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Gerald Caplan
Gerald Caplan

Gerald Caplan

American progressives support third parties at our peril Add to ...

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics.

It seems a significant number of Americans are torn about voting for Hillary. They know Trump is not just deranged and dishonest but mean as a rattlesnake and would be profoundly dangerous as commander-in-chief. But Clinton, they insist, is deeply flawed, too, as we are reminded every single day. So a pox on both their houses – yes, even if it gives Trump the presidency.

I must say straight out this seems to me folly of the greatest kind. But it’s an old predicament in American politics, usually played out not among millions of people but among the embarrassingly small number of genuine leftists in the country, with a few of us foreign pinkos looking on from the sidelines. If we can’t get a real progressive candidate, fuggetabout the whole election.

The most infamous case in recent history was 16 years ago, when Ralph Nader argued that Al Gore was no worse than George W. Bush. Nader got a derisory 2.74 per cent of the vote, just enough to ensure Gore’s defeat. The world got Bush and Cheney, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and a great deal of the chaos and horror in the Middle East from which we all still suffer.

Today, some 40 per cent of “Bernie’s kids” – a lot of voters – are refusing to back Hillary. This is sheer self-indulgent recklessness.

In modern times, this phenomenon goes back to 1956, when Adlai Stevenson challenged Republican president Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower’s bid for re-election. Ike was a natural small “c” conservative, while Stevenson was widely considered to be a principled liberal. But in the paranoid atmosphere of Cold War America, no seriously ambitious politician, let alone the urbane Stevenson, could take liberalism too far.

He was therefore easy enough to criticize by the wonderful Democratic socialists represented by the magazine Dissent, who explained how Stevenson would sell out the left if he ever won. I was easily persuaded, but America was not. Ike was overwhelmingly re-elected, and with him came Richard Nixon as his vice-president and an unleashed CIA to continue its dirty work around the world.

1960 brought as clear-cut a case for unity on the left as can be imagined. The opponents: VP Tricky Dick Nixon versus Senator Jack Kennedy. It was already obvious that Nixon was an unscrupulous, vicious politician who gleefully used flagrant red-baiting at every opportunity. Everyone left of centre loathed him, as did many others with any sense.

But Jack Kennedy had not yet become America’s Sir Lancelot. A Democrat, sure, but extremely cautious on the country’s great racial divide and a reflexive Cold Warrior. Indeed, he tried to one-up Nixon by insisting the U.S. wasn’t conducting the Cold War aggressively enough and campaigned on spending tens of billions to make up the non-existent “missile gap” between the USA and USSR that Ike and Nixon were charged with.

This kind of opportunism allowed my pals in Dissent much angst about whether the left in the U.S. could actually support JFK and whether Nixon could be worse. It leaves us to contemplate how, if Kennedy hadn’t squeezed in, Nixon would have handled the Cuban missile crisis and its real threat to human existence.

Another problem for the left came eight tumultuous years later, when Hubert Humphrey sought the Democratic nomination to replace president Lyndon B. Johnson. Humphrey was both the best and the worst of American liberalism. He was mostly strong on civil rights, trade unions and social welfare, but as LBJ’s vice-president during the Vietnam War he made himself a despicable apologist for the war.

When Bobby Kennedy was murdered, Humphrey won the nomination at the Democratic Convention. Many progressives boycotted the election. In the end, old Tricky Dick finally won the presidency by a hair, even though it’s possible the progressive vote could have defeated him. Next stop: the continuation of the Vietnam War, the secret war against Cambodia and Laos, the first-ever “gate” and the subversion of the American Constitution.

So it goes. Time after time, the normally tiny, almost completely marginal American left has outsmarted itself by making the wrong choice. Usually, I should admit, I agreed with them, here in my secure northern isolation. But not now. The future of the world, perhaps literally, is in their hands.

If we add old leftists to Bernie’s kids, it’s a lot of people. They have power in their hands, either by using it or by sitting on them, surrendering to Trump in advance. Too many have bought into the right’s systematic and wildly successful campaign over many years to demonize Hillary.

Even after the first debate, the great shocking truth is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are still neck-and-neck. Many observers, in fact, believe Hillary is a dead duck. No one knows, of course. But here’s what we know for sure. Around 45 per cent of all Americans – almost half the entire country – support Donald Trump, despite everything.

So American liberals, brothers and sisters, the world is watching. You have our destiny in your hands. If Trump hasn’t by now traumatized you enough to get on board for Hillary, you’ll deserve everything that’s coming after November.

But it’s not fair that we the world might have to suffer with you.

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