For socialists, a major part of participating in capitalist elections should be to use them as a public forum to bring forward a socialist perspective. First and foremost in the US, that should mean most clearly stressing the class question. Even if you’re not running for office, commenting on the elections should play that role. Kshama Sawant had that opportunity when she was on “Democracy Now”, commenting on the Clinton/Trump debate. (See it here starting at about 2:50.20) Yet it was precisely in that role that Sawant fell short, in addition to saying some things that aren’t really true.
Maybe to compensate for missing the central issues, Sawant hit Clinton/Trump inaccurately. She said that “the real issues (were) completely off the table” in the debate. That’s not strictly true. They both talked about jobs and wages, the police and racism, and even war. And Clinton made some attacks on Trump for his “trickle down economics” and made some popular appeals to boosting the income of “the middle class”, talked about graduating college “debt free”, etc. Clinton also attacked Trump for his open appeals to racism.
Sawant also claimed that this was a debate between the Democratic and Republican Parties’ “establishment”, but that is very mistaken; the whole point of Trump is that he is not part of the Republican Party establishment, who have been horrified at his primary victory.
Sawant seemed to take a double approach. On the one hand, she said “we totally understand” a “safe state” strategy of voting for Clinton in states where the race is close. She talked about the necessity of defeating Trump and said that “there is a very clear difference between Clinton and Trump.” In the context of this election, many listeners would definitely take that as encouragement to vote for Clinton, and Sawant knows it perfectly well. While she did attack both for serving “Wall Street”, this still leaves open the idea of voting for Clinton as the lesser evil.
While she pumped up “the left” taking the lead on such issues as stop-and-frisk, she attacked “the Democratic Party establishment.” She advocated mass movements organizing “themselves independent of the Democratic (Party) establishment”. Given how
Sawant in the past has defended local Democratic Party liberal Larry Gossett as not being part of the “Democratic Party establishment”, this leaves open supporting the “non-establishment” (meaning the liberal) wing of the Democratic Party, as she has in local races in Seattle as well as in her support for Sanders. It is tempting to support these “non-establishment” Democrats, but historically, time and again, movements for a working class alternative to the Democratic Party have been diverted into the Democratic Party exactly through this wing – the liberal wing – of the Democratic Party.
Choice of Words
It is exactly in her choice of words – referring to “Wall Street” rather than the capitalist class, calling for a “a left alternative, a party of the 99%” or “third party politics” rather than a working class or workers’ party – that we see the real failing of Sawant. Especially in the US, where clarity on the class issue, on the irresolvable conflict of interest between the working class and the capitalist class, is relatively weak – especially here that is the issue that should be really clarified in crystal clear terms. Not by talking about “Wall Street” and the “99%”, but by referring to the capitalist and the working classes. Or at the very least as big business or Corporate America and working class people.
The importance was most clear with all of Trump’s bragging about having built such a great company – a point that Clinton (and all Democrats) are powerless to answer. Only a socialist can really explain the issue — “how can we expect a boss of bosses to serve the interests of the workers”? That should be the starting point. But by blurring the class question, Sawant too cannot and did not really answer Trump.
One of the main functions of socialists participating in elections should be to clarify these important issues. Most of all, to clarify the issue of socialism vs. capitalism. But Sawant never tried to contrast these two systems, never explained that it’s a systemic problem workers are facing.