Americans who want a more just, peaceful and habitable world face a dilemma when it comes to electoral politics. We know that people like Donald Trump and his insane clown party make things demonstrably and exponentially worse for everyone except the already wealthy and powerful. We also don’t want our resources and energy to get sucked into the black hole of Democratic Party politics, where social movements go to die. It’s also nearly impossible for candidates who share our values to get elected as third party or independent candidates.
To borrow an analogy used to explain the laws of thermodynamics, we can’t win, we can’t break even, and we can’t leave the game.
Here are some thoughts, and links, outlining the situation facing us, and what we can do.
We don’t want people like Donald Trump in power.
As much as it is possible to oppose the most abhorrent tendencies and candidates during election season, we ought to do so. The best example to follow was set by thousands of Chicagoans on March 11th of last year.
We should vigorously oppose these people as candidates and in office. We should recognize and draw attention to candidates or organizations that represent a dangerous departure from the status quo.
But we also have to oppose that status quo, for reasons of strategy as well as principle.
We must oppose the GOP, but we can’t let our efforts be coopted by the Democrats.
For many people, the election of 2016 was something of a watershed. We’re seeing thousands of Americans, perhaps even millions, who are engaged in activism for the very first time in their lives. At the Women’s March on Chicago January 21st, a sizable minority (if not a majority) were first time protestors, including my own mother-in-law, who is in her late 70s. Reports from the airport protests against the Muslim travel ban recount the same phenomenon. In the town where I live, a group of mostly first time activists is organizing itself. Attendance more than doubled from their first meeting to their second, with no actual attempts at recruitment or publicity. Enrollment into membership of the Democratic Socialists of America nationally has more than doubled since election night.
All of these are healthy signs for the beginning of a mass movement with the potential to truly transform our society. Democrats seem to have taken note, and many have begun to show up at the protests, to make public statements in support, and to adjust their strategy and tactics to draw energy and power from the nascent movement into their party. Many of the new activists that I’ve met see a realignment of the Democratic Party as more than just a worthy pursuit. It is their main goal. There’s already a focus on the 2018 mid term elections, and on Bernie Sanders’ down-ticket strategy, as if electoral politics within the Democratic Party is a viable path (indeed, the only viable path) to political power.
Here’s why this poses a danger, and why people who are committed to positive social change ought to be on guard.
The Democrats have a long history of repelling attempts at realignment to the left. The DNC’s reaction to the Sanders campaign was described by some as almost an “autoimmune response.” Recently, Kim Moody of Labor Notes wrote about the massive impediments currently facing folks who seek to reform America’s “second party of capital.”
Here’s a real life example of how things can break bad. In 2011, the people of Wisconsin took part in the largest sustained workers’ resistance movement in American history. When their newly elected Governor, Scott Walker, tried to destroy the public employee unions, tens of thousands of people flooded into Madison, making it impossible for the state to continue with business as usual. For awhile, it seemed as if the people would prevail, repudiating Walker and his GOP cronies in the Wisconsin Legislature, and turning back the attack on workers’ rights. The energy got funneled into a recall election effort, and by January of 2012 more than 1 million signatures to recall Governor Walker were submitted to the state Government Accountability Board. When the election was held that June, Walker prevailed over Democratic candidate Tom Barrett with 53% of the vote. The Democrats had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and Walker’s position was stronger than it had been to start with. Also, he was even more obligated to the Koch Brothers and other corporate interests who funded his campaign during the recall election.
We also need to resist the temptation to support Democrats as the lesser of two evils, mainly because it undercuts our credibility with the masses of people who have not yet been won to our way of thinking, but who have seen enough of candidates like Hillary Clinton to know that they offer no real solutions to our problems. We can’t be honest brokers of information, committed to the truth, if our default position is that any Democrat, no matter how distasteful, is preferable to any Republican. In other words, our support should be reserved for those candidates that we can support unreservedly.
What about independent or third party campaigns?
The most successful third party Presidential candidate in decades was Ralph Nader. He received 2,882,955 votes nation wide, less than 3% of the total votes cast, running as the Green Party nominee in 2000. The most successful independent candidate was Ross Perot, who got about 8 1/2 percent in 1996. These numbers do not inspire hope.
Seth Ackerman recently did a marvelous job of explaining the implications of ballot access laws and party structures across the United States. To make a run outside of the two major parties, even for local or state elections, is beyond daunting.
Yet the prospects of a candidate not beholden to corporations and other reactionary interests being elected as a Democrat are equally dim, as the Kim Moody article mentioned earlier makes clear.
When we put all of our hopes for change into who we elect, we are meeting the enemy on their field of strength, and our field of weakness.
Some things are overdetermined. The money, the laws, the media, disenfranchisement and voter suppression, party structures – all of these factors paint a bleak picture when it comes to electoral politics. So we would be foolish to sink the bulk of our energy and resources into the electoral process.
On the other hand, elections do have consequences, and they also offer a rare opportunity to get people thinking when we already have their attention.
It’s a rigged game, but we can’t opt out.
A friend of mine who was in SDS back in the day tells a story about the election of 1968. He and some of the comrades were in Union Square leafleting on election day, encouraging people not to vote in the contest between Humphrey and Nixon. The message was “Don’t vote. Boycott the polls. A big abstention sends a message, too.” The response from passersby was nearly unanimous. “Don’t vote? What kind of a choice is that?”
Election campaigns are one of the times when even people who aren’t very “political” tend to pay more attention. Regardless of the candidates involved or the outcome, it’s an opportunity to advocate, to inform, to educate, to hold up a mirror to our society, to point to a vision of a better one, and to generally propagate our ideas. In some cases, it is also an opportunity to actually attain some measure of political power within the system, on those occasions when we are able to succeed in electing folks who will represent our ideas and platform.
Okay. So if we can’t win, we can’t break even, and we can’t leave the game, what can we do?
In terms of elections, we need to move away from the “tail wagging the dog” sort of approach where we merely choose from among candidates offered to us. We should determine our own platform and programs, decide who will run for office from among our own numbers, decide whether they will run as independents or on one or another party ballot line, work hard to get them elected, and hold them accountable to the group once they are. The Ackerman article referenced above concludes by outlining a model for this sort of effort nationally. The standard by which we ought to discern whether or not a campaign is a good use of resources has been best stated by Jen Roesch. “Will directing energy into an electoral campaign help to give confidence, advance and project existing struggles and the broader resistance, or will it act as either a substitute for those struggles or a drain on limited resources?”
In situations where we currently have less (or perhaps little) influence over who is on the ballot, we can still use the occasion to hold up a positive vision for society. During primary season in 2016, I supported Senator Sanders, noting that every day he was “out there railing against the corporate stranglehold on our lives” it was “another opportunity for people to wake up and to feel a sense of what might be possible if thoughtful, decent people came together in large numbers to demand thoughtful, decent government.” During the general election, I supported the Green Party’s Jill Stein for similar reasons. Among the candidates still in the race, she best gave articulation to the ideals of peace, justice and equality. I found that to be of value, despite understanding that she was not going to win the Presidency.
In short, I think we need to keep a great deal of flexibility, work to build strong and durable organizations, and approach each election cycle with an examination of what is most likely to move our work forward given the circumstances of the moment.
For now, the bulk of our energy will likely still be spent outside the realm of election campaigns, and I think that’s as it should be.
Our first priority is to organize with others on the local level to work on initiatives that will make lives better in our own communities. These projects should be practical, winnable, should emphasize solidarity, and should increase our numbers, our level of organization and our confidence. The projects may, or may not, involve interaction with elected officials, election campaigns and the formal political structure.
Secondly, we should connect our local efforts with those in other regions (nationally and globally) through affiliation with other established organizations.
Finally, we should look for opportunities (and create opportunities) to bring the struggle onto the field of electoral politics. But we should do so with an eye toward building our own organizations, secure in the knowledge that we can’t elect our way to the kind of society and world we want anyway.
Participation in elections offers an opportunity for organizing, provides a platform to speak truth to power, forces other parties to defend their views, and presents a visible measure of the strength and maturity of the working class. These are the things we should bear in mind when deciding what to do about elections.