A Note on the Election

By Lynn Koh
Sep 19, 2016

The 2016 Elections: Will the Left Lead?

            Right now it feels like we’re in an ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment. A lot of us see something really clearly, but few of us – radical and revolutionary organizers – are willing to say it out loud.

            So we’re going to say it. Defeating Trump in the presidential election is a top priority for the left. And at a minimum, that means mobilizing voters for Hillary Clinton in swing states even if you vote for another candidate in a safe state. We’ve got to beat Trump and we’ve got to keep building movements and organizations that will fight, resist, and disrupt a Clinton administration that will likely be militaristic and pro-corporate.

            Most of us on the left feel about the Clintons the way we feel about leftovers that have been sitting in the fridge too long. Welfare ‘reform’, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, NAFTA, the Iraq sanctions and then the 2003 Iraq invasion, Palestine, Honduras, “superpredators” – take your pick of crimes that can be laid at the Clintons’ feet. And judging from the DNC, the Clintons will talk a good game on economic inequality while resorting to jingoism and nationalism throughout the election. But if the Clintons’ record induces nausea, then merely hearing Trump speak makes us projectile vomit.

            Many of our friends believe that Democratic and Republican parties, and their candidates, are both worthless and the left should focus in this election on breaking the two party system; or they believe that a Clinton administration will just create more working-class disaffection and strengthen the extreme right. We disagree. And when we talk to people - whether community activists or simply our neighbors - about this election, we need to be clear about the stakes of this election. When we hear people say they don't know who to vote for because both candidates are equally bad, we get worried.

            At every opportunity, Trump has doubled down on racism and bigotry, to the delight of David Duke, the American Nazi Party, and others like them. A Trump victory – do we even need to say this? – would embolden hard-core racists, Islamophobes, and anti-immigrant groups, while promising intense and perhaps very violent repression of the inspiring social movements that have erupted in the past several years. If you have any doubt about this, listen to his speech at the Republican National Convention.

            As Alicia Garza has emphasized, we're voting for the terrain, not the candidate. This election will set the stage for our future struggles. In the past eight years movements have surged and changed the way we talk about everything from police accountability to the minimum wage. And more and more activists have learned that it is not enough to elect “good” politicians, that social change requires constant struggle. Under a Trump administration, our movements will be back on the defensive, and we can expect people to revert to blaming social inequality and systemic injustices mainly on Trump and the Republicans.

What Kind of Left Do We Want?

            Can we leave the business of defeating Trump and electing Hillary Clinton to others – liberals or progressives – while we concentrate on the genuinely radical work of stoking protest and opposition from Clinton’s left? Can we bank on Trump's low poll numbers? It depends on the left we want to build. The vast majority of union activists and people of color view this election as a battle against open racism. If we want to build a left that speaks to and engages these sectors – if we want a left that contends for leadership among the country as a whole - then we can’t afford to leave the basic task of defending democratic rights to others, even as we continue to criticize and protest.

            Ideally, we would work to defeat Trump without volunteering or working directly for Clinton’s campaign. We should be able to send people to kick-ass grassroots organizations in swing states to help with election day turnout, or organize phone banks from safe states to support their efforts; we should be able to organize people around our message and analysis, not the candidate’s, and develop volunteers to be engaged in our movements and organizations rather than the Democratic Party. It’s not too late to shore up existing organizations or build new ones. The millions that voted for Sanders won’t automatically go to Hillary, and we cannot count on the historic turnout that swept Obama into office.

            As we mentioned at the beginning, defeating Trump is not enough. We need movements strong enough to fight a Clinton administration on several fronts – whether Israel/Palestine, free trade agreements, climate change, or mass incarceration. In particular, neutralizing the appeal of the far right means we need to both strengthen our movements for racial justice and win over white workers to a progressive class politics as an alternative to Trump’s racist economic nationalism. It won’t be easy, but we’ve come this far. Let’s defend what we’ve got in this election, and keep our eye on collective liberation.

In unity and struggle,

Emily Lee

Timmy Lu

Lynn Koh

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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