Friends around the world and here in the United States often ask why the CPUSA does not push a vote for its own candidates, or others on the left, instead of emphasizing the need to back Democrats so as to defeat the Republican ultra right.
We sometimes have supported left candidates, and no doubt will do so in the future, circumstances being propitious. However, we are not now at the point that we can do this wholesale, especially at the national level.
Why? Basically, because the electoral system in the United States is backward in ways that prevent smaller parties and progressive independent candidates for federal and most state offices from getting a toehold.
First and foremost, U.S. law, at the federal and, for the most part, the state levels, allows the rich and the corporations to spend huge amounts of money to buy elections. This has always been the case, but the 2011 “Citizens United” decision of the Supreme Court has worsened the situation by declaring corporations to be political “persons” entitled to rights of freedom of expression. So to limit the ability of corporations to spend money on electoral propaganda is now a violation of their constitutional rights! The left can not compete with the corporations in political fundraising, and can only outweigh this advantage by doing a fantastic job in organizing working class people at the base. We are trying, but not there yet.
Secondly, for the presidency, the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and the 435 in the House of Representatives, as well as most state elections, there is no provision for run-off elections in the event that no candidate gets 50% of the vote. The practical effect of this is that a vote for a long-shot candidate, such as a socialist or a communist, may objectively help the worst, most reactionary of the candidates of the two big bourgeois parties, at present generally the Republicans.
In many other countries, elections for president and other offices include multiple viable parties and candidates in a “first round” general election. If nobody gets 50% of the vote (or sometimes, some other percentage), then there is a second round. Those parties who don't make it past the first round then have some leverage: They can decide whether to urge their members to support one or the other of the candidates in the run off, even negotiating agreements for concessions from the candidates they eventually support. As well as leverage in the immediate electoral context, left wing parties can use this state of affairs to build up their visibility and strength. No such mechanism exists at the level of federal elections in the United States, or most state elections.
Thirdly, many countries have proportional representation systems in their legislative elections, but the United States does not. In such systems, besides legislative seats gained in individual constituency districts, parties are awarded extra seats to help make their representation in the legislature more nearly congruent with the overall votes totals they received nationally. So in Mexico, for example, in the 500 seat Chamber of Deputies, 300 deputies are elected from single member districts, and then another 200 are distributed to the parties according to a proportional representation formula. Since the United States lacks proportional representation, it is perfectly possible that a party which receives only 51% of the popular vote would have all of the seats in both House and Senate, while one that receives 49% ends up with none. That has never actually happened, but the lack of proportional representation is another factor that has prevented smaller parties on the left from getting a toehold in national and state legislative bodies.
Fourthly, for most elected positions in the United States, candidates have to present petitions with a certain number of citizen signatures before their names can appear on the ballot. This requires hard work by either volunteers or paid staff. The small scale parties of the left do not have the money to pay petition circulators, while the major bourgeois parties do. In many cases the required number of signatures for established major parties is much lower than for new parties or for independent candidates.
In addition: Voters in the United States do not vote directly for the president, but for electors pledged to support the presidential candidates in the Electoral College vote which occurs shortly after the general election. How the Electors elected to the Electoral College vote varies from state to state, but usually the entire state delegation to the College gives all its votes to the candidate who won the majority of electors from that state. Again, this favors the big, established parties.
Another issue is the composition of the federal Senate. Because every state gets two senators no matter what its population, small states have historically had a disproportional influence in legislative decisions. This has often worked to favor the right, though not always. And the 600,000 residents of Washington D.C., the nation's capital, who have generally trended leftward in their voting patterns, have no voting representation in Congress at all.
And now, the right wing Republicans are engaged in a major effort to block poor and minority working class people, who trend leftward, from voting at all. They are getting state legislatures to pass laws requiring all voters to present a government-issued identification document with a photo at the time they go to vote. In most cases, this means a driver's license or a passport, documents which poor people are less likely to have (there is no universal government identification document in the United States). If prospective voters do not have such documents, the state governments supposedly will issue identification cards to them, but this is made difficult by various maneuvers.
All of these things work together to favor the ruling class interests and the political right, as well as effectively shutting out the communist and socialist left from election to office, except sometimes at local levels. If we hold to a Marxist interpretation of politics, the fact that “democracy” in the United States is rigged in favor of the ruling class should not surprise any of us.
Left candidates at the national level are, therefore, engaged in a politics of protest, of agitation, of mass political education, and are not likely, in the foreseeable future, to win office, let alone contest state power. Such protest campaigns have their place, but we also can not ignore what goes on between the Republican and Democratic parties. We do not agree with the position that it makes no difference whether the Republicans or Democrats win the elections, including the national election coming up in 2012.
Although both major parties represent interests of segments of the ruling class, there are differences in their positions which are important to working class interests.
To give just one example, the Democrats (or most of them) and the Republicans differ on their stance toward the labor unions. The current crop of Republican politicians seems determined to utterly crush the labor unions and eliminate all on the job rights for American workers. The Democrats, with exceptions, rely on support from the labor unions for votes and contributions, and so are reluctant to antagonize them. Though the actions of Democrats in power has been far from what the unions have demanded, there is enough of a difference to make it important that the Republicans not gain power, and the Democrats, with all their faults, are the only force that, in the short term, can prevent this. This is of supreme importance to the left, because labor and other working class struggles are the context in which the left develops and builds its strength.
The Communist Party USA grew to be a significant political force in the 1930s and 1940s because it was rooted in the efforts to organize unorganized workers and in other working-class mass struggles. Our very active opposition to racism and fascism were also important factors in the growth of our party. However, in the “McCarthyism” period after the Second World War, the ruling class launched a campaign of repression against our party, especially in organized labor. Eleven unions which had communist or left leadership were pushed out of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which communists had helped to organize, after Congress passed the Taft-Hartley law which forbade unions from allowing communists to serve as officers. All but two of these left-led unions (the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) were destroyed. The CIO then merged with the conservative, craft dominated American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the AFL-CIO, under reactionary leadership. Only after the AFL-CIO internal elections of 1994 did this begin to change.
Our party, and the left, can not grow and advance if the working class and its organizations are bludgeoned to the point that they are continually on the defensive and losing strength. This is precisely what the Republicans ultra-right is trying to do.
Our electoral policy is based on this, as well as the overall extreme nature of the current leadership of the Republican Party: Racist, militaristic, anti-worker, anti-poor, anti-youth, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti gay and lesbian, and anti-democratic.
The current crisis is showing the world, including the working people of the United States, that capitalism can not solve the problems it has itself created, and thus has no future. The structural crisis of capitalism now includes not only the irreconcilable clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but also the exhaustion by capital of the world's energy and other resources, as well as the environmental crisis.
When the toiling people of the whole world, including the United States, come to understand this, we can achieve political breakthroughs we have not been able to achieve before. We consider the workers' uprisings in Wisconsin and Ohio, and especially the wonderful “Occupy” movement, to be major positive developments in the development of this understanding.