How Fringe and Spoiler Campaigns Hurt Rather than Help Independent and Left Politics

A nasty debate is brewing on the American left over what to do about Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and most of the nastiness is on the anti-Sanders side. Now that Sanders is trending upwards in polls (tripling in Iowa from 5% to 15% and reaching 18% in New Hampshire, two key early primary states) liberals are starting to get hysterical. Articles like “Bernie Sanders Is Already Making It More Likely Republicans Win The White House In 2016” will soon become the norm from this crowd as the primary contest heats up and the Establishment front-runner Hillary Clinton has to defend her Iraq war vote and pro-free trade stance against Sanders’ anti-war, anti-free trade record in six live television debates.

The nasty attacks on Sanders from liberals have a curious analog — a mirror image of sorts — on the radical left. Although the reasoning and concerns of liberals and radicals opposed to Sanders differ (as so do the social roots of their politics), both have reached the same defeatist conclusion: Sanders can’t and won’t win, so why bother fighting the inevitable Clinton coronation?

The radical left attacks Sanders for running a hopeless race he has no chance of winning — that is, the Democratic primary — while simultaneously attacking him for not running a hopeless race he has no chance of winning — as an independent or Green Party candidate for president in 2016.

Think Sanders has a chance or that 9/11 wasn't an inside job? Silly sheeple.

Think Sanders has a slim chance or that 9/11 wasn’t an inside job? Sheeple!

The latest example of this contradiction is Black Agenda Report editor Bruce Dixon’s nasty attack piece, “Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016.” Dixon accuses Sanders — a life-long independent who helped create the country’s only three-party system at the local level in Burlington and at the state level in Vermont — of being nothing more than a “left-leaning warm-up act for Hillary Clinton,” of being a sheepdog “charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party, either staying home or trying to build something outside the two party box.” (Who exactly assigned Sanders this charge and why Sanders would accept it Dixon doesn’t say and for good reason — his entire ‘analysis’ would fall apart if he seriously started exploring these questions without resorting to conspiracy theories.)

Dixon concludes his hit piece by pre-emptively blaming Sanders the sheepdog for the foreseeable failure of a 2016 left/third party presidential campaign to develop into an effective alternative to the two dominant parties:

“The sheepdog’s job is to divert the energy and enthusiasm of activists a year, a year and a half out from a November election away from building an alternative to the Democratic party, and into his doomed effort. When the sheepdog inevitably folds in the late spring or early summer before a November election, there’s no time remaining to win ballot access for alternative parties or candidates, no time to raise money or organize any effective challenge to the two capitalist parties.

“At that point, with all the alternatives foreclosed, the narrative shifts to the familiar ‘lesser of two evils.’ Every sheepdog candidate surrenders the shreds of his credibility to the Democratic nominee in time for the November election. This is how the Bernie Sanders show ends, as the left-leaning warm-up act for Hillary Clinton.

“Intent on avoiding the two-party ‘lesser evil’ trap this year, about two hundred activists gathered in Chicago last weekend to consider the future of electoral organizing outside the Democratic and Republican parties. Many of the participants were Greens, including former presidential and vice presidential candidates Jill Stein and Rosa Clemente, the former Green mayor of Richmond California, and many others. There were also representatives from Seattle, where Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant won election to Seattle’s city council, as well as Angela Walker, a black socialist who received 67,000 votes for Milwaukee County sheriff in 2014, and many others, including some who took part in the recent Chicago mayoral election.

“There was trans-partisan interest in a 50-state ballot access drive to put the Green Party’s Jill Stein on the presidential ballot for 2016 presidential race. Currently the law keeps Greens and others off the ballot in more than half the states. Precise details vary according to state law, but if a third party candidate after obtaining one-time ballot access receives about 2% of total votes, a new ballot line is created, granting ballot access to any potential candidate from school board to sheriff to US congress who wants to run as something other than a Republican or Democrat. That, many participants agreed, would be a significant puncture in the legal thicket that now protects Democrats against competition on the ballot from their left. But a nationwide trans-partisan ballot access campaign to create a national alternative to the two capitalist parties is something left activists must begin serious work a good 18 months before a November election, essentially right now.”

The last time the Green Party won 2% of the vote in a presidential race resulted in a political disaster not only for the country but for the Green Party itself. Just look at their numbers since 2000.

Year % of the Electorate
2000 2.74
2004 0.10
2008 0.12
2012 0.37

Dixon can blame these numbers on sheepdogs past all he wants, but in 2012 there was no sheepdog candidate in the Democratic presidential primary herding anyone into supporting Obama’s re-election. If that absence explains why the Green Party’s result tripled from 0.12% of the electorate in 2008 to a whopping 0.37%, then the role played by so-called sheepdog in keeping the Green Party emaciated by starving it of votes and activism is vastly overblown by Dixon and other radical left opponents of Sanders’ 2016 campaign. The real culprit is the spoiler effect.

Continually running fringe and spoiler candidates and campaigns does more harm than good to third-party efforts. Precious and meager resources are gathered and wasted on unwinnable fights, campaigners find it impossible to convince people to give their votes to candidates they know can’t and won’t win, and candidates aren’t taken even half-seriously by the constituencies whose support and loyalty they seek to wrest from the Democratic and Republican parties. The end result? The human material for third parties withers away under the weight of cynicism and burnout, the two-party system becomes stronger as third party efforts stall, falter, and fail, and third-party diehards search in vain for hunting for scapegoats called sheepdogs to avoid the difficult work of developing a better, more effective political strategy.

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5 responses to “How Fringe and Spoiler Campaigns Hurt Rather than Help Independent and Left Politics

  1. Pingback: When Principle Collides with Reality and Common Sense: Socialist Alternative’s Enthusiastic Non-Endorsement of Bernie Sanders | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

  2. Pingback: Do Marxists Oppose Strategic or Lesser-Evil Voting? | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

  3. You make good points, but this sentence bothered me “continually running fringe and spoiler candidates and campaigns does more harm than good to third-party efforts.” I disagree. If there are NO efforts then you are basically saying the status quo of the two parties is ok. That’s BS. Of course they won’t win at this time, but having an alternative is better than nothing. Then people won’t be forced to only pick two choices.

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    • I’m not advocating “NO efforts,” I’m advocating efforts with either 1) a reasonable chance of victory in a given election cycle or 2) a reasonable chance of victory within a reasonable number of election cycles (more than 2 or 3 I think would probably be unreasonable). The far left has been running fringe/spoiler candidacies for president for the better part of a century — are we any closer to winning than when we started? I think the honest answer is no. Personally, I think no far left organization has any business running presidential candidates for the foreseeable future; that money and effort would be better spent on winnable races for local and maybe state offices. The only reason the old Debs campaigns got what they got is because the Socialist Party at the turn of the century had dozens and dozens of elected officials in state and local governments which made them something of a credible party and able to win votes.

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      • You make a good point and I think it may be better to fight for local and state offices first… At the same time, someone should run a candidate in an alternative party for President…like the Green Party. The infrastructure for electoral challenges needs to be built but perhaps in the meantime, other than fighting for local and state offices is to work with communities to build them…I’ve thought for sometime that it might be time to just abandon a focus on elections and just focus on community-building first, but I still think elections have some value even if capitalist candidates with the big money or deceptive “progressivism” win.

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