- A Rare Opportunity for Progressives
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I have never quite liked the framing of “lesser evilism,” because having that category suggests there might be “no evilism.” The expectation that any candidate or party would ever be perfect to a substantial body of people is unrealistic, and compromise is a necessary part of politics, even for those, like myself, on the left. I understand why it is necessary to vote for the least-bad candidate in many cases, but that approach is largely defensive. It seems like you eventually lose on issues of central importance to the plutocrats who own the country.
Nowhere is this more evident than in my research area: media policies. Republicans are almost invariably the unabashed champions of the most corrupt form of crony capitalism, in which wealthy interests get what they want. Democrats are somewhat better, to the extent that they feel heat from their voting base. The immense struggle over net neutrality showed how difficult it was to get the Democrats to finally keep their word after vacillating for six years in the warm, corporate-funded winds of Washington. And the Democrats are virtually worthless on the central democratic media issue of our era: how to have well-funded, independent, competitive, uncensored, nonprofit news media.
This leads to the strategic issue that is my primary concern in electoral politics: can we find candidates and movements and, perhaps, parties whose purpose is to change the contours and tenor of American electoral politics, to expand the range of debate, and to draw tens of millions of alienated people into politics? I was active in Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid for that reason, as well as Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign. I had no interest in making a “protest vote”; their campaigns were purportedly about building a sustained, long-term political movement to fundamentally change American politics. They were to be political-education campaigns that reached tens of millions of people who would otherwise not pay as much attention to politics. Regrettably, neither campaign generated the long-term institutions I hoped for.
This year I am supporting the Bernie Sanders campaign for the same reasons. He is not flawless, but on core economic, social, and environmental issues he is well to the left of the mainstream. His campaign is already far more successful than anything like it in many generations. It reflects how much political conditions in the United States have changed in the past few decades, unbeknownst to the self-congratulating punditocracy, which is clueless once one moves outside the conventional wisdom of elite cocktail parties. Sanders is a rare combination of a principled “movement” activist and an accomplished politician who gets stuff done. His campaign exists to advance democratic-socialist politics, and that is a project to which I have devoted my life. The Sanders campaign has tapped into a fervor that barely existed two or three decades ago, and is almost certain to grow in the coming years of stagnation, inequality, and corruption.
With regard to the entire range of media policies—from community broadcasting and internet access to government and corporate surveillance and media ownership—Sanders, too, is a dramatic shift from standard-issue corporate Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who can talk a good game on the campaign trail to gin up votes, but tend to forget their promises after the election in the quiet backwaters of Washington when Wall Street comes a-knockin’. Bernie’s entire career has demonstrated that media issues are in his bone marrow, and he understands that having viable independent, uncensored, corporate-free news media is a precondition for a credible self-governing society.
This is a golden opportunity for the left to expand beyond the dead-end street of lesser evilism and irrelevance, and it is imperative that we don’t squander it. I am not sure we can afford to have this same discussion in 2032.
robert w. mcchesney is professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author, most recently, of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy.