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Today we’re wrapping up our three part series on the left in electoral politics. In part I, we discussed the developments the wave of insurgent candidates who shook up the Democratic primaries from the left. Then in part II we looked at leftist activists prefer to work outside the electoral system altogether and their increasingly prominent activities over the last few years.
In each part we found that both of these movements have achieved considerable successes, but also face serious limitations. Insurgent leftist candidates have done a great job bringing together millions of people nationwide and channeling their efforts into local elections across the country, but they’ve often found themselves shut out of institutions that might help them really connect with communities on a broad scale. Meanwhile, leftist activists have done a lot of good work that has helped them establish trust and working relationships with communities, but they’ve had a hard time achieving the focus and critical mass they need to truly affect the sort of radical social transformation they want.
In part III we’re going to bring these two currents together by looking at how the two movements can potentially compliment one another and are beginning to come together in many ways.
Thinking Beyond Elections
Among leftist insurgent candidates there’s been a definite tendency to think beyond elections. There are a number of things driving this.
For one thing, the last few years have seen a surge in the desire of people on the left to engage in activism. Elections are one of the main focuses of these efforts, but the demand for participation often outruns the supply of elections. This leads many to look for ways to stay active outside election season. This is particularly true of young people, who have been most apt to express their activism through extracurricular activities like participating in demonstrations and campaigning on social media. And this is often a beneficial cycle, as off year activism often act as a training ground for future candidates.
Candidates themselves often recognize that whether or not they win elections their high profiles give them a bully pulpit they can leverage to achieve real change on issues they care about. Bernie Sanders, notably, has spent much of his energy post-2016
campaigning directly for criminal justice reform and helping workers at Amazon and fast food restaurants push for higher wages. Before her primary, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put a hold on her campaigning to protest ICE’s family separation policy. And there are many other examples you can point to.
Thinking more long term, there’s a broad recognition that progressives need to build up an infrastructure to counter those possessed by movement conservatism, party machines and corporate oligarchs. Elections have often been a harsh reminder of how much of a disadvantage the left is in this respect, as they’ve often found themselves blacked out by the media and unable to connect with potential allies. A lot of effort has gone into trying to fix this. The Progressive Caucus has started its own policy center to help win the war of ideas. Meanwhile supporters of Bernie Sanders and others have built an extensive network of media platforms to broadcast their message over. These efforts go well beyond messaging. As Campaigns and Elections notes, there are a plethora of such projects engaging in everything from fundraising to coding.
“Everyday folks and independent media activists who found their voices in the Bernie primary run have created new projects and ventures at unprecedented levels. These ventures aid in passing progressive policies, electing progressive legislatures, and in creating and using new technology to recruit supporters, register voters, and raise money.”
Some have pushed the idea all the way to suggesting the left form a new party, but most see the more realistic path as working with groups that indirectly work with electoral politics, such as local activist networks or quasi-parties like the DSA. This has often allowed candidates who would otherwise find themselves shut out, such as Lee Carter, to connect with volunteers and find an apparatus for organizing campaigns.
This alliance with groups like the DSA also helps establish a shared vision that people can coalesce around. In the past candidates like Howard Dean and Barack Obama who ran insurgent campaigns from the left often didn’t clarify what that meant beyond being more principled and consistent Democrats. By contrast the socialism of the modern insurgent left offers an expansive, coherent vision that meaningfully breaks with the status quo by pursuing ambitious goals like combating extreme inequality, democratizing the economy and dismantling tools of repression. This vision rings true with a voting population that is increasingly skeptical of capitalism, and it’s clear that this trend is only going to continue. So it’s no wonder that so many insurgent candidates are starting to embrace the label.
“Supporters, many of them millennials, say they are drawn by D.S.A.’s promise to combat income inequality, which they believe is tainting every facet of American life, from the criminal justice system to medical care to politics. They argue that capitalism has let them down, saddling them with student debt, high rent and uncertain job prospects. And they have been frustrated by the Democratic Party, which they say has lost touch with working people.”
Grabbing A Seat At The Table
Coming from the other direction, there are a number of factors that are making previously apolitical left wing activists look to elections as a viable strategy.
The most significant, of course, is the fact that the recent surge in membership in organizations like the DSA has been driven by electoral politics. Some may bristle at the idea that they’re largely riding the coat tails of the Bernie Sanders, the anti-Trump resistance and the progressive insurgency in the Democratic party, but very few would seriously deny it. The fact of the matter is that in order to affect the change they want, activists need to mobilize millions of dedicated people to their cause, and for all practical purposes national elections are the most effective way of doing that. Many are coming to recognizing this and they’re ready to get involved. As Chapo Traphouse host Matt Christman summarized it:
“The trajectory of the movement is something that I honestly can’t predict. The fundamental issue that every analysis of the situation or any kind of tactical plan has to reckon with is how small, fragmented and powerless the left is in this country. Labor is totally unorganized, workplaces are unorganized, people are not politically engaged, the degree to which people who are aware of politics, process politics, is almost exclusively through the lens of electoralism, and as a result the name of the game is numbers, it’s creating more and more people.
50,000 people in the DSA makes it the biggest socialist organization in the United States, that is not acceptable, that is not gonna work even in the medium term. It needs to get way bigger much quicker. And the value, I think, of electoralism is less in actually getting people into office, it is using those campaigns which get people’s attention and talk to people in the context of politics that they’re familiar with about alternatives and making them think they can get involved. At that point, honestly if we get to that point, the next step is gonna be something that is determined by the situation on the ground, by what cracks are gonna be opening up in the foundations of the system as a result of the pressure being put on it.”
Another likely cause for rapprochement is a desire to move past petty doctrinal squabbling. The left is notorious for its sectarian bickering, and even today leftists on social media and elsewhere still spend a substantial amount of time denouncing one another for alleged ideological heresies. To be sure, for most of the 20th century there were a number of very real grievances that drove these splits, but many of these have become moot points. A lot of people are ready to acknowledge that when you get past the minor differences, they generally tend to agree on the broad outlines of what they want. Moreover, they recognize that there’s a pressing need to deal with the spiraling political crisis we find ourselves in and a need to act in the face of right wing assaults. Even harsh critics of electoralism are conceding that it needs to be recognized as a potentially path to victory.
Even so, acceptance of electoralism as a viable strategy has been uneven. Some, like Socialist Alternative, were quick to embrace the idea, provided candidates display a willingness to break from the status quo of party institutions. Others remained skeptical of electoral politics, but committed themselves to cooperating in non-electoral campaigns. To sum, while opinions vary and there is no shortage of critics, formerly apolitical activists are generally concluding that they should work with the incipient insurgency within the Democratic party on some level, though they still maintain that an independent infrastructure outside the party is essential.
This dialogue culminated in the Inside/Outside Strategy, a plan put forward by a collection of left wing organizations which outlined how to engage in electoral politics as a means of focusing and energizing left wing movements.
“The fight against the far right is strongest when it is energized by an inspiring vision for economic and social justice. Campaigns for openly socialist candidates and progressive challenges to neoliberal Democrats must all be part of the political mix. And the opportunities for broadening the reach of progressive and left forces will be greatest when they both struggle within and work in tandem with the larger anti-Trump or anti-right front. That is, we have to “walk on two legs” by building the movement against the far right, while also challenging pro-corporate neoliberal hegemony within the Democratic Party.”
Additionally, the Inside/Outside strategy involved creating a Left Trend, a coalition of left wing political organizations aimed at coordinating and amplify their efforts, both inside and outside electoral politics.
“Having an alignment of left organizations and activists will allow us to move political discussion past the current debates – as important as they are – about whether or not to engage in electoral politics, whether or not to engage with the Democratic party. Instead, we can measure our ideas against our most exciting and inspiring victories, as well as draw lessons from our efforts that come up short. We can debate the questions we confront in our on-the-ground work: how do we build a winning majority while advancing the struggle for collective liberation? How do we scale up from local or state-level efforts? Through our dialogue, debate, and organizing work, we can build a deeper strategic unity (and clarify our differences) around the left’s role in electoral politics and U.S. politics more generally. To do that, we need to create a venue for frank discussion across organizational and other boundaries, and a way for activists to communicate about and summarize their work.”
Translating this into practice during the primaries was often the source of contention. Skepticism of electoral politics remains quite strong, especially when focused on the particulars of which candidates really merit support. And with organizations like the DSA very much committed to their democratic principles, debates could be quite intense and public. This was most evident in the controversial issue of whether the NYC-DSA should support Cynthia Nixon in the New York Democratic primary. In the end, people put aside their misgivings and endorsed Nixon, though they emphasized that their actual goal went well beyond the New York primaries.
“Younus emphasizes that the endorsement is much more than “just a rubber stamp of approval,” explaining that the chapter sees it as “a commitment to a partnership with a candidate to build working class power in New York State.”
“Electoral campaigning is just a part of our broader strategy to build socialist power and win socialist policies in New York,” he says. “Our work and momentum in this campaign is going to carry us well beyond the primaries in September.””
The last two years has seen the left come together in a way it hasn’t in a very long time, and people are working together to achieve the revolutionary political change they’ve long sought. All sides seem to acknowledge that a balanced approach, with one foot in electoral politics and one foot out, is the best way to proceed.
There are, of course, caveats to all this. As noted, there are many who still want to distance themselves from one another. Leftists running in elections may still be tempted to abandon their activist supporters in the face of a largely hostile electorate and establishment. Activists may still be inclined to find the electoral process demoralizing and ineffective and prefer to wash their hands of the whole business. And of course, both sides have to content with the fact that they’re riding atop a political wave that may just as quickly recede and leave them high and dry.
But in many ways the cooperation between the two sides offers its own answers to these issues. A strong activist base can keep political representatives honest, and political representatives can help keep the activists focused and moving forward. Both offer ways of solidifying gains in the event of shifting political winds, and laying groundwork for future opportunities. Either way, it seems that their prospects for permanently transforming the American political system are more promising than they have been in a long time.