly responding to. See the article here.

Regarding Protest Votes

Those arguing against our resolution say Hawkins is a protest vote and we shouldn’t support protest votes. What they fail to recognize is that when DSA does not endorse or support anyone for the 2020 election it is taking a protest position, except worse, it’s taking no position other than opposition. A protest non-vote. Effectively no position at all.

Those arguing against our resolution claim DSA supports only viable paths. Is no position a more viable path? Let’s be honest, in the 2020 election, there is no viable path to victory for Socialists. The best we can do is to continue to engage in mass movements while we support the candidate that makes it easiest to engage people with our ideas when they consider who we support or when we talk to them about it. Furthermore taking a position on the 2020 elections is an important question to answer when we engage with working-class people through our work. People will want to know “who does DSA support and why?”.

Those arguing against our resolution specifically stated the following “We shouldn’t support “protest” votes We aren’t interested in winning purely moral victories — our mission is too urgent and the price of failure too high. However, this proposal specifically calls for a “protest vote,” which is, in our opinion, no vote at all.”.

The contradictions here are piling up. While holding a protest position, they argue that a protest vote is no vote at all, while they simultaneously do not put forward any call for who to vote for. In contrast, The Safe State proposal does answer how to vote. Nor is it born out of a moralistic (sectarian) tendency as implied. It is attempting to concretely provide an answer for what to do on November 3rd in both swing and safe states.

We shouldn’t allow the presidential race to dominate our politics: Here our proposal is being framed in such a way to imply that the main focus of our efforts should become the presidential election. Not True. It also implies a false dichotomy. That by having this debate nationally, we are somehow redirecting everyone’s efforts away from other vital tasks. The assumption here is members only have the capacity for one or the other or that one is a drain of energy on the other. We disagree, a lively debate about the politics of DSA will act as a catalyst toward further engaging members in the politics of their chapter. Because of this, many will become more involved in their chapter’s work. Debate builds consensus, and consensus builds unity in action toward our goal of implementing a socialist society.

Of course, it is not enough to simply engage our members in concrete work, though important. We also have to concretely engage them with ideas.

We shouldn’t build the Green Party: Those arguing against our resolution raise the specter that our proposal is inadvertently building the Green Party, while also arguing that “Over decades of work the Green Party has not demonstrated a capacity to build power.”. How can we inadvertently build the power of the green party when the Green Party cannot build power for themselves? Meanwhile, as DSA has not taken an explicit position on what to do this election cycle, several chapters in safe states have begun to endorse and mobilize for the Green Party. It’s not that we worry about the potential of them building the Green party in any significant way, but that they are losing sight of the more impactful ways they could be engaging during a time of reinvigorated mass movements. It seems the lack of clarity is actually creating the very thing those arguing against our resolution are warning us against.

We do not think that by calling for a safe state strategy that we will in any way significantly aid the Green Party in overtaking DSA as the future socialist party, nor do we think our proposal will sow more confusion than there already is as to the viability of the green party as a vehicle toward socialist change. In fact, we believe this resolution and the debates that follow will clarify these questions. We also believe the momentum of DSA and the potential of a new party comes from the fact that DSA is uniquely socialist, not just a more progressive third party (like the greens).

We want to grow — but not like this. Here we find an incorrect framing of our position. Those arguing against our resolution framed our argument as follows “This resolution says that via support for Hawkins we would be able to build the chapter during the election season”. The claim is that our resolution is substituting the presidential election for engagement in mass movements as the method of building class power. But this is in fact not what our resolution says. Our resolution states “we will use this election season to build DSA while calling for a protest vote for the strongest socialist presidential candidate.“ The emphasis here is on “while”. That is to say, this is one component of our engagement and strategy to build DSA. We did not say we will build DSA because of the Hawkins support. Our proposal is in agreement with the National Political Committee when they say “We also recognize this moment to strategically strengthen our movements and power”.

Why This Resolution Matters.

It is vital that we instruct progressives and socialists to vote against Trump in swing states. It is important that we clarify our politics both to those internally and externally, and by doing so we fortify our organization’s politics and ability to better engage when building working-class power. Not exclusively through the simple declaration of who we support but through real engagement with mass movements and labor.

This debate in and of itself is already pulling DSA members into a struggle for concrete solutions in a positive and engaging way by answering the question of who to vote for. Imagine if DSA made this part of its platform this fall and in the future. Not only do we answer the question of millions of socialist faced with complex contradictions as to the best path forward, but this resolution gives us the ability to interject ourselves into the national debate and arm the working class with a viable strategy (safe state approach) to begin breaking away from the two parties in a way that cuts through the lesser evilism arguments that plague any attempt to form a new party.

We must also advise chapters in safe states as to what the most effective strategy is in relation to the Green Party. Primarily that we support socialist Howie Hawkins and think socialist should vote for him. However, we will not commit significant resources to mobilize for a campaign for the green party. The safe state strategy via support for Hawkins, despite the lack of appeal of him or the green party, is still by far a better position to take rather than taking no position at all. Doing so provides an answer to socialist in swing states and safe states for this November. This is the nuanced flexible approach socialist need to take if they plan to take on the capitalist system.